Compulsive Disorders in Dogs

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

What are common compulsive behaviors in dogs?

In dogs, compulsive behaviors include acral lick dermatitis, flank sucking, pacing, circling, incessant or rhythmic barking, fly snapping or chasing unseen objects, light or shadow chasing, freezing and staring, polydipsia (excessive drinking), sucking, licking surfaces, chewing on objects (or owners), tonguing or licking the air, and other forms of self mutilation.

There may be a genetic predisposition to perform compulsive behaviors. For example, flank sucking is most commonly seen in Doberman pinschers, spinning in bull terriers, fly chasing in miniature schnauzers, and acral lick dermatitis in many medium to large breed dogs.

The first step to confirming the diagnosis is to check for and treat underlying medical causes. Painful conditions, neurologic diseases, and dermatologic disorders can cause the same signs as those seen with compulsive disorders. To rule out underlying medical causes, an extensive diagnostic workup may be needed, and in some cases, a medication trial.

For example, trying a pet on seizure control medication or medication to control pain or itchiness may be part of the diagnostic process. If the problem is diagnosed as a compulsive disorder, drugs that inhibit the reuptake of serotonin may be effective at reducing or controlling some of the behavior. Medical conditions arising as a result of the behavior will need to be treated as well. A dog that has injured himself through licking may have a painful infection that needs treatment.

In most situations, behavioral and environmental modification will also be part of the comprehensive treatment program. Common treatments include:

  • providing a predictable daily routine
  • using a reward-based training approach to improve communication and allow the dog to focus on successfully following trained cues
  • scheduling regular social interaction sessions, including social play, exercise, and training
  • environmental enrichment, such as favored toys the dog will use independently
  • establishing a settle-down area for rest and relaxation

What is canine acral lick dermatitis?

Acral lick dermatitis, also known as a lick granuloma, is a term used to describe the skin lesion that develops when a dog repeatedly licks a specific site on its limb. Lesions can be significant and may affect the underlying surface of the bone. Large breeds such as Doberman pinschers, Great Danes, German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and Irish setters are most affected.

Acral lick dermatitis may be caused by a medical condition, a behavioral illness, or both. Underlying medical abnormalities (e.g., arthritis, previous fracture, skin disorders) may initially trigger a dog to start licking. Once an area becomes inflamed, even though the irritation is due to the licking, dogs nevertheless lick even more.

Potential behavioral causes of this condition include chronic stress and recurrent emotional conflict. The behavior may start as a displacement behavior and progress until it is difficult for the dog to stop. At that point, the diagnosis of a compulsive disorder will be applied. See the handout “Behavior Counseling - Compulsive, Stereotypic and Displacement Disorders” for more information about displacement behavior.

It has also been suggested that this self-injurious behavior may arise when physical, cognitive, and/or social enrichment are inadequate. Providing a daily routine that includes sessions of social play, exercise, and training, as well as a variety of stimulating forms of object play, may help to prevent the disorder and will be included as part of your dog’s treatment plan.

Treatment of acral lick dermatitis must be directed at both the behavior disorder and the skin trauma. The underlying medical conditions that have caused or contributed to the development of skin lesions need to be treated. Your veterinarian may test for food sensitivities and/or check for any deep infections. These conditions have been identified as potential causes or complicating factors.

Even when the initiating cause of the dermatitis is behavioral, dogs typically develop secondary infections that cause pain and/or itchiness (pruritus) that must also be controlled. Medical therapy might consist of treatment with long-term antibiotics, analgesics, and anti-inflammatory agents. Bandages or Elizabethan collars may be needed to prevent the dog from accessing the wound. It is important to balance the need to protect the wound with the possibility that the products themselves may cause distress to some dogs.

What is canine flank sucking?

Flank sucking is a behavior in which the dog takes a section of flank skin into its mouth and holds the position. A genetic component for this behavior has been identified in Doberman pinschers. If the sucking does not cause lesions and does not interfere with the health or welfare of the pet, flank sucking may be considered a displacement behavior. If the behavior begins to interfere with the dog’s ability to function, causes lesions, or is difficult to interrupt, the dog is diagnosed with a compulsive disorder.

Regardless of the intensity of flank sucking, it is important to screen for underlying anxiety or emotional conflict. Be sure to provide adequate enrichment. Underlying behavioral illnesses, such as anxiety, should be identified and treated. The behavior management techniques and drug treatments used for other compulsive disorders can be applied when treating flank sucking.

What is tail chasing or spinning in dogs?

Tail chasing or spinning is a behavior in which dogs circle rapidly, as though they are attempting to catch their own tail. Sometimes, they actually grab their tail and can injure themselves. When the behavior occurs only occasionally and/or in very specific situations, it is usually considered a displacement behavior (see the handout “Behavior Counseling - Compulsive, Stereotypic and Displacement Disorders” for more information).

If the behavior causes injury, occurs with minimal or no triggers, and/or begins to interfere with the dog’s ability to engage in normal behaviors, it is considered to be a compulsive disorder.

Underlying medical problems must be ruled out before a compulsive disorder is diagnosed. Potential causes for tail chasing behavior include pain, neurologic disease (seizure disorder), or genetic predisposition. Bull terriers often exhibit intense, rapid spinning behavior. Concurrent behavior problems such as aggression have been reported in “spinning” bull terriers.

"Underlying medical problems must be ruled out before a compulsive disorder is diagnosed."

Tail chasing may be seen in active herding breeds of dogs, particularly when they become frustrated. This can occur when they lack appropriate outlets for exercise and activity. In some cases, the behavior may begin during play, then recur. When the spinning is mild, it is often praised as it can be entertaining to watch. Do not encourage or reward this behavior; there is a risk it will progress and become compulsive.

Once underlying medical problems are treated or ruled out, behavior and drug therapy is much the same as for other compulsive disorders. Head halters may be used to gently interrupt the spin and redirect your dog to a more appropriate response (lie down or toy hold). Reward-based training, exercise, and cognitive enrichment should be provided.

Can my dog be cured?

In some cases, if the initial factors that led to the abnormal behaviour can be resolved, some dogs may not repeat these behaviours. Some components of the behavioral plan, such as providing enrichment and predictability, should continue for the life of the dog. In addition, many dogs diagnosed with a compulsive disorder benefit from the long-term use of psychotropic drugs.

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