Compulsive Behavior in Dogs

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What Are Compulsive Behaviors in Dogs?

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 of Compulsive Behaviors in Dogs

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.

Treatment of Compulsive Behaviors in Dogs

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 for Dogs with Compulsive Behaviors

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.


Information In-depth Compulsive Behaviors in Dogs

Compulsive behaviors occur in most species, including humans and dogs. Such behaviors have been recognized in humans for some time, but appreciation of their occurrence in companion animals is relatively recent. Many of the repetitive behavior conditions that are seen in dogs have numerous and compelling similarities to obsessive compulsive disorders that occur in people. In addition, affected dogs often respond to the same type of medications used to treat human obsessive compulsive disorder.

  • Compulsive behaviors in dogs are sequences of behavior that are repetitive and relatively invariant in expression and orientation. They do not appear to serve an obvious purpose and some are potentially injurious to the animal.
  • Owners of severely affected dogs report that their companion appears to be anxious or distraught. Affected dogs often engage in their compulsions rather than play or eat and are often unresponsive to their owner’s affection or directions. Affected dogs lose aspects of good companionship.
  • Compulsive disorders appear to be related to normal innate (genetic or “hard-wired”) behaviors like grooming, predatory behavior, eating, locomotion, or sexual behavior. Compulsive “grooming” disorders include repetitive licking of the lower extremities of the legs, which may cause lesions referred to as lick granulomata (a.k.a. acral lick dermatitis), and compulsive chewing of the feet or toe nails. Acral lick dermatitis (ALD) is most common in large (> 50lbs), active breeds that have been selected to work closely with people and form strong attachments. Not surprisingly, dogs with ALD may also have other anxiety-related behavior conditions such as separation anxiety, thunderstorm phobia, and fear-based territorial aggression.
  • Flank biting or sucking is thought to be related to “nursing behavior”; and tail chasing/spinning, shadow chasing and some forms of fly snapping may be related to predatory behavior. Tail chasing is most commonly observed in terriers and herding breeds, although any breed can be affected. Repetitive circling, fence running, digging and pacing are also common manifestations of compulsive behavior.
  • Sometimes a dog develops a compulsive disorder without exposure to an identifiable stressor. Such dogs are usually young (less than 1-1/2 years of age) and may have a family history of compulsive behavior.


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