Compulsive behavior is an abnormal response to normal stimulation. It is characterized by behaviors that are repetitive, consistent, and which serve no purpose. These behaviors last for minutes or more, occur multiple times a day, and appear to be uncontrollable. They often lead to self-mutilation or interfere with the daily activities (like sleeping and eating) of the affected dog.
Compulsive behavior often starts as a displacement activity. For instance, if a dog is overly excited and has an urge to bite, but knows that biting is wrong, he may turn to a different, neutral activity (such as licking his foot) as way to counteract his strongly conflicted feelings. If this happens often enough, a pattern of behavior, or habit, is formed.
Compulsive behavior can take many forms:
- Chasing lights or shadows. This behavior is likely related to displaced predatory drives or may start out as laser pointer tag gone awry. Affected dogs chase and/or bite at lights or shadows compulsively.
- Tail chasing. Again, this may be linked to predatory drive. German Shepherds are over-represented, and affected dogs often cause significant damage to their tails such that amputation is necessary.
- Licking fur/skin, flank sucking, chewing on toe nails. These kinds of behaviors often lead to self-mutilation; dogs will chew or lick themselves down to the bone. Acral lick dermatitis is a good example of this. Flank sucking occurs more often in Doberman Pinschers.
- Fly biting. Snapping at imaginary flies is sometimes considered a compulsive behavior, but often it is neurologic in origin. Complex motor seizures can be to blame.
Any behavior that is repetitive and seems to serve no purpose can be considered compulsive. A particularly memorable case stands out in my mind from my days in vet school as being both peculiar and quite sad. The case involved a Border Collie who would find a particular ball, place a leaf on top of the ball, and then sit and stare at it. If the leaf blew off of the ball, he would place it back atop the ball and sit there. For hours upon hours. This dog would not eat or sleep – he would only stare at the leaf on the ball.
While some compulsive behaviors may just seem quirky, others are downright dangerous to our pets. All compulsive behaviors are apt to escalate, so addressing them sooner rather than later is key (and luckily, pet insurance covers behavioral problems like this). If you see strange behaviors arising, try to ignore them (as long as your pet is not in imminent danger while doing them) and talk to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Any attention that we give our pets, be it positive or negative, might make them actually continue the behavior just to get that attention, so it’s best to withhold unless otherwise directed by your veterinarian. In the meantime, be sure to give plenty of good attention when your pet is not engaged in the compulsive behavior.
Compulsive behaviors can be difficult to curb. Your veterinarian will first start out by taking a thorough history and may ask you to video tape the behavior so she can see the behavior first hand. A physical exam will be performed, and blood work will likely be done to rule out underlying metabolic reasons for the behaviors.
Many compulsive behaviors are considered both neurologic in origin and behavioral. Treatment will vary depending on the type of compulsive behavior, as well as response to treatment. Sometimes anti-seizure medications will be needed, and sometimes anti-depressants will be needed, but behavior modification should always be instituted.
Safely and consistently interrupting the behavior and providing physical barriers, such as e-collars for lickers and flank suckers, can both go a long way in helping curb undesired behaviors. Structuring each day rigidly so that your dog knows what to expect from a day can help, too. Provide plenty of opportunities for your dog to exercise both body and mind, and give him plenty of attention when his is engaged in appropriate behaviors.
Sometimes compulsive disorders are just too complex for your regular veterinarian to adequately address, and in these cases, you’ll likely be referred to an animal behavior specialist. The specialist will work closely with you and your veterinarian to help your dog lead a healthier, happier life.