Dealing with Canine Self-mutilation

Self-mutilation in Dogs

Self-mutilation occurs when dogs lick or bite themselves excessively, causing mild to severe injury to their skin and sometimes the underlying tissues, too. Causes of self-mutilation may be medical or psychological. Self-mutilation resulting from medical causes will resolve once the medical condition has been successfully treated. Self-mutilation resulting from psychogenic causes is often chronic, and is refractory to anything other than stress/conflict alleviating strategies and/or anti-obsessional medication.

Causes of Canine Self-Mutilation

Tail chasing/biting, acral lick dermatitis, and flank sucking are three psychogenic causes of self-mutilation.

These behaviors are now viewed as obsessive-compulsive disorders. An obsession is a constantly recurring thought (“I should lick my foot”); a compulsion is a repetitive action (licking the foot). Compulsions may follow obsessions or may occur without them. Obsessions are hard to verify in animals. Medical conditions may initiate or derive from compulsive self-mutilation. Some medical conditions that may be associated with self-mutilation include:

Where psychogenic factors are involved, self-mutilation will continue long after direct medical causes of the behavior have resolved. It is as if the medical problem starts a behavioral pendulum swinging. Compulsive behaviors may be reinforced if they attract the owner’s attention. Anxiety or stress caused by long periods of confinement, social isolation, harassment from another pet, repeated exposure to frightening stimuli, such as loud noises will promote and exacerbate obsessive-compulsive disorders, including self-mutilation.

Some dogs appear to be prone to psychogenic self-mutilation. Dobermans, Great Danes, Labrador retrievers, Irish setters and German shepherds are susceptible to acral lick dermatitis. Flank sucking is almost exclusively a Doberman condition. Tail chasing affects primarily bull terriers and German shepherds.

What to Watch For

Look for excessive licking, hair loss, rashes, sores, and/or brown staining of the haircoat. You should try to note what triggers the behavior, e.g. the proximity of another pet, external stimuli, the absence of a favored family member, etc.

Veterinary Care for Dogs that Self-mutilate

Rule out all medical contributions to the problem by having your veterinarian run the requisite tests such as:

Treatment for Dogs that Self-mutilate

After the medical causes of self-mutilation have been ruled out or treated, the compulsion must be addressed. The following therapies are recommended: