Researchers say the canine version of OCD is close to the human ailment. Here’s how dogs react and what pet owners can do to help them.

It’s been said that over time people and their dogs begin to resemble each other.

Something similar may be happening to their mental health.

Canine compulsive disorder is not the doggie equivalent of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in people. But it’s close.

According to Elaine Ostrander, PhD, chief of the Cancer Genetics and Comparative Genomics Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute, who has been working in dog genetics for 25 years, “it’s a very complex mosaic.”

In remarks reported earlier this month in The Science of Us, Ostrander explained.

“If you want to understand the genetic underpinning of a complex disease, we know there’s lots of genes involved,” she said. “In human populations, there are dozens of genes that contribute. Every family is a little bit different. Some genes seem hereditary; some seem not to be. In dogs, you simplify that mosaic.”

In the search for genes that could be important for animal behavior, or perhaps translate to humans, Ostrander’s lab has investigated everything from infectious disease to cancer, along with conditions like diabetes, kidney failure, retinitis pigmentosa, and gout.

Veterinarian Meghan Herron, DVM, DACVB, is on the front lines.

As an associate professor of veterinary medicine at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, she sees pets in all kinds of distress.

“Canine compulsive disorder is not extremely common, but we do see it. It’s more recognized now,” she told Healthline.

She explained that better diagnostic tools may account for any rise in the number of cases.

“Owners come in because they want a change [in the dog’s behavior]. It may interfere with their quality of life. It becomes a nuisance and disruptive,” she said.

Certainly a dog that spins in circles for hours, chews on its feet until the skin is raw, or chases invisible prey could be difficult to deal with.

Herron is quick to distinguish between CCD and its possible human counterpart, OCD.

“People with OCD can tell you about their behavior and what their rituals are,” she said. “With dogs we don’t know if they obsess. So we call it compulsive behavior in dogs.”

Particular breeds exhibit particular behaviors.

Some dogs do endless hind end checking, Herron said, noting that schnauzers seem prone to that behavior.

Bull terriers spin, Dobermans lick their limbs and suck their flanks, Labradors hold objects or chew rocks, and King Charles spaniels snap at imaginary flies.

Herron said much of this behavior starts as a coping mechanism, a way to reduce stress, and may continue until the dog is exhausted. The dog may also get an endorphin release.

“It helps to figure out what the trigger is,” Herron said.

That makes it easier to devise an individualized treatment plan.

It doesn’t necessarily start in puppyhood, Herron explained.

“The shelter is stressful. And sometimes there’s an underlying medical issue that has to be ruled out,” she said. “But if it’s triggered by something identifiable, it’s probably compulsive.”

Treatment involves hard work, Herron said.

“It’s a challenge and may require psychotropic medications as well as reduction of triggering events,” she said.

Depending on the situation, owners may be taught to allow their dogs more physical exercise, provide an alternative coping mechanism, or minimize bright, shiny objects.

“The most severe cases are where we don’t know the trigger,” but medication shows some benefits.

Pat Miller, CPDT, training editor at Whole Dog Journal, said there are five techniques in helping a dog reduce compulsive behavior.

  • Increase exercise. This helps wear the dog out and leaves less energy for compulsive behavior. This includes mental exercise as well as physical.
  • Reduce stress. Miller advises making a list of all the stressors you can identify that affect your dog, not just the those that appear to trigger the obsessive behavior.
  • Remove reinforcement. All too often, owners mistakenly think obsessive behaviors are cute or funny. “They reinforce the behavior with laughter and attention, and may even trigger the behavior deliberately, unaware of the harm they’re doing,” Miller said. When the behavior becomes so persistent that it’s annoying, the owner may reinforce “negative attention” when the they yell at the pet to stop.
  • Reinforce an incompatible behavior. This is an effective part of a behavior modification program. For example, when a puppy wasn’t chasing its tail, its owners could use a high rate of reinforcement for calm behavior, especially for lying quietly on its bed. Other calm behaviors can be reinforced during potentially stimulating moments, such as sitting quietly at the door waiting for its leash rather than leaping about in excitement over the pending walk.
  • Explore behavior modification drugs if/when appropriate.

Miller’s advice: Referral to a qualified veterinary behaviorist for consideration of pharmaceutical intervention is nearly always imperative. The selection, prescription, and monitoring of the strong, potentially harmful psychotropic drugs requires the education and skill of a licensed veterinary professional.