Found in Dogs: Odd Symptoms Similar to Humans With This Brain Disorder

canine compulsive disorder

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs who perform repetitive behaviors not related to an underlying medical condition have canine compulsive disorder (CCD)
  • Dogs with CCD and humans with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) share a number of traits involving both biological and environmental influences
  • Dogs with repetitive behaviors should be examined by a veterinarian to rule out underlying medical conditions
  • Pharmaceuticals to treat CCD should not be an immediate first step unless the dog is in danger of harming himself. It’s important to try behavior modification along with a wide variety of natural remedies first
  • The right diet, a dog “job” or hobby, and lots of physical activity are also extremely important in the management of dogs with CCD

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

It comes as a surprise to many pet parents when they learn that the highly amusing (or in some cases, highly annoying) behaviors their dog seems driven to perform are actually signs of a potential behavior disorder.

Obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors are seen 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 over and over. They can't seem to control the behavior, and constantly think about it.

Since there's no way to know what dogs with repetitive behaviors like tail chasing are thinking, veterinary behaviorists often refer to the condition as canine compulsive disorder (CCD).

Dogs With CCD and Humans With OCD Have Certain Things in Common

Two of the most common repetitive 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.1 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 addition to these similarities, a team of researchers including veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus at Tufts University and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, performed MRI scans on a group of Doberman Pinschers (a breed predisposed to repetitive behaviors), half with acral licking and half without.2

"When we scanned the Dobermans with acral licking, we found they had sophisticated, minute details in the brain that are also found in humans suffering from OCD," says Dodman. "The changes were, if not identical, compellingly similar."3

The Doberman study also revealed a genetic component to CCD. "We … found a gene called CDH2, otherwise known as neural cadherin (NCAD), expressed most significantly in dogs with the compulsive problem," explains Dodman. Following Dodman's study, psychiatrists in South Africa discovered that the same deformation of CDH2 was found in humans with OCD.4

Environmental Considerations for Dogs With CCD

Unfortunately, CCD is fairly common in today's dogs, and is to some degree a result of modern lifestyles. As much as we love our dogs 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 nature.

If they could make their own choices, our dogs would enjoy extremely active lives with tremendous amounts of outdoor activity, where they are grounded (meaning their paws are in contact with the earth) and able to use all their senses. Dogs 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:

"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."5

Dodman has had success treating certain animals with CCD, including dogs, using drugs that block opioid receptors. I'm not in favor of jumping immediately to pharmaceuticals to treat this condition. They are sometimes appropriate in extreme, intractable cases (for example, a dog 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 from performing a repetitive behavior with physical restraint, because it typically causes more anxiety, not less.

Dogs With Repetitive Behaviors Should Be Examined for Underlying Medical Causes

I recommend taking your dog to the veterinarian for a wellness exam to insure the source of the repetitive behavior is indeed behavioral and not a physical condition that needs to be addressed.

"Not all licking is compulsive," Dodman explains. "You have to differenti­ate. If they're licking between their toes it could be pyoderma. If they're licking their limb, the location can be pretty conclusive of CCD. The difference is that CCD is a problem that starts in the head, not on the skin."6

Other Important tips for dogs with CCD:

  • Feeding a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet that provides everything dogs need and nothing they don't (no dyes, preservatives, artificial flavors, synthetic nutrients)
  • Making sure she's getting regular, consistent, rigorous exercise that promotes good muscle tone and body weight, and provides for a strong and resilient musculoskeletal system and organ systems
  • Find a hobby or "job" they really enjoy (my favorite being nose work)
  • Limit exposure to EMFs in the home by turning off the wireless router at night and providing a grounding pad
  • Insuring a balanced, functional immune system that is strong enough to protect your dog from disease, but not over-reactive to the point of creating allergies or autoimmune disease

It's worth noting that 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 a working or sporting breed. If your dog is performing compulsive behaviors, try increasing her exercise. Some suggestions:

Walking or hiking

Jogging

Swimming

Obedience or nose work events

Playing fetch or tug-of-war

Flyball

Biking with a special dog bike leash

Agility or other canine sports

I also recommend helping your dog stay mentally stimulated with chews and treat-release toys. In my experience, there are very few extremely healthy, physically active dogs with intractable compulsive disorders, so I can't overstate the importance of helping your dog be as healthy and active as possible.