Two of the most common behaviors in dogs are obsessive licking which results in acral lick dermatitis (ALD), also known as a lick granuloma, and tail chasing.
In cats, common obsessive behaviors include wool-sucking (pica, or the eating of non-food substances) and psychogenic alopecia, which is hair loss and baldness from excessive grooming of the hair and skin.
According to Veterinary Practice News:
"In people with OCD—and by inference in animals exhibiting compulsive behavior—the cycle goes something like this: Anxiety leads to engagement in a repetitive behavior (a compulsion), which affords temporary relief. Later a constantly recurring thought (an obsession) occurs that causes escalating anxiety. Engagement in the compulsion relieves the anxiety, and so the cycle is propagated."
Animals with compulsive disorders tend to be relatively anxious and high strung. It isn't common to find OCD-type behavior in laidback animals. An anxious nature may be inherited, however, research indicates a component of 'nurture,' for example, a high conflict situation, is necessary for expression of a compulsive behavior.
In considering treatment for a pet with OCD, according to Veterinary Practice News:
"Environmental enrichment alone will not normally reverse a compulsive disorder, but a stress-free, user-friendly environment can prevent compulsive behavior from developing in the first place and make relapse less likely after successful pharmacological treatment."
Preventing a dog or cat from performing a compulsive behavior by physically restraining the animal in some way only leads to more anxiety, not less.
Unfortunately, I see a lot of pet dog and cat obsessive compulsive disorders in my practice.
It's a curse among the many blessings of modern day life and convenience. As much as we love the animals we share our lives with, and as concerned as we are about their health and happiness, very few of us are in a position to allow our pets to live according to their true canine or feline nature.
In my recent interview with Ted Kerasote, we talked about understanding the essential nature of dogs, and how left to their own devices, our canine companions would live extremely active lives, with tremendous amounts of outdoor activity. This is their genetic destiny as descendants of wolves.
Our kitties are natural loners, hunters and athletes. Their place in our lives as indoor-only feline royalty really doesn't afford them the opportunity to flex their genetic muscles.
Suggestions to Prevent, Control or Reduce OCD in Your Pet
First things first: optimize the physical health of your dog or cat.
- Feed a balanced, species-appropriate diet. Species-appropriate nutrition is the foundation of your pet’s vibrant health and longevity. We are what we eat, and that goes for your companion as well. Feed him what nature designed him to eat.
- Provide for a sound, resilient body – frame and organs – through regular and consistent exercise. Your pet should have good muscle tone … healthy body weight … strong heart, lungs, kidney, liver and other organs … and a clean mouth.
- Insure a balanced, functional immune system. Balance is the key here. Your pet's immune system should be strong enough to protect her from disease, but not over-reactive to the point of creating allergies and autoimmune disease.
If your dog or cat is well-nourished with species-appropriate food, is in good physical condition from plenty of heart-thumping exercise, and is neither over vaccinated nor over medicated, congratulations! You've already built a fantastically solid foundation for excellent physical and mental health in your pet.
I don't see too many extremely healthy, physically active animals with intractable OCD at Natural Pet (my animal hospital).
I also recommend you take your dog or cat to the vet for a wellness exam to insure the source of the obsessive behavior is indeed behavioral and not a physical condition, such as thyroid disease, which needs to be addressed.
If Your Pet is a Dog
Most dogs, especially larger breeds, just aren't as physically active as they're designed to be. It can be a challenge to tire out a big dog, especially one of the working or sporting breeds.
If your dog is performing compulsive behaviors, try increasing his exercise. Some suggestions:
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I also recommend you help your dog stay mentally stimulated with chew toys and treat-release toys like the Clever K-9. Also place small treats around the house for her to discover, along with other favorite toys.
You might also consider investing in a D.A.P.™ collar or diffuser for your dog. D.A.P.™ is an acronym for Dog Appeasing Pheromone and is designed to have a calming affect on dogs. The collar seems to work well for many dog owners with pups suffering from stress-related behaviors.
If You're Owned by a Cat
Changes in routine are extremely stressful for kitties. When you disrupt your pet's routine, it translates to him as a loss of control over his very survival.
If a cat in your household is exhibiting OCD behaviors, the first thing you'll want to do is dramatically limit the number of unusual external events your pet is exposed to.
Cats are independent. They like to set their own schedules, exert full control over their environment, and depend only on themselves for survival.
Just because your beloved feline lives in the house with you doesn't mean he's lost his drive to rule the roost. So the more you can do to help your cat feel in control and not an alien in a foreign land, the less stress he'll endure.
Some suggestions for environmental enrichment for your kitty:
- Feeding and routine care (litter box scooping, brushing, etc.) should happen at the same time each day.
- Keep food bowls and litter boxes in the same spot – don't move them around unnecessarily.
- Keep litter boxes clean, as well as bedding.
- Provide an assortment of appropriate cat toys, hiding boxes, scratching posts/trees, etc., and make sure your pet has plenty, if not constant access to these goodies.
- Consider playing soothing music for an hour or two each day.
You might also consider treat or food-dispensing toys for cats, window perches, and kitty videos.
Pharmacotherapy for Pet OCD
As you might have guessed, I'm not a big fan of the use of SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac and Zoloft) or N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) blockers in the treatment of obsessive behaviors in animals.
They are sometimes appropriate in extreme, intractable cases and/or when an animal is causing harm to himself. Sometimes they can be used as an interim measure to interrupt the cycle of behavior at the same time other less harmful remedies are being attempted.
But my general recommendation is to try a wide variety of natural remedies first, since every drug has side effects.