What is Dog Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? (CAUSES, DIAGNOSIS, TREATMENTS)

Dog Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a psychological condition that causes a dog to fixate on an ordinary behavior to the point that he must repeat that behavior over and over again.

They perform those behaviors for extended periods, in inappropriate situations, and sometimes to the point of self-injury.

Dog Licking - Lick Granuloma

You may also hear this condition called canine compulsive disorder (CCD). This name was given to the disorder because some dog experts feel that we have no way of knowing if a dog’s mind is capable of obsession (the inability to stop thinking about something).

In this article, we will refer to the condition as OCD, as that term is more commonly used.

How Concerned Should I Be About My Dog’s OCD?

That depends on the degree of severity your dog is exhibiting. OCD can be mild, moderate, or severe.

If your dog needs to carry a specific stuffed animal around the house most of the day, that would probably be considered a mild compulsion. Having a comfort toy could actually be a healthy way for your dog to deal with stress.

If he doesn’t show any other symptoms, you can probably just be watchful for any worsening of the behavior or development of a new compulsion.

If, however, your dog is chasing his tail and chewing on it, or excessively licking an area of his body and causing serious wounds or infections, there is great reason for concern.

When a dog licks to the point of infection, sometimes the damage is severe enough that a tail or leg needs to be amputated.

OCD can also reach a stage where the dog hardly ever sleeps or eats and has little to no social interaction with their owners.

A dog with compulsions this serious can’t stop the behavior even when it causes them pain. Heartbreakingly, some dogs’ symptoms are so severe that their owners feel they have no quality of life and choose to euthanize.

So yes, any degree of OCD in your dog should concern you. OCD behaviors often get worse over time. Even if your dog’s symptoms are mild, you need to watch for progression of symptoms and onset of new compulsive behaviors.

What are the Symptoms of Dog OCD?

Early Signs

OCD typically starts when a dog reaches puberty, around 12 to 24 months (though it can be as late as 36 months).

An early sign of OCD is doing anything that is strangely out of context. For example, your dog may spin when going for a walk, or begin snapping at something you can’t see.

OCD is tough to treat once behaviors have “set” in a dog, so it's important that you get your dog checked out by a vet as soon as you notice out-of-context or excessive behaviors.

As OCD Progresses

You will want to familiarize yourself with the behaviors below. If you know OCD is in your dog’s genetic history, it’s especially important that you watch for all these behaviors.

Symptoms and behaviors to be aware of, according to Pet MD, include:

  • Pacing. Walking a fixed path, such as a straight line or circle, for a prolonged period.
  • Spinning. Spinning in circles and difficult to distract from it.
  • Tail chasing. Running in a tight circle chasing his tail, or looking as if he is. In some cases, dogs will chew on their tails and cause significant damage.
  • Barking. Incessant or rhythmic barking with no apparent trigger.
  • Chasing light and shadows. Repetitive and prolonged chasing.
  • Fly snapping. Biting at the air as if they're trying to catch flies. The dog is most likely hallucinating.
  • Toy fixation. A repetitive pattern of play that can involve pouncing, chewing, or tossing a toy in the air. This phenomenon most often happens in a specific room, but it can also occur with particular toys.
  • Licking objects or surfaces. Repeated and prolonged licking of an object or a spot on the floor, for example.
  • Self-injury. This can take the form of dogs compulsively licking paws, chewing, or scratching. The root of this behavior can be psychological or physical (pain or itching), so a dog who is doing any of these needs a vet checkup.
  • Flank sucking. Sucking on their sides just above the thighs.
  • Excessive drinking. Repetitive drinking, even when the dog is not thirsty.
  • Pica. Eating things that aren’t food, like rocks, dirt, or even feces. Pica can be life-threatening because a dog with pica is at risk for bowel obstruction or perforation from eating something inappropriate.

Don’t Ignore OCD Signs!

Again, early intervention is vital to give your dog his best quality of life. Animal behaviorist Pat Miller provides an excellent example of how severe OCD can become if not caught and treated early.

“By the time Widget reached the age of 18 months and his owners sought professional behavior assistance, the condition was severe. When I visited their home, I found a dog in misery, unable to be in a lighted room for any length of time without becoming extremely anxious, eventually snapping nonstop at his invisible tormentors. He could escape his mental torture only by running into the darkened dining room and hiding in his crate. This poor dog required extensive treatment with psychotropic drugs as well as a behavior modification program to bring the debilitating behavior under control.”

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

What Causes OCD in Dogs?

As with most psychological problems, there is no definitive understanding of what causes OCD. However, the following is the most current thought on the condition.

Genetics

OCD appears to have a genetic component to it. There do not appear to be specific dog breeds prone to OCD. However, some specific OCD behaviors are associated more with certain breeds than with others. 

Breeds that are more likely to show specific compulsive behaviors, according to Whole Dog Journal, include the following:

Hard-Wired Behaviors

According to behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman, compulsive behaviors are usually natural survival behaviors that a dog takes too far. He adds that dogs naturally hunt and groom themselves. Dogs with OCD show compulsive behaviors that are repetitive and excessive forms of those behaviors (shadow chasing, fly snapping, and licking, for instance).

Neurophysiology

OCD isn’t completely understood yet, but scientists believe that chemical abnormalities and communication problems within the brain are at least partially responsible for OCD behaviors.

Physical Conditions

Some dogs show compulsive behaviors that began with a physical issue. For example, an injury may cause the dog to lick its paw excessively. In some cases, the dog will continue the repetitive licking even after the paw has healed.

This could be because as his licking causes him to feel relief, he learns that it reduces his stress. He may then continue the licking as a compulsive behavior for stress reduction.

Infections and toxins (like lead poisoning) are other physical factors that can cause OCD symptoms in dogs. Poor nutrition also appears to be a factor in some cases.

The degenerative changes of aging may also play a role in dog OCD behaviors.

Life Experience or Living Conditions

The research about dog OCD suggests that early life experience and a dog’s living conditions can bring on OCD symptoms.

According to Pet MD, stress and frustration are the underlying factors that cause some dogs to develop compulsive behaviors, brought on by past experience and past or present living conditions. OCD behaviors are the mind’s way of coping with these experiences.

Experiences that may cause OCD behaviors in dogs include:

  • Early weaning. Dogs who are weaned from their mothers too soon may have anxiety issues because they weren’t yet ready to fend for themselves. They may also not have learned the life skills that a mother teaches her puppies in the first eight weeks.
  • Social conflict. This can be from living with an aggressive dog or suffering an attack from another dog. It could also come from being separated from a human or canine that he had bonded with.
  • Physical restraint or confinement. Dogs who are chained outside or spend too many hours in a crate or small kennel often show anxiety or OCD symptoms.
  • Inadequate socialization or exercise. These can lead to all sorts of problems with dogs, including anxiety and aggressiveness in addition to OCD symptoms.
  • An abusive situation or history with random punishment, physical abuse, or both.
  • An unpredictable home environment with little structure, routine, or training. This situation can create anxiety for a dog who feels he has no control and may not have a clear understanding of what is expected of him.
  • Struggling with conflicting needs. For example, an adopted dog may have difficulty obeying the recall command because a previous owner used the command to punish the dog.

Any of these negative experiences can create OCD behaviors in dogs that persist even if the dog's situation improves.

The Role of Conditioning

Whatever the initial trigger is, conditioning is critical for the OCD to develop. For example, let’s say a dog was playing in the backyard when a breeze caused shadows to move. At the same time, in this hypothetical situation, imagine that a wasp stung the dog on its nose.

The dog now associates the shadow movement with the pain. The next time shadows move, the dog could well bark in alarm.

At this point, if the owner provides some positive reinforcement to the dog, possibly by laughing at his behavior, the behavior could “stick,” slowly developing into an OCD.

How is OCD in Dogs Diagnosed?

First, your vet will want to do a complete exam. They will ask for a full history of your dog's health issues and any symptoms you’ve noticed. They will also ask you about any hereditary conditions in your dog's bloodline.

Your vet will then do a urinalysis and blood work to rule out any medical causes for your dog’s behaviors.

How is Dog OCD Treated?

Once a medical condition is ruled out, your vet will likely refer you to a veterinary behaviorist for dog obsessive-compulsive disorder treatment.

The primary method they will use is a behavioral modification. In the most severe cases, medication may be needed.

Behavioral Modification Program

Dr. Miller recommends a 5-step program to treat dogs with OCD.

1. Increase exercise.

The adage, “a tired dog is a good dog,” is especially true in this situation. A tired dog doesn’t have a lot of energy left over for OCD behaviors. Exercise also relieves stress, which is a significant component of OCD behavior.

Mental stimulation is also essential to reduce stress and help to relax a dog. In the early stages of OCD, the more you do to enrich your dog’s environment, the less he is likely to display compulsive behaviors.

2. Reduce stress.

Because OCD behaviors are triggered by stress, you will need to identify all the stressors in your dog’s life. Eliminate the ones you can. Then note anything you can think of that may trigger a compulsive behavior or exacerbate one. Are there some that you can deal with using counterconditioning (changing his emotional response to a stimulus?

Finally, try to make changes to his environment that will reduce his exposure to stressors that can’t be eliminated or changed.

3. Remove reinforcement.

It’s not uncommon for dog owners to think that behaviors such as tail chasing, spinning, or snapping at invisible flies is funny. If they react by laughing, the laughter works as a reinforcer for the dog.

He may very well continue the behavior because it gets a positive response from you.

Later, when the behavior occurs more often and is no longer funny, owners may reinforce the behavior with negative attention to get him to stop (which could heighten the anxiety or fear behind the behavior).

The best thing to do might be for everyone to leave the room when the dog engages in compulsive behaviors, taking away his audience. This can work well in the early stages of OCD.

4. Reinforce an incompatible behavior.

The key here is to catch the dog “being good.” Reward him with high-value treats or praise when he’s calm and not performing his compulsive behavior. Use this especially in situations that are potentially stimulating to him.

5. Explore behavior modification drugs if/when appropriate.

If your dog’s OCD behavior is well established and persistent and becomes a quality of life issue, you may need to consider medication.

Medication for Dog OCD

There are two types of medications that are considered effective in treating OCD in dogs with severe OCD—fluoxetine and clomipramine. Both are commonly prescribed to humans.

Fluoxetine (brand name Prozac) is prescribed for depression, anxiety, and OCD. Clomipramine (brand name Anafranil) is an antidepressant that’s also prescribed for OCD in humans.

Never Punish Your Dog for His Symptoms!

Punishment is precisely the wrong approach when dealing with OCD; it’s both ineffective and inappropriate.

Punishment is ineffective because it adds more stress and anxiety to a situation that is already triggered by stress and anxiety.

It becomes inappropriate when punishment suppresses the behavior you’re trying to eliminate. The reason for this is that dogs who learn to suppress one compulsive behavior will often transfer their compulsion to a different one.

Punishment can even be dangerous if the new compulsion is one that has the potential to cause serious self-harm, such as pica or self-injury by licking or chewing.

Living with Dog OCD: Summary

Dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder in dogs is not easy. It can affect the quality of life for both dogs and their owners.

Early intervention is the key to a good outcome. Other things that may help day to day are environment enrichment (mental stimulation), daily exercise and training sessions, and a distraction plan.

You might also try rewarding your dog when she’s resting calmly and leaving the room when she exhibits compulsive behaviors.

For more severe cases, you should seek help from a veterinary behaviorist who can help you develop a behavior modification program.

Where to Find Help

For early intervention if you suspect your dog may be exhibiting OCD behaviors, talk to your vet or find a certified dog trainer at one of these sources:

The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.

The International Association of Canine Professionals.

For help with a dog that has more advanced OCD, ask your vet or search for certified veterinary behavior professionals at any of these sources:

For More Detailed Information

REFERENCES AND RESOURCES

  1. Dodman, Nicholas, BVMS, DACVB, DACVAA. Canine obsessive-compulsive disorder. August 7, 2016.
  2. Engel, Danielle. University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. Compulsive disorders in pets. July 25, 2016.
  3. Horwitz, Debra, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM. VCA Hospitals. Introduction to desensitization and counterconditioning.
  4. Love, Shayla. BBC Future. How do you treat a dog with OCD? June 27, 2017.
  5. Miller, Pat, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA. Whole Dog Journal. Help for OCD dogs. Updated June 21, 2019.