A closer look: Obsessive Compulsive Disorders in Dogs
The repetitive nature of stereotypical behaviors often leads to other symptoms. Repetitive stress injuries to the muscles and joints occur, as do skin sores and infections. Dogs are sometimes so obsessed with their behaviors that they have difficulty maintaining an appropriate weight. In all of these cases, the severity of symptoms is related to the frequency and intensity of the OCD behavior.
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Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is uncommon, affecting 2-5% of dogs. OCD is a lifelong condition with no specific treatment. Most dogs have a reduction in symptoms with long-term management, but complete resolution is extremely rare. Identifying the best management strategies for the individual dog is often a long process, and requires a dedicated owner.
Several breed-related predispositions for obsessive compulsive disorders have been identified, so a genetic basis for OCD is suspected.
Dogs with obsessive compulsive disorders have altered function in the same region of the brain associated with human obsessive-compulsive disorder. Similarly to humans, current research suggests that functional changes in neurotransmitters are responsible for the disorder.
There is a poor understanding of what causes obsessive compulsive disorders in dogs. It is thought that a combination of genetic predispositions, altered brain function, and learned behaviors contribute to developing these disorders. High-energy breeds developed to do mentally stimulating jobs are predisposed to developing behavioral disorders like OCD.
Compulsive behaviors are often triggered by situations the dog perceives as stressful.These situations include separation from their families, inadequate mental stimulation, changes in routine, and inadequate exercise. If the repetitive behavior reduces the dog’s stress, the dog learns to use that behavior as a coping mechanism.
Owners can also inadvertently encourage the behavior, which may contribute to the development of OCD. Over time, the repetitive behavior evolves into a compulsion instead of a happening only in response to a stressful trigger.
Obsessive compulsive disorders must be distinguished from other, non-disordered behaviors. The main features of OCD that separate them from normal behavior are:
- Exaggerated or prolonged behavior
- Often requires physical intervention to stop the behavior
- Interferes with daily life
The major OCD behaviors seen in dogs are:
- Obsessive licking of the limbs
- Sucking on the dog’s flank
- Sucking on blankets
- Tail chasing
- Light or shadow chasing
- Fly snapping
Testing and diagnosis
Obsessive compulsive disorders are a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that all other possible causes of the symptoms shown must be ruled out. An extensive physical examination and standard diagnostic workup including bloodwork, urinalysis, and diagnostic imaging is performed to rule out other conditions. A thorough history and a video of the behavior is helpful in making the diagnosis.
There is no specific treatment for OCD. Management of the condition centers around preventing the behavior and training. Consultation with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist is recommended for the best outcome.
Preventing the behavior involves a combination of environmental changes and reducing stress. The exact management strategy depends on what behavior the dog is showing. If the dog’s behavior is linked to a stressful situation, reducing exposure to that situation helps prevent a compulsive episode from beginning.
Training allows an alternative behavior to be emphasized. When the owner notices that the dog is starting a compulsive behavior, the alternative behavior is cued to disrupt the thought process, and prevent the compulsion from occurring. It is crucial that the training is consistently applied in order to prevent the dog from experiencing further stress and anxiety.
In severe cases, medication is helpful to break the cycle of anxiety that triggers the obsessive compulsive behavior.
Steps to Recovery
OCD is a lifelong condition with no known cure. The overall prognosis is fair. Most dogs with OCD do not experience full resolution of their symptoms, and the goal of treatment is a reduction in severity. Identifying the best management strategy for the individual pet is a long process and often requires trial and error as well as ongoing modification as the dog’s environment changes.
Since the root cause of OCD is not well understood, it is difficult to determine how it can be prevented. Selecting a dog breed appropriate for their lifestyle is the best method for new dog owners to reduce the risk of OCD. To further reduce risk, receiving professional guidance on training, exercising and managing the dog is recommended.
Are Obsessive Compulsive Disorders in Dogs common?
Studies show OCD affects between 2 to 5% of dogs.
Training varies depending on severity, but general approaches include:
- Consultation with a specialist