Dog: Compulsive Disorders

dog laying in the dirtMy dog keeps doing the same behaviour again and again, why is this?

There are many reasons, why an animal may do the same thing again and again. It may be a response to something specific which triggers the behaviour, for example. people passing by might cause your dog to start repetitively barking, it might be a sign of a neurological problem (such as a partial seizure) or it might be a largely psychological problem such as a compulsive behaviour. Many compulsive behaviours arise spontaneously as a response to conflict or anxiety but behaviours may also become compulsive or fixed because they have been inadvertently trained by the owner through unintentional delivery of a positive outcome from the behaviour. For example, the owner who gives the young pet attention when it playfully chases its tail may reinforce the performance of the behaviour. Owners who offer food or a toy in an effort to disrupt the behaviour can also inadvertently reward the very problem they wish to stop. It should be acknowledged, that certain breeds, e.g. Border Collies, have been bred to be more compulsive and they will often develop fixations if they are not sufficiently worked or stimulated in other ways.

Distinguishing these different causes can be difficult and, given the possible involvement of health related problems, it is essential to start with a thorough health check of your dog, and possibly to carry out further tests before you assume it is a behavioural problem. The diagnosis and management of these cases can be very challenging and you may need to be patient, as your vet works through the case, but you should also not be afraid to ask for specialist assistance if necessary.

What is a compulsive disorder?

When an animal repeatedly tries to do something, we might say that it has a compulsion to do the behaviour. Compulsive behaviours are often derived from normal behaviour patterns but appear to be abnormal because they are excessive, exceedingly intense, or performed out of context. 

Sometimes the drive for a specific behaviour lasts a long time, because the triggers remain in place. For example a dog might develop a compulsion for chewing its foot, because it has an ongoing medical condition which results in the foot being sore. In other situations, the behaviour becomes more like a habit that the dog cannot stop. For example, the dog may continue to chew its foot even when the medical condition is resolved and it is no longer causing any discomfort.

Chronic stress and conflict may also give rise to repetitive behaviour problems. The behaviour, which is often completely unrelated to the conflict situation may begin by being displayed at specific times of stress but as a result of sensitisation of the neural pathways controlling the behaviour, the behaviour may begin to be manifested during any state of stress or arousal. Eventually, the dog loses control over the initiation and termination of the behaviour and it may then be said to have become compulsive. The compulsive behaviour may eventually occur in situations when the dog is only minimally aroused. 

"Eventually, the dog loses control over the initiation and termination of the behaviour and it may then be said to have become compulsive. The compulsive behaviour may eventually occur in situations when the dog is only minimally aroused."

Some of these behaviours are more common in certain breeds, and there is almost certainly a genetic predisposition to them but this does not mean they cannot be successfully managed. This genetic influence may include a general predisposition to anxiety or to the specific behaviour. For example, flank sucking (see below) is most commonly seen in Doberman Pinschers, spinning (see below) in Bull Terriers, and fly chasing in Miniature Schnauzers and King Charles Cavalier Spaniels. Other common behavioural fixations include:

  • Excessive mouthing behaviour, which may be either:
  • Self directed as occurs in paw licking, acral lick dermatitis and other forms of self-mutilation.
  • Externally directed, as occurs in stone chewing, and excessive mouthing of the owner or other objects.
  • Incessant or rhythmic barking.
  • Excessive drinking or binge feeding.
  • Tongue lolling or licking the air or lip smacking.
  • Repetitive movement such as incessant pacing, continuous and frequent circling and chasing unseen objects.
  • Freezing and staring at invisible objects (including “star gazing”).

dog licking its armWhat is acral lick dermatitis?

Acral lick dermatitis is the name given to a condition in which dogs repeatedly lick at specific sites on one or more of their limbs, often causing significant damage. Large breeds such as Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers and Irish Setters are most commonly affected. Underlying medical abnormalities (e.g. arthritis, chip fractures, skin disorders) may initiate or contribute to the behavioural problem. The psychological condition arises when the pet is repeatedly stressed or anxious, and this leads to excessive licking. The area becomes raw and itchy which further stimulates the dog to lick and chew.

Treatment for acral lick dermatitis must be directed at both the behavioural disorder and the skin trauma. Even with behaviour therapy, treatment of the skin condition is essential. Medical therapy might consist of treatment with long term antibiotics, anti-inflammatory agents, and preventing access to the area until the lesion heals. Behavioural management and drug therapy is much the same as for other compulsive disorders (see below). 

What is flank sucking? 

Flank sucking is the name given to a condition in which a dog takes a section of flank skin into its mouth and holds the position. If the sucking does not cause significant lesions and does not interfere with the apparent health or welfare of the dog, flank sucking may require no specific intervention. However, the behaviour can cause physical damage or become so compulsive that it gives rise to other problems (decreased eating or aggressiveness towards owners when approached during sucking) and in these cases treatment is obviously necessary. In some cases this behaviour is triggered by conflict, in which case behaviour management and drug therapy is the same as for compulsive disorders (see below). In other cases the behaviour is more spontaneous, and in these cases specialist assistance should be sought as the animal may have a form of partial epileptic seizure. 

Is tail chasing or spinning normal in dogs? 

Compulsive tail chasing is not the same as normal circling, which typically occurs when the animal is playing or about to lie down. Compulsive circling has many potential causes, including medical conditions, such as epilepsy and physical discomfort possibly due to a skin, tail or anal gland problem. Some cases such as those commonly seen in Bull Terriers and Staffordshire Bull Terriers may exhibit a more intense repetitive spinning or whirling behaviour, even to the point of exhaustion. Other concurrent behavioural problems such as aggression have been reported in “spinning” Bull Terriers. In some cases, the problem may have started as an incidental or play behaviour that was conditioned (rewarded) by the owner. Once underlying medical problems are treated and an epileptic disorder has been ruled out, treatment can begin as for other compulsive disorders (see below).

How can compulsive disorders be treated?

Since some of these problems can be reflections of, or initiated by underlying medical problems, a complete medical work-up and close monitoring of your dog by your vet is essential. Behaviours must be evaluated individually since not all require treatment. In fact, treatment may only be necessary if the behaviour poses health risks to the animal or seriously worries you for other reasons. Some people suggest that certain compulsive behaviours may be acceptable, non harmful, methods of reducing stress. For example, if flank sucking causes no physical harm, but occupies and calms the dog, then the compulsive behaviour may be preferable to the use of other interventions, but there still remains the question why is your dog stressed in the first place? The need for further intervention will therefore depend partly on what can be done about the stressors. Detailed below is some general advice, but specialist intervention may be necessary for specific cases and so you should not be afraid to ask for further assistance, especially if the approaches outlined below do not appear to be working.

  • Reducing stress or finding methods of decreasing the sources of arousal and conflict are the first aspects of treatment that should be explored. Inconsistent training, or inconsistent use of rewards or reprimands may lead to problems in your relationship with your dog. If necessary seek expert help to ensure that you (and all members of the family) are behaving consistently.
  • If you do not currently do much formal training with your dog, then you might want to consider this as it can help to give your dog clear rules and boundaries to its behaviour as well as acting a source of stimulation. However, inappropriate training methods which involve the use of punishment and rely on inducing a negative emotional could intensify the problem. Therefore, it is essential that you go about training in the right way and only use methods that are based on inducing a positive emotional state which favours appropriate learning. See our separate handout on this subject.
  • As already mentioned, it is important that your dog receives sufficient stimulation to encourage a full range of normal and suitable behaviours, particularly when you are absent or otherwise occupied. This should include sufficient physical and mental exercise through walks, play, and social attention, as well as appropriate toys.
  • Specific behavioural modification exercises are most appropriate if you can identify and predict those situations and times when compulsive behaviours are likely to arise. You can then initiate an alternative activity (before the compulsive behaviour is overt) that is incompatible with the problem behaviour, and can be actively rewarded, such as play, training, feeding, or chewing on a toy.
  • It is important to remove all attention or rewards for the compulsive behaviour. You may have been inadvertently rewarding the problem either by giving attention (including reprimands) when your dog does the behaviour or by attempting to calm your dog down by petting it or cuddling it in a reassuring manner. Either of these forms of interaction can unwittingly reinforce the behaviour and it is important to be as neutral as possible when the inappropriate behaviour begins. When the behaviour is exhibited in your presence, attention can be withdrawn passively by walking away. If you need to interrupt the behaviour in order to prevent your dog injuring itself you can use a houseline which enables you to gain physical contact with your dog without directly interacting with him. Once the behaviour is interrupted it is essential that your dog is immediately rewarded for an alternative and incompatible action. This may sound simple but it can be difficult to achieve and you may need expert assistance. Talk to your veterinary surgeon about arranging referral to a suitably qualified behaviourist.
  • Denying your dog access to the focus of its behaviour needs to be done with caution. For example, a bandage or an Elizabethan collar may allow the lesions of acral lick dermatitis to heal, but once the collar is removed, most cases relapse. In many cases, restricting access will worsen the problem by increasing frustration, anxiety or arousal. Long term resolution or control can only be achieved if the underlying cause can be identified and either removed or modified in significance through behavioural therapy.
  • Drug therapy may be useful for some dogs with these problems just as it is in humans with comparable obsessive-compulsive disorders. Drugs that help reduce impulsivity and improve mood may be effective and may be recommended by your vet. A short course of therapy may also be useful for dogs that have recovered from their original bout of compulsive behaviour and are then going to be exposed to a potentially stressful or anxiety producing situation at a later date (e.g. new home, dramatic change in schedule, new baby). Medication in this situation can help to reduce the risk of recurrence. 
  • Other substances which can be used as part of a behaviour therapy programme (with or without the use of drugs) include pheromone products. A synthetic version of a naturally occurring scent signal used by dogs is available in the form of diffuser device (Dog Appeasing Pheromone DAP) and can be applied to the environment as a means of providing reassurance and a sense of security. There is also a growing number of food additives (nutraceuticals) which claim to reduce anxiety, but it is important to look for sound scientific evidence of efficacy for any products that you are thinking of using. It is also important to remember that drugs, pheromones or nutraceuticals must be seen as adjuncts to the primary focus when dealing with these cases, which is to identify and address the primary cause of the problem.
  • If in doubt seek specialist help with this problem, after referral from your vet.

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