How to handle a dog with OCD tendencies

Up to 3% of dogs have obsessive-compulsive disorder, an anxiety disorder seen more frequently in some purebred dogs and exacerbated by stress, writes veterinarian Francine Rattner. Dogs that exhibit behaviors such as tail chasing or constant licking may have the condition, although Dr. Rattner says it’s important to have the animal evaluated to ensure there is not an underlying medical issue. Exercising the dog and removing the sources of stress may help, according to Dr. Rattner. The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)

Can dogs have OCD? I have a Shetland sheepdog who is constantly chasing his tail. We try to distract him and tell him no and eventually he stops. Is there anything else we should do?

Unfortunately, our canine friends can suffer from repetitive activities that seem very similar to people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

 Since dogs can’t tell us what they are feeling, we don’t know why they are doing these activities. Perhaps they become addicted to the behavior because it stimulates the release of endorphins or soothing chemicals from the brain.

We have to also make sure that there is not an underlying pain issue that is causing the abnormal behavior. This is more likely in a case where a dog constantly licks at a spot on his leg. Whatever the cause, obsessive behaviors often require modification for the dog’s sake and for yours.

OCD is a type of anxiety disorder with as many as three percent of dogs affected. As it is found more often in certain purebred dogs, we believe there is a genetic component involved. Herding dogs like yours may spin or chase their tails, Doberman Pinschers may suck the skin of their flank or lick a leg until it is raw, Labrador retrievers can be obsessive about carrying a ball around, or eating nonfood items.

While dogs may be born with this tendency, they generally don’t show signs until at least 6 months of age. It is important to act quickly if you start to see these types of behaviors emerging. Since stress can make the obsessive behavior worse, reducing stress can help keep them from becoming ingrained habits.

A dog that seems to engage in these types of behaviors when a neighbor’s “bully” dog is barking through the fence is stressed. A dog that starts doing more obsessive behaviors when he is crated is stressed. Do what you can to change your dog’s environment to reduce stresses that you can recognize.

Make sure you give your dog plenty of exercise. Especially for hunting and herding dogs — they are generally not content to be kept indoors all the time with just a bathroom break a couple times a day. They need to be taken on long walks or runs, or engaged in activities that they are genetically programmed to perform.

In addition, behavior modification will help reduce the frequency of the unwanted behavior. The first step is to make sure you are not reinforcing the tail chasing. Dogs can regard yelling as a form of attention and think of it as positive response. This will serve to encourage them to engage in the behavior more often. Instead, catch your dog in the act of sitting calmly and not chasing his tail and lavish praise on him. Train him to do other behaviors at your request and reward him for those. Lying down quietly and staying until you give the signal is another calm behavior to reward.

In some cases, all the work you can do at home isn’t enough to help relieve a dog of his compulsive behaviors. In those cases, the same types of anti-anxiety medications that are prescribed for humans may be needed to help him live a calmer, more comfortable life.

Dr. Francine K. Rattner is a veterinarian at South Arundel Veterinary Hospital in Edgewater. Please send questions to info@southarundelvet.com or to www.facebook.com/southarundelvet.

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