What’s Wrong with Fido? OCD in Animals

Did you know that 6.5 million dogs and cats enter shelters each year and that 1.5 million of these shelter animals are euthanized (670,000 dogs and 860,000 cats)? It’s true. Moreover, 5% of these shelter animals are euthanized because of a non-medical issue – the other 95% are left at shelters because of behavioral problems like anxiety, depression, and/or aggression.

So, people aren’t the only ones, who have personality “quirks” or mental health/behavioral issues. Animals can experience them too. The truth is it is common to miss the signs and symptoms of mental illness in an animal, if you are a pet owner.

Most people just chalk their pet’s “quirky” behavior up to a certain breed (i.e. pit bulls tend to be more aggressive, depending on how they are raised) or deem it a “personality trait” (i.e. Siamese cats tend to be prone to anxiety), when in actuality their pet may be suffering from a mental health issue.

But, how can you tell if your dog or cat is experiencing obsessive-compulsive behavior (OCD)? To you, your pet’s odd behavior is “normal,” but is it really? Could there be more to the story? Dogs with OCD tend to chase their tails, bark continuously, become snappy, shake, whine, run around in circles, or aggressively chew on their toys.

Cats with OCD tend to “over-groom,” lick or chew their fur to the point that it causes noticeable hair loss or bald spots, excessively suck, lick, or chew on fabric, chase their tails, engage in self-mutilation, and/or repeatedly “vocalize” or pace. Cats with OCD may also experience rippling, twitching or rolling skin.

Do some of these “behaviors” feel normal to you? Well, that is because they can be “normal,” however, if these behaviors escalate or worsen over time or continue for long periods of time, then your dog or cat may have anxiety disorder like OCD. In other words, your pet’s OCDish behavior may be more than boredom or personality “quirks,” it could be a real problem that needs to be promptly addressed.

Keep in mind that your pet cannot verbally tell you when he or she is experiencing stress or anxiety, so you have to pay attention to his or her behavior. So, if your pet’s behavior suddenly changes or if he or she begins to behave uncharacteristically, it could be a sign that something is wrong with him or her – something that needs to be assessed by a veterinarian.

Understand however, that these signs could be temporary, especially if your pet is very young. He or she may be trying to acclimate himself or herself to this big new world. The same can be true if you have recently moved or changed his or her daily routine. Some animals are sensitive to changes, so he or she may need time to get used to his or her “new reality.” This does not automatically signal a mental health issue like OCD. It only signals a potential problem if the behavior worsens, escalates, or persists indefinitely.

OCD in Animals

OCD is a mental health condition linked to anxiety and stress. It involves recurrent and involuntary urges (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions). As such, animals with OCD are unable to control or stop certain behaviors. With animals however, OCD also involves repeatedly engaging in behaviors that are outside of the context or “norm.”

For instance, an animal with OCD may continuously lick his or her fur (to groom) until it causes the skin to break and become infected or hair to fall out. In this instance, the animal is unable to stop the behavior because he or she has become obsessed with cleaning himself or herself. The only way to ease the anxiety and stress is to excessively lick his or her fur (compulsion).

According to animal behaviorists, when animals with OCD are unable to perform certain actions – actions they feel they need to perform, they resort to OCD-like behaviors out of anxiety. These behaviors become so extreme that they often end-up causing physical damage to their bodies or even their owners.

If left untreated, these animals lose their ability to get along with people and other animals, causing their owners to surrender them to local shelters. OCD in animals typically worsens over time, if left untreated. What does that mean? It means it becomes harder and harder to change the behaviors as time goes on.

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What Does OCD Look Like in Dogs and Cats?

Animals, specifically dogs and cats, tend to have different OCD symptoms than people. Moreover, not all dogs and cats will exhibit the same OCD symptoms. More specifically, each breed has its own specific set of compulsive behaviors. For instance, schnauzers are prone to hind-end checking, while terriers, Chihuahuas, and German shepherds are prone to running around in circles and chasing their tails. Tail-chasing is commonly seen in herding dogs that have OCD.

Doberman pinschers with OCD tend to lick their paws and limbs, while labrador’s tend to chew materials and stones. King Charles spaniels with OCD, on the other hand, tend to swipe at non-existent flies and bugs. Thus, it is important that you research your pet’s breed, so you’ll know if he or she begins to exhibit one or more of these OCD signs.

Listed below are ways that OCD can manifest in dogs and cats:

Dogs
  • Flank-sucking (Dobermans)
  • Spinning (German shepherds and terriers)
  • Chasing one’s tail (herding breeds)
  • Acral-licking dermatitis (labs and retrievers)
  • Pacing or circling (shelties)
  • Chasing flies (miniature schnauzers)
  • Chasing lights or shadows (Cavalier King Charles spaniels)
  • Incessant low barking (all breeds)
  • Paralysis and staring (all breeds)
  • Licking the air (shelties)
  • Pica (all breeds)
  • Excessive water-drinking (all breeds)
Cats
  • Wool-sucking (Siamese)
  • Excessive sucking or chewing (all breeds)
  • Constant and excessive grooming (all breeds)
  • Hunting and ambushing unsuspecting prey (all breeds)
  • Running and chasing (all breeds)
  • Shaking paws (all breeds)
  • Excessive noise or making purring sounds continuously (all breeds)
  • Chasing one’s tail (all breeds)
  • Chewing one’s foot (all breeds)
  • Rippling skin (all breeds)

What Triggers OCD in Animals?

Listed below are the most common OCD triggers in animals:

Stress, Tension, and Anxiety
  • Not being able to do something they want to do
  • When people or a specific person leaves the house without them
  • When people hug each other or talk on the phone
Conflict
  • When they are unsure if they should do something (i.e. an action)
  • When new people or pets come into the home (i.e. a new baby or pet)
  • When they hear noisy sounds (i.e. thunder, firecrackers, a vacuum, rain, etc.)
  • When they have to go somewhere new (i.e. a grooming appointment, daycare, overnight animal hotel, doctor’s appointment, etc.)
Boredom
  • When they do not get enough exercise or physical stimulation
  • When they do not enough mental stimulation
  • When they do not get enough social interaction with their owner, other dogs, and/or other people
  • When there is no or not enough structure in their daily routine

What is the Best Way to Detect OCD in Animals?

The best way to detect OCD in animals, especially if you have to be away from the home for any period of time, is to record your pet when you’re away from the house or in another room. Being able to view and rewind a recording of your pet’s behavior can help you determine if you need to seek help for him or her.

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How to Know If Your Pet is Exhibiting Attention-Seeking Behaviors or True OCD Symptoms?

“Attention-seeking behaviors” almost always occur in front of others (to get attention), however, animals with true OCD tend to exhibit these behaviors in private – i.e. when his or her owner is away from the house. More so, animals with OCD may even hide these behaviors from others. So, if you only catch your pet performing certain actions on a recording, then there is a chance he or she is exhibiting OCD compulsions, and should be checked-out by a veterinarian.

Note: The key to early detection is paying attention to your pet’s mannerisms and behaviors.

What Should You Do If You Suspect That Your Pet Has OCD?

If you suspect that your pet may have OCD, you should consult your veterinarian and/or an animal behavioral therapist. An animal behavioral therapist can determine what is really happening with your pet.

Listed below are the steps you should take if you suspect that your pet has OCD:

Professional Treatment
  • Behavioral Therapy

    First, understand that most behavioral therapists will only treat your pet’s behavior if it is aggressive, violent, or self-destructive – and you are unable to cope with or manage his or her behavior. The truth is healthy animals can also engage in these behaviors to ease their stress and anxiety – stress and anxiety that could stem from a specific event. It could also be a habit that they have formed to cope with things that they cannot control or do not like. This is not true OCD.

    For instance, as mentioned above, Doberman pinschers are known for sucking their flanks and terriers are known for licking their fur when they are stressed, anxious, or upset. Engaging in these behaviors can help your healthy pet calm down and de-stress. This doesn’t cause a problem unless it becomes obsessive, consuming most of your pet’s day or causing physical injuries.

    Moreover, some cats like to manipulate or rub blankets or toys to release tension and/or relax. Once, again this isn’t a problem unless it causes harm to your cat and/or others. Although, you may think these behaviors are odd, it is a healthy way for cats to “unwind” when they are stressed or anxious. That is why you should never punish your pet for performing these behaviors.

    Reprimanding your pet will only lead to more aggressive and harmful behaviors. So, what should you do if you notice your pet performing certain actions? Watch him or her to make sure it’s not something more serious that needs to be addressed. If you determine it is not, then simply ignore the behaviors, because he or she is probably engaging in “attention-seeking behaviors.”

    If that does not work, go to another room. The goal is to stop the behavior by ignoring it. If your pet sees that “attention-seeking behaviors” will not produce the effect he or she wants, there is a good chance he or she will stop it. So, do not give your pet attention when he or she is doing something you don’t want him or her to do.

    You can also try to make a strange or unique sound, but it must be a sound not linked to you, like marbles or pennies in a can or a beeping noise. The marbles or pennies or even air in a can works really well with cats.

    Note: It is really hard to stop a bad habit once it becomes ingrained in an animal so it is important to stop any bad habits or address any behavioral problems as quickly as possible.

    An animal behavioral therapist will determine the true cause of your pet’s behavioral problems and develop a treatment plan to reassociate certain stimuli so that things that used to make him or her upset or anxious no longer have the same effect. The end result? Your pet will no longer feel the need to perform compulsions or rituals or routines to ease his or her stress.

  • Prescription Medications

    Another possible treatment that can help an animal with OCD is prescription medications. Understand that this is usually the last line of treatment for animals with OCD because prescription medications have produced little-to-no success in the treatment of OCD in animals.

    The truth is most of these medications take between 4 and 6 weeks to work (produce noticeable changes in behavior), and for most pet owners that is simply too long of a wait. However, studies suggest that combining behavioral modification techniques with medications could reduce OCD symptoms in some animals.

    Prescription medications that have received limited success in the treatment of OCD in animals are:

    • Clomicalm
    • Clomipramine
    • Fluxetine
    • Hydrocodone
    • Antihistamines (although this causes sleepiness in animals)

    Note: Antihistamines appear to be effective in some animals; however, the effect is usually temporary. When the animal stops taking the medication, the behaviors typically return. Lick granulomas in dogs are the most difficult OCD symptoms to treat. These granulomas typically occur in larger dogs like golden retrievers, labs, and German shepherds.

    Lick granulomas stem from excessive licking to the point of developing cracked skin, skin infections that ooze and bleed, and bald patches. Infected skin is very hard to treat. So in this case, antihistamines, long-term antibiotics, and topical creams are usually used to treat the wounds.

    Another way to treat OCD-related wounds in animals is to place a wrap around the limb. However, an animal may resort to licking on the other limb (the unwrapped one) instead, leading to a new wound on a different limb. However, some animals may qualify for the new laser surgery treatment for lick granulomas.

    The purpose of this surgery is to deaden the nerves around the wound, so the animal is less likely to lick it (they can’t feel anything). This laser surgery must be combined with behavior modification for it to be effective. If that doesn’t happen, the animal will simply find a new location to lick, leading to a repeat cycle.

  • Holistic Treatments

    Holistic treatments like acupuncture and chamomile have also received limited success in animals with mild OCD.

Self-Help Treatments
  • Tire Your Pet Out
    • Keep your pet so active that he or she is too tired to perform the compulsions.
    • Make sure your pet has plenty of daily exercise.
    • Enroll your pet in obedience-training.
    • Take your dog to a dog park.
    • Take your dog for daily walks or jogs – place a doggy backpack on his or her back to tire him or her out even more.
    • Toss a ball or Frisbee with your dog.
    • Play “hide and go seek” with your dog – it will tire both of you out.
    • Toss a ball with your cat.
    • Chase your cat around the house, but refrain from scaring him or her.
    • Toss treats so your cat will run after them.
    • Put your dog’s treats in a toy (Kong Treats) so he or she will have to work to get it out. This activity will also stimulate your dog’s mind.
    • Hide your cat’s food in different areas of the house, so he or she has to search for it.
    • Take your dog to “doggy daycare,” so he or she can socialize with other dogs, while you are at work.
    • Schedule “weekend playdates” with other pets.
    • Rotate your pet’s toys every few days, so he or she always has something new and exciting to play with.
  • Be Consistent

    Animals, like people, need routines in their lives. In other words, animals need consistency. When an animal does not have a consistent schedule, he or she becomes stressed and anxious, which can lead to OCD in some animals. They simply do not know what to expect, which makes them nervous. So, the best way to prevent your pet from developing or exhibiting OCD or OCD-like behaviors is to provide him or her with a constant and reliable daily schedule, so he or she knows what to expect every day. This will help keep your pet stress-free, so he or she doesn’t feel the need to perform compulsive behaviors.

    So, how can you provide more consistency to your pet?

    • Try placing your pet’s favorite treats in a basket inside the front door, so when people come to your house, they can give him or her one. This will instill trust between your pet and your friends and family. Plus, your pet can spend this time snacking on them instead of jockeying for your attention.

      This activity will ease your pet’s stress and anxiety and keep him or her occupied, while you spend time with your visitors. Eventually, your pet will no longer see your friends and family as “threats” because they come bearing fruit.

    • Do not force your cat to enter a room. If your cat gets upset when people visit – do not force him or her to go into another room. Rather, lure him or her into the room with treats. Once the cat is in the room, take a few minutes to give him or her some extra attention before you leave them in there. This will help calm your cat’s anxiety, so he or she doesn’t become so upset and anxious that he or she resorts to performing compulsive behaviors.

In Summary

Just like people, pets have unique and distinct personalities. Some even develop mental health conditions like OCD. Some pets are worriers, while others tend to be calmer. And, some pets need something to do – they need jobs or tasks to make them feel at-ease and fulfilled. Because, honestly, if your pet doesn’t have something productive to do, he or she will most likely find something to do that is probably unhealthy or destructive.

All pets need excitement, exercise, a consistent schedule, attention, and unconditional love to be at their best mentally and physically. But, some animals, for instance, those with an anxiety disorder like OCD, need a little extra help. That is why it is so important to know the signs of OCD and to get your pet help if you suspect that something is “off” with him or her.

So, what’s wrong with Fido? He has OCD.

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