Anxiety and Compulsive Disorders in Dogs

By PetMD Editorial on Mar. 20, 2009
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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in Dogs

Compulsive disorder is characterized by a repetitious, relatively unchanging sequence of activities or movements that has no obvious purpose or function. Although the behavior is usually derived from normal maintenance behaviors (such as grooming, eating, and walking), the repetitive behavior interferes with normal behavioral functioning. It is referred to as “OCD” or “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”

The most commonly observed obsessive-compulsive behaviors are spinning, tail chasing, self-mutilation, hallucinating (fly biting), circling, fence running, hair/air biting, pica (appetite for non-food substances such as dirt, rocks or feces), pacing, staring, and vocalizing. Some dogs also show the potential for aggression.

No breed, gender or age of dog is more likely to have obsessive-compulsive disorders, although the specific type of OCD displayed may be affected by breed, such as spinning as opposed to self-mutilation. As with other anxiety disorders, onset of OCD begins early, around 12 to 24 months of age, as the dog developmentally matures (generally defined as occurring at 12 to 36 months of age in dogs). If you are observing early signs of obsessive behavior in your dog, and it is descended from a line where other dogs are affected, early intervention is critical.

Symptoms and Types

  • Signs of self mutilation – missing hair, raw skin, focus is commonly on the tail, forelimbs, and distal extremities
  • The dog’s behavior intensifies over time and cannot be interrupted even with physical restraint, increases in frequency or duration, and interferes with normal functioning
  • Frequent tail chasing, especially if the tail tip is missing (however, not all dogs that tail chase will mutilate their tails)
  • May be seen in young dogs, but onset is more common during social maturity; playfulness decreases with age, OCD increases
  • A solitary focus may have seemed to spur the behavior (for example, chasing a mouse that the patient could not catch) - but usually no direct cause is evident
  • May see self-induced injuries and lack of condition that may be associated with increased motor activity and repetitive behaviors
  • Behavior worsens with time


  • Illness or painful physical condition may increase a dog's anxieties and contribute to these problems
  • Kenneling and confinement may be associated with spinning
  • Degenerative (for example, aging and related nervous-system changes), anatomic, infectious (primarily central nervous system [CNS] viral conditions), and toxic (for example, lead poisoning) causes may lead to signs, but abnormal behavior likely is rooted in primary or secondary abnormal nervous system chemical activity


Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical exam on your dog. You will need to give a thorough history of your dog's health, including a background history of symptoms, any information you have about your dog's familial line, and possible incidents that might have precipitated the behavior. Your veterinarian will order a blood chemical profile, a complete blood count, an electrolyte panel and a urinalysis in order to rule out underlying physical causes or disease.



If all of the physical tests fail to confirm a cause for the behavior, a veterinary behaviorist may be consulted. Treatment is usually conducted on an outpatient basis, however, if your dog is showing severe self-mutilation and self-induced injury, it may need to be hospitalized. Your dog will need to be protected from the environment until the anti-anxiety medications reach effective levels, which may require days or weeks of therapy, constant monitoring, stimulation, and care. Sedation may be necessary in severe cases.

Your veterinarian will prescribe anti-anxiety medication along with a behavior modification program. If possible, videotape your dog as soon as the behavior begins. A pattern may become clear. Any itchy skin diseases should be diagnosed by your veterinarian, since itchiness and pain/discomfort are related to anxiety.

Behavior modification will be geared toward teaching the dog to relax in a variety of environmental settings, and to substitute a calm, competitive, or desired behavior for the obsessive-compulsive one. Desensitization and counter conditioning are most effective when instituted early, so it is essential to begin these techniques as soon as you become aware of compulsive behaviorisms in your dog. The training may be coupled with a verbal cue that signals the dog to execute a behavior that is competitive with the abnormal one (for example, instead of circling, the patient is taught to relax and lie down with its head and neck stretched prone on the floor when it is told, “head down”).

Punishment should be avoided, as it can lead to greater anxiety and may make the behavior worse, or lead to the dog’s being more secretive. Confinement or excessive physical restraint should also not be used to the anxiety that is provoked. Avoid bandages, collars, braces, and crates; all serve to focus the dog more on the center of its distress and will make it feel worse. If these are needed to ensure healing, they should be used for a minimal amount of time or as your veterinarian recommends.

Living and Management

Monitor behaviors via weekly videotaping and/or written logs, with times, dates, and the behavior leading up to the obsessive behavior tracked. This will provide unbiased assessments of change and help with alterations in treatment plans. Your veterinarian will schedule biannual visits with you and your dog to obtain complete blood counts, biochemistry profile and urinalysis, to be sure that the body is healthy and not contributing to your dog's anxiety or distress. Observe for vomiting, gastrointestinal distress, and rapid breathing. If these symptoms are identified, contact your veterinarian.

Medications may take several weeks to show an effect on the target behavior - the first sign of efficacy may be changes in the duration or frequency of bouts rather than total cessation of the undesired behaviors. Setting realistic expectations for change will help you manage the outcome of behavioral and medical intervention. Relapses are common and to be expected during stressful or new situations.

Don’t try to reassure your pet that it does not have to spin, chew, or perform other repetitive behaviors; this inadvertently rewards the repetitive behavior. Reward the dog only when it is not engaged in behavior and is relaxed. However, the behavior should not be entirely ignored. If left untreated, these conditions almost always progress to more serious levels.

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