By Dr. Becker
Many pet parents don't realize that some of the most amusing-looking behaviors dogs and cats perform (for example, tail chasing) can actually be signs of a potential behavior disorder.
Obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors occur in humans and many types of animals, including dogs, cats, exotic birds, horses, pigs and zoo inhabitants.
Humans with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) perform repetitive activities like washing their hands or checking that the stove isn't on, over and over and over. They can't seem to control the behavior, and constantly think about it.
Since there's no way to know what pets with repetitive behaviors are thinking, many experts refer to them as compulsive disorders rather than OCD.
Unfortunately, dog and cat compulsive disorders are relatively common. In many ways this is a result of modern day lifestyles. As much as we love our animal companions and try to provide for their health and happiness, most of us aren't in a position to allow them to live according to their true canine or feline nature.
If they could make their own choices, our canine companions would enjoy extremely active lives with tremendous amounts of outdoor activity. Our kitties are natural loners, hunters and athletes. Their place in our lives as indoor-only pampered pets really doesn't afford them the opportunity to exercise their genetic muscles.
Nature, Nurture … or Both?
Pets with compulsive disorders tend to be more anxious and high strung than normal. An anxious nature may be inherited, but studies suggest environment also plays a role in triggering the expression of a compulsive behavior. According Dr. Nicholas Dodman writing for 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."1
For the record, I'm not in favor of jumping immediately to pharmaceuticals to help pets with compulsive behaviors. They are sometimes appropriate in extreme, intractable cases (for example, a pet headed for the shelter) or when an animal is causing harm to himself.
They can also be beneficial 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 behavior modification along with a wide variety of natural remedies first, since every drug has side effects.
In addition, it's important not to try to prevent a dog or cat from performing a repetitive behavior with physical restraint, because it typically causes the animal more anxiety, not less.
Similarities Between Compulsive Behaviors in Humans and Dogs
Two of the most common OCD-like behaviors in dogs are obsessive licking which results in acral lick dermatitis (ALD), also known as a lick granuloma, and tail chasing.
A study published by researchers in Finland suggests that dogs with tail chasing, air biting, obsessive pacing, trance-like freezing, or licking or biting their own flanks have a disorder similar to OCD in humans.2 A number of features of tail chasing dogs are similar to obsessive-compulsive humans, including:
- People with OCD and tail chasing dogs begin acting out their behaviors at a young age
- Both are inclined to engage in more than one compulsive activity
- Nutritional supplements in the form of vitamins and minerals are beneficial in reducing the behaviors in both people and dogs
- OCD is linked to childhood trauma and stress; tail chasing is seen more often in dogs that were separated too early from their mothers
- Certain people with OCD are on the shy, inhibited side, and this tendency is also seen in tail chasing canines
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.
How Physically Healthy is Your Pet?
I recommend taking your dog or cat to the veterinarian for a wellness exam to insure the source of the repetitive behavior is indeed behavioral and not a physical condition, such as thyroid disease, that needs to be addressed. And of course I always recommend optimizing the physical health of your dog or cat by:
- Feeding a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet
- Making sure your pet is getting regular, consistent exercise that promotes good muscle tone and body weight, and provides for a strong and resilient musculoskeletal system and organ systems
- Insuring a balanced, functional immune system that is strong enough to protect your pet from disease, but not over-reactive to the point of creating allergies or autoimmune disease
In my experience, there are very few extremely healthy, physically active pets with intractable compulsive disorders, so I can't overstate the importance of helping your dog or cat be as healthy as possible.
Tips for Dog Parents
Most dogs, especially larger breeds, 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 include walking or hiking, swimming, playing fetch or tug-of-war, biking with your dog using a special dog bike leash, jogging, or getting involved in obedience or nose work events, flyball, agility or other sports. I also recommend helping your dog stay mentally stimulated with chews and treat-release toys.
Tips for Cat Parents
Changes in routine are extremely stressful for kitties. If a cat in your household is exhibiting repetitive behaviors, the first thing you'll want to do is de-stress her environment and stick to a daily schedule she can depend on.
Cats are independent. They are most comfortable when they feel in control of their world. The more you can do to help your cat feel in control, the less stress she'll endure. Suggestions for environmental enrichment for your kitty include:
- Feeding and routine care (litterbox scooping, brushing, etc.) should happen at about the same time each day
- Keep food bowls and litter boxes in the same spot – don't move them around unnecessarily; keep litter boxes scrupulously clean, as well as bedding
- Provide a variety of appropriate cat toys, hiding boxes, scratching posts/trees, etc.
- Consider playing soothing music for an hour or two each day
- Also consider treat or food-dispensing toys for cats, window perches, and kitty videos
- Spend some time each day playing and interacting with your cat
- Discuss homeopathic remedies for obsessive behavior in cats with your holistic veterinarian