Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in the dog world is also known as Canine Compulsive Disorder or CCD. It’s identified by normal dog behaviors that are performed in such an extreme, repetitive way that they are difficult for the dog to stop and can interfere with the dog’s ability to function.
Examples of normal dog behaviors that in some dogs have become compulsive include sucking on their flanks or a toy; incessant licking, called acral lick dermatitis; pacing, spinning, and chasing the tail; freezing and staring; snapping at flies or invisible items; unabated and patterned barking; and excessive drinking of water or eating dirt.
You may be thinking, “Oh, no! My dog does lots of these things.” Many dogs bark a lot, chase their tails, spin when they’re happy, and bite at flies. The key is that they do it in expected situations, stop after a short time, and are able to rest and eat normally. It’s not so much what they do, but the extent to which they do it and their ability to control when they start and stop.
For example, there’s nothing abnormal about a dog who retrieves a ball over and over or spins when excited. But if a dog wants to chase and retrieve or spin for many hours each day to the exclusion of other behaviors, and just can’t seem to stop, it’s time to seek advice from your veterinarian.
There is an ongoing debate about whether dogs are actually capable of obsessing or having their thoughts completely focused on a behavior like people can – hence the change in naming the disorder in dogs to CCD. However, the Merck Veterinary Manual says, “they (dogs) do perceive and experience concern; therefore, the term obsessive-compulsive has also been used to describe this disorder in dogs.”
What Causes OCD in Dogs?
Research into the causes of compulsive behaviors in dogs is ongoing, and one area being studied is the genetic link. According to Dr. Jerry Klein, AKC chief veterinary officer, although any breed may develop a compulsive disorder, certain breeds seem to be more susceptible to specific types of compulsive behaviors.
The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, in conjunction with other medical universities, identified a chromosome that confers a high risk of susceptibility of compulsive disorder in breeds. Further research showed that the structural brain abnormalities of Doberman Pinschers afflicted with CCD are similar to those of humans with OCD.
Merck reports that German Shepherd Dogs and Bull Terriers are known to spin or tail chase, while a genetic locus for flank sucking has been identified in Doberman Pinschers. Symptoms often start in young dogs.
Dogs and people with OCD may have altered serotonin transmission, which affects the ability of brain cells and nervous system cells to communicate with each other.
Human and canine medical researchers are studying the common pathways associated with OCD in both species with the hope of finding genetic tests that will allow for earlier intervention and better treatment for dogs and for people.
In addition to the genetic cause, veterinarians and animal behaviorists believe that in some dogs, compulsive behaviors are extreme reactions resulting from a lack of physical and mental stimulation, high anxiety, the absence of a job to do, frustration, arousal, or from receiving insufficient attention.
How to Treat OCD in Dogs
One of the biggest problems we face when dogs display OCD behaviors is that they can’t tell us what they’re obsessing about. So it can be very hard to diagnose. Is your dog just energetic or is it something more? It’s not so much what they do, but the way that they do it.
Diagnosis by a veterinarian and intervention is critical, as soon as possible. Compulsive behaviors can be destructive to dog, home, and relationships, and are often difficult to live with. And without treatment, they only get worse.
Dr. Klein advises that another reason to see your vet is that there are some behaviors that may be due to an underlying medical condition.
When you go to your vet, it will help if you have a good description of the behavior (video recordings are great), a record of when and how often the behaviors occur, whether any specific situation seems to set them off, and how old the dog was when they began to occur.
Treatments that have been successful with some dogs include medication and behavior modification. “Research has shown that dogs with OCD have an altered serotonin level, so drugs that affect the absorption of serotonin can help reduce some behaviors. This needs to be partnered with teaching new behaviors that interrupt and redirect the compulsive behaviors, such as sitting when excited rather than spinning,“ says Dr. Klein.
Consultation with an animal behaviorist can help you understand how to interrupt and teach new behaviors. In addition, the dog’s environment may need to be altered. A predictable routine can reduce anxiety; lots of physical and challenging mental exercise can diffuse pent-up energy.
“When normal dog behaviors morph into time-consuming, overwhelming, endless repetitions, it doesn’t mean your dog is misbehaving,” says Dr. Klein. “You’ve reached a point where he needs to be examined, diagnosed, and helped before these behaviors affect the quality of life for you and your dog.”