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The Doberman Pinscher Club of America

Canine Compulsive Disorder - by Elizabeth Barrett - Spencer, Massachusetts - May 2017
What is canine compulsive disorder? Who is affected by it? What causes canine compulsive disorder? These are all questions commonly heard in practice. So what is it? Canine compulsive disorder is repetitive ritualistic behaviors that are preformed in excess (1). These behaviors are originated from normal behaviors however due to many causes can become compulsive (7). Canine compulsive is similar to that of obsessive compulsive disorder in people (11). However, instead of using the word obsessive for dogs that would refer to thought that we have no data to support that they think or obsess the word compulsive was used to refer to the action of which the canine is exhibiting (11).

In the United States 90% of dogs exhibit behaviors that owners deem unacceptable (12). This results in these behaviors interfering with the human animal bond (13). Most of the behaviors that are seen in canine compulsive animals are more annoying to people than actually harmful for the animal (14). Animals that have these behaviors are likely to be referred to behaviorist and are the third reason beside aggression and anxiety for seeking out professional help (4). Without the ability to measure the cognitive component of this disorder these behaviors are thought of as abnormal and are exaggerated by the owners (10). Behaviors that are repetitive in nature are only considered compulsive if they are performed without a primary medical condition (9). As noted by Dr. Nicholas Dodman, “people are beginning to accept that a misbehaving dog is a troubled dog and a troubled dog needs care” (8). This being said we are able to now realize there is more to this disorder than the outside behavior that we see.

In the 1980’s, we first began treating animals for compulsive disorders. The first animals that where treated medically with success was horses; these animals were treated with opiod antagonist which blocked the endorphins that were believed to cause the compulsive disorders (4). These animals responded well to treatment however it was believed that these behaviors were because the animals were addicted to their own body chemistry that exhibited due to the result of the behavior (4). However, what makes compulsive disorders so interesting is that 8% of the canine population exhibit compulsive behaviors and 2.5-8% of the human population are affected from OCD (3). These animals also don’t tend to play by the rule book and need to be treated and evaluated on a case by case basis (11).

Animals that exhibit compulsive disorders tend to have it brought on by frustration, anxiety or an environmental conflict (17). Conflicts for these animals can be as small as a change in their routine or lack of attention (17). Locomotory compulsive behaviors tend to express during the animals development (10). In 2002 a study by Dr. Nicholas Dodman at Tufts in Grafton, MA that studied the age, triggers, onset, frequency, duration and the ability to interrupt animals with compulsive disorders (15). This was a major study that helped understand a lot about animals with these behaviors. Animals with a predisposition of environmental stressors were more likely to express compulsive behaviors at a younger age (11). Animals tended to have an onset of compulsive behaviors before sexual maturity (15). These behaviors tend to be ritualistic for these animals (13) and only worsen without treatment (14).

These animals tend to be unaware that their behavior is out of the ordinary and tend to exhibit anxiety, aggression and startle easily (14). Animals have a high chance of developing wounds, loss of hair and even a change in vocalization (14). This can be caused by a stressful or traumatic situation that can upset and trigger these compulsive episodes (5). This can result in neurologic issues, pain and even dermatologic problems (6). Decreased or no environmental stimulation can increase the frequency of these behaviors (9).As well as stress, which due to conflicts or frustration gastro intestinal issues can arise (16). A lot of these behaviors are conditioned behavior that the owner reinforces without being aware by attracting attention to the compulsive behavior that the animal is exhibiting (10).

In order to diagnosis a dog with canine compulsive disorder an adequate history of the behaviors are key. Being able to note clinical signs and possibly identify a source that may be triggering the behaviors is also recommended (17). Being able to video tape the episode to note the duration and provide any clues that could be diagnostic is also an important component (18). Blood work should also be performed to rule out any diabetes, seizure disorders, liver, eye or cardiac disease (12). A neurologic exam, chem. profile and urinalysis should also be preformed to be able to rule out any medical causes for the behavior (9). Animals that tend to have compulsive disorders related to anxiety will have clinical signs such as yawning, nose/lip licking, pacing, increase heart rate, increase respiratory rate and dilated pupils (17). However animals confined for long periods of time with little to no mental and physical stimulation can also become a factor for the cause of the compulsive behavior (14). Early maternal separation can also cause these animals to be higher risk for developing these behaviors (16).

In 2010, researchers began looking for possible genetic causes for CCD (15). Some CCD behavior we see that have a genetic component is flank sucking, accrual lick granuloma’s, and self mutilation (12). Schnauzers are notoriously known to have a genetic component for hind end checking, German Sheppard’s and Australian Cattle dogs for tail chasing, Bull Terriers for spinning and freezing and Dobermans for blanket and flank sucking (10). Animals with genetic predispositions to compulsive behaviors are not recommended to be used for breeding (14).

Out of all the breeds that are affected by CCD 30% of all Dobermans have CCD. The inherited genetic component is CDH2 on chromosome 7 (15). The Cadherin part of this gene is seen to affect people and is associated with the autism spectrum (15). The modifier genes on this location impact how severe the behavior is expressed (15). In 2013, a study showed that there were in fact chemical changes to the brain (15). During this time we were also able to compare a CCD dog MRI scan to that of an OCD human and many similarities were noted (11). These studies proved that there were in fact structural changes in the brain that could leave to the cause of CCD in these dogs (9). It was also noted that these images that were taking where extremely similar to that of people with hoarding disorders (15), providing an anatomical blue print for this disorder that prompted more research (15).

Some examples of CCD would be flank sucking in the Doberman. This behavior is when the animal takes a section of their flank in their mouth and hold or sucks on the area (6). Behavior such as flank and blanket sucking is thought to possibly be more prominent in animals that are weaned earlier (4). As in some of the other behaviors expressed by CCD this is genetically caused by the CDH2 gene (2). With the exception of the Doberman typically environmental causes outweigh that of genetic causes (3).

An example of a breed that is affected by both an environmental component and a genetic component of CCD would be Belgian Malinois. This breed tends to exhibit circling compulsive behaviors due to confined space of kennels (2). These animals that do not have CCD labeled as severe but as moderate are proven to be excellent performance animals and are bred for these specific qualities (2). Though the confined space is a typical cause for the CCD behavior Malinois are shown to have the CDH2 gene also influencing their behavior like the Dobermans (2).

Another behavior commonly seen is tail chasing. This behavior is not influenced by the CDH2 gene like the previously noted behaviors (16). However tail chasing affects the animal’s ability to sleep, play and even eat depending on the severity (5). Tail chasing is also commonly caused by animals with a high prey drive (4). Tail chasing is seen typically in the shyer animals that are less aggressive and are unsure what to do with themselves (16). There doesn’t seem to be any difference between how the males and the females are affected (16). Dogs that have the ability to live with many companions have been shown to spend less time tail chasing (16). However, tail chasing does affect the animals being aware of their surrounding (16).

A common breed that is affected by tail chasing CCD behavior is Bull Terriers (13). This breed typically triggers CCD behavior because of boredom and stress (16). Bull terriers have an increased chance of displaying hypo kinetic gate and compulsive pacing (9). Bull Terriers as well as German Shepards who are affected by CCD commonly also have noise phobias (16).

German Shepards another breed that is commonly affected by this disorder typically have sucking, plucking, spinning and self traumatizing compulsive behaviors (13). German Shepards are also exhibit more than one compulsive behavior (13). While Bull Terriers are triggered by boredom and stress Shepards are triggered by stress (16).

Another compulsive behavior that is typically seen in dogs with CCD is excessive licking. Before diagnosis of CCD diagnostic testing should be do to make sure that there are no underlying gastrointestinal concerns (1). Excessive licking can also be caused by nausea and discomfort and is paired with fly biting (1). However animals that do chronically lick due to CCD tend to develop acral lick dermatitis (6). Acral lick dermatitis is caused by repetitive licking they are “A heap of strawberry like granulation tissue pink and knobby” (4). This can lead to chronic infection and in extreme cases amputation (4). We typically see these behviors in breeds that are over 50 lbs example such as Labrador Retrievers and Great Danes (4). Many of these animals can be frustrating to treat as they do no exhibit this behavior when the owners are home making it difficult to correct (13). These animals also have been known to lick carets, walls, floors and even furniture to fulfill their need to lick (17).

As we began to notice more and more animals with these behaviors more interest was expressed in finding a way to treat these animals. An article called “The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing” this article was one of the first that had researchers thinking of how they could go about treating animals that had similar behaviors (4). At this point researchers began experimenting with what drugs to use to help treat these animals. Animals placed on medication typically have a goal of using behavior modification as well as reducing the dose and frequency of medication (9). However, most animals are keep on medication long term is not for life time (13).

As a result Prozac began being used for animals. Prozac was approved in 1987 to be used for depression in people (7). However, at this point veterinarians began using this off label for years to help treat animals (7). Prozac also known as Fluoxetine was used to treat aggression, CCD and generalized anxiety (12). In 2009, Mematine and Fluoxetine were expected to be used in animals (15). Fluoxetine is typically given at a dose of 1-2mg/kg given once a day (17). However, a concern is that Fluoxetine can alter blood glucose concentration (17). The most common for is given orally and typically the generic brand (7).Animals should be feeling the effects of this medication within 30min of the given dose (12).

Another common medication is Clomipramine which was first to be used in 1991 to treat OCD in humans (17).Clomipramine is typically given at a dose of 1-3 mg/kg twice a day (17). However, this medication tends to come with a few possible side effects such as a decrease in thyroid hormone and in rare cases sedation and anorexia (17). Clomipramine typically takes a few days to work however had been noted to take up to 12 weeks to reach full effects (13). However if no improvement is seen within 75 days medication needs to be reassessed (13).

Though medication can have a lot of success unless behavior modification is also being practiced medication will have no effect (7). Success for treatment for this disorder relies entirely on how committed the owner is to the treatment plan (14). Many of these dogs display these behaviors to cope with environmental stressors (5). Animals will become increasingly frustrated the more they are not allowed to perform the behavior and behaviors can intensify and get worse due to this (10). Examples would be using a cone to prevent licking which can cause anxiety to increase in the canine (8). In order for this treatment to work clients must understand that punishment will only make the behavior worse and animals should be rewarded when they are behaving and acting appropriate (15).

Different ways to help modify the behavior would include increasing exercise, reducing stress, rewarding wanted behavior and ignoring unwanted behavior (11). Keeping to a routine or schedule can help regulate the stress in the animas life reducing the need to express the compulsive behavior (15). As noted by Dr. Nicholas Dodman “try to give a dog more fulfilling, entertaining and interesting life” (4). Enriching the pet’s environment can also decrease compulsive behaviors (15). Enrichment can be as simple as rotating toys or as complex as adding exercise, sports and obedience (9). Counter conditioning can also be very useful for these animals introducing a new behavior that is not compatible to the compulsive behavior can be used to help reduce frequency any or stop the compulsive behavior all together (18). Reward based training with a reward that the animal has chosen can also be a good technique to use (6). Removing underlying causing and or stressors that trigger the behavior can reduce and modify current compulsive act (14).

Reducing stress can significantly improve negative behaviors (14) such as fence running, staring, scratching, doffing, blanket sucking and tail chasing (3). Decreasing the stress can help increase serotonin and reduce anxiety (12). Other ways to approach modifying the behavior would be interrupting the behavior and redirecting to a positive behavior (1). Other examples would be message therapy, relaxation, and acupuncture (13). As a last resort desensitization can also be used (18).

Many species are affected by compulsive disorders humans included. However, treatment and behavior modifications are available. Though many of these behaviors have adverse affects to quality of life (1) many of these animals are unaware their behavior is abnormal. Dogs are most commonly affected due to environmental stressors as well as genetic predispositions. Animals that are genetically affected by genes that cause CCD should not be used for breeding as modifiers on the gene can intensify the behaviors. Medical treatments for these animals are accepted however without use of behavioral modification this would not be achievable. As a result there is still a lot of room for new research involving their behaviors and how to successfully treat them. 


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  2. Cao, X., Irwin, D. M., Liu, Y., Cheng, L., Wang, L., Wang, G., & Zhang, Y. (2014). Balancing selection on CDH2 may be related to the behavioral features of the belgian malinois.PLoS One, 9(10), e110075. doi:http://dx.doi.org.becker.idm.oclc.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0110075
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  4. Dogs Get Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Too - Tufts Your Dog Article. (2013, August). Retrieved April 24, 2017, from http://www.tuftsyourdog.com/issues/19_8/features/Dogs-Get-Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder-Too-225-1.html
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  9. Lowrie, M., Smith, P. M., De Keuster, T., & Garosi, L. (2015). Trance-like syndrome in bull terriers.The Veterinary Record, 177(9), 223. doi:http://dx.doi.org.becker.idm.oclc.org/10.1136/vr.103239
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  13. Overall, K. L. (2002). Dealing with tail-chasing behavior in a 3-year-old german shepherd.Veterinary Medicine, 97(3), 185-188. Retrieved from http://becker.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.becker.idm.oclc.org/docview/195473729?accountid=35619
  14. P. (2015, July 16). OCD in Dogs | Causes and Prevention. Retrieved April 24, 2017, from http://www.petwave.com/Dogs/Health/Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder/Causes.aspx
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  17. Tynes, V. V. (2008). Help! my dog licks everything.Veterinary Medicine, 103(4), 198-211. Retrieved from http://becker.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.becker.idm.oclc.org/docview/195465846?accountid=35619
  18. Virga, V. (2004). Behavioral dermatology.Clinical Techniques in Small Animal Practice, 19(4), 240. doi:http://dx.doi.org.becker.idm.oclc.org/10.1053/j.ctsap.2004.10.006