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Compulsive Behavior in Dogs

By: Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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Compulsive behaviors are repetitive sequences of behavior that are fairly consistent in their presentation. They do not appear to serve any obvious purpose, although some argue that they function to reduce a dog's stress level. Compulsive behaviors may be time consuming, may result in physical injury to the dog, may significantly impair the dog's ability to function normally and may impair the dog's relationship with his owner.

Compulsive behavior frequently appears to be triggered by anxiety or stress. Conditions known to cause anxiety in susceptible dogs include a change in the social or physical environment or long periods of solitary confinement.

Initially, a dog may only show the repetitive behavior when exposed to a situation that is stressful or increases its level of arousal. When a dog is repeatedly placed in a situation of conflict, the repetitive behavior exhibited may become ingrained. Once incorporated into the dog's behavioral repertoire, compulsive behaviors will be performed even if the initiating stressors are removed. At this stage, the dog appears unable to control his own actions.

One of the first behaviors considered representative of a compulsive disorder in dogs was repetitive licking of the lower extremities of the legs, which may cause physical lesions called lick granulomas (acral lick dermatitis). Other compulsive behaviors in dogs include flank sucking, tail chasing, shadow chasing and fly snapping. Repetitive circling, fence running and pacing may also be manifestations of compulsive behavior.

Diagnosis

A complete physical examination by a veterinarian and a consultation with a behavior specialist is recommended to confirm a diagnosis of compulsive behavior. The owner should be prepared to provide a detailed description of the behavior, the duration and frequency of bouts, and situations in which the behavior typically occurs.

Therapy

If the behavior is triggered by conflict the dog is experiencing on a regular basis, try to eliminate the stressor or, if possible, attempt to desensitize the dog to the situation.

Whenever the dog is engaged in the compulsive behavior, he should be ignored. Both mild punishment and reassurance can reward the dog's unwanted behavior by supplying the owner's attention. Punishment has the potential to increase the dog's anxiety and worsen the condition.
        
Training the dog to relax on command may help interrupt unwanted behavior later in the treatment program.

Although there are no medications approved to treat compulsive disorders in dogs, some success has been achieved with antidepressants prescribed for similar disorders in humans.

Home Care

Providing appropriate aerobic exercise, regular daily obedience training and stimulating toys can help reduce a dog's inclination to perform a compulsive behavior. Providing a dog with a job that incorporates his breed-specific needs and making sure he receives adequate social stimulation are important.

For many dogs, arranging a predictable routine for feeding, exercise and social interaction can reduce their anxiety level.

Although it is not always possible to completely extinguish a compulsive behavior, the treatment outlined above is effective in reducing its intensity and frequency. For maximum effect, all components of the program need to be engaged in simultaneously and consistently.

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