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Stereotypy (OCD): Repetitive Behaviors in Dogs

OCD causes recurring repetitive behaviors in dogs.

A stereotypy is a repetitive behavior sequence that doesn't have a distinct purpose. It's also called OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and most of what we know about it is derived from its study in humans.

What Causes Stereotypies in Dogs?

In humans, repetitive behaviors are characterized by thoughts or actions that don't have anything to do with what's currently happening. The person feels compelled to perform rituals, either in thought or physical action, intermittently.

This seems to be the case in dogs, as well. The behaviors seen interfere with normal function.

Researchers don't know what causes stereotypy in dogs, but it appears to have something to do with improper functioning of neurotransmitters (chemicals that direct brain function) such as dopamine or serotonin.

Signs of OCD in Dogs

Dogs with OCD behaviors tend to engage in one or more of the following:

  • Spinning in circles
  • Tail-chasing
  • Fly biting behavior (possibly hallucinations)
  • Fence running
  • Pica (eating non-food items compulsively)
  • Self-mutilating, mainly in the form of chewing on or obsessively licking a particular body part
  • Pacing
  • Staring at nothing and whining, crying, or barking
  • Aggression

Physical signs may include:

  • Skin lesions secondary to self-mutilation
  • Lick granulomas secondary to self-mutilation
  • Increased heart rate
  • Weight loss
  • Trembling
  • Increased respiratory rate

Diagnosis of OCD in Dogs

Diagnosis of this condition is made through extensive examination of the dog's history. If the owner reports the behavior as increasing in frequency, and the owner is unable to interfere and get the dog to stop the behavior, OCD should be on the list.

Sometimes, the behavior had a clear beginning trigger. For example, a dog may have started chasing his tail as part of normal play behavior, but it became more serious and structured and less playful over time.

Things that increase stress and anxiety, such as pain, car rides, grooming or veterinary appointments, etc., often also increase the OCD behaviors.

The veterinarian may run tests to rule out other causes of the signs, such as skin testing.

Treatment of OCD in Dogs

Behavior modification geared toward decreasing a dog's overall stress and anxiety level and substituting some other behavior for the repetitive one is the primary treatment for OCD in dogs.

The dog should not be punished for the OCD behaviors.

Medications may be necessary to help control the behaviors while behavior modification is begun. Serotonin reuptake inhibitors are the most commonly used. Their use must be prescribed and monitored closely by a veterinarian familiar with their use and potential side effects in dogs.

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