What ‘Bad Dogs’ Can Teach Humans About Compulsive Behavior

Casey was diagnosed with canine compulsive disorder. He’s now on Prozac. (Courtesy)

Casey was diagnosed with canine compulsive disorder. He’s now on Prozac. (Courtesy)

When Casey, a 6-year-old German Shepherd, gets anxious, she chases her tail.

But it’s not the kind of endearing, once-around-and-it’s-done kind of tail-chasing we’ve all seen. Left unchecked, Casey circles around and around, pursuing her tail until she can bite it. Then, even when the blood starts flowing, the dog is driven to continue the chase.

“It’s upsetting,” says Paula Bagge, a Hopkinton, Mass. business owner who has been living with Casey since puppyhood. “And it’s damaging. She hurls herself around the house, and it’s like a big bloody paintbrush spraying the walls.” Once, Bagge tied the dog’s leash to a coffee table in an attempt to control the chasing. But Casey, who weighs about 85 pounds, just started dragging the coffee table around with her. Now, she’s on Prozac.

Dogs, it turns out, can have obsessive-compulsive disorder, just like people. And in a new study, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor of clinical sciences at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, found that structural brain abnormalities in dogs, in this case Doberman pinschers, with canine compulsive disorder (CCD) are similar to those of humans with OCD.

In an earlier study, Dodman, a leading researcher on repetitive behavior in animals, found a specific gene associated with canine OCD.

Studying anxiety disorders in dogs, Dodman says, may ultimately help scientists come up with better therapies and medications to treat OCD and related conditions in people. Current drugs for OCD, such as SSRI’s (or for dogs, a beef-flavored form of Prozac) are notoriously ineffective for many sufferers. Indeed, Dodman says, only around 43 to 60 percent of people suffering from OCD show a postive response from an SSRI; the average reduction of symptoms in people taking these drugs is only about 23 to 43 percent. “Certainly not a panacea,” he says.

So, to further this research, Dodman spends time thinking about bears who pace obsessively, for instance, or parrots unable to stop preening and picking their feathers and beagles who overeat to the point of exploding,

Dodman calls the latest dog-brain imaging study, conducted in collaboration with researchers at McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Mass., “another piece of the puzzle, another brick in the wall.”

He says while more research must be done, it’s becoming increasingly evident that dogs with OCD are a great model for exploring human psychopathology: they show similar behaviors, respond to drugs in comparable ways and now, at least in this small study, seem to have the same brain abnormalities as people with the condition. “When you know what your dealing with it’s much easier to create targeted approaches,” to treatment, Dodman says. “If you don’t know what you’re dealing with it’s just kind of like going with your sense of smell.”

OCD afflicts about 2 percent of the population and often goes untreated or undiagnosed. People suffering from the disorder, marked by intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors such as hand washing, locking and unlocking doors, counting, or repeating the same steps, feel these impulses as uncontrollable. And the compulsive rituals, often triggered by stress or trauma, can be incredibly time-consuming, interfering with daily life.

Famously, Lena Dunham, the star and creator of the HBO series “Girls” came out with her own OCD on air, with repetitive tics, obsessive counting and painfully compulsive use of Q-tips. Her disorder began at a relatively young age, according to a recent Rolling Stone interview:

Dunham was soon diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which revved up around the age of nine. She went through a hypochondriacal phase: “AIDS, jaundice, you name it, I had it.” Then she started counting. “I was obsessed with the number eight,” she says. “I’d count eight times…. . . . I’d look on both sides of me eight times, I’d make sure nobody was following me down the street, I touched different parts of my bed before I went to sleep, I’d imagine a murder, and I’d imagine that same murder eight times.”

Dogs with canine OCD also engage in repetitious and self-destructive behavior, notably, the tail-chasing and chewing, and in a sort of dog-version of obsessive hand-washing, non-stop licking of their paws, as well as flank sucking.

In fact, says Dodman, any behavior that is hard-wired for survivial — hunting, gathering, feeding, grooming — can become distorted in the extreme and expressed as a compulsive disorder: pacing, hoarding, overeating, hair-pulling. It’s believed that a genetic predisposition coupled with an environmental trigger like stress, trauma or abuse can drive the pathology.

Consider these examples, offered by Dodman:

– A parrot in a cage can’t fly around and socialize; he’s stuck all alone and becomes anxious. So he expresses this anxiety through overgrooming, a compulsion comparable to the human hair-pulling disorder, Trichotillomania. People with the condition will look for a certain hair with their fingers, pluck it out, inspect the bulb, then maybe chew, swallow or discard it. Parrots show similar behavior.

– Beagles are known to have eating compulsions; some will eat until they explode, Dodman says.

– A seal in an aquarium used to dive down to the botton and, in lieu of eating fish at the bottom of the sea, Dodman said, this seal would eat the pennies that tourists had tossed into the tank. The compulsive eating of inedible objects was not healthy, of course: every six months, Dodman said, caretakers would have to slit the seal’s belly open and remove the pennies.

– Tail-chasing can be an expression of predatory behavior, but instead of chasing a true predator, certain breeds chase themselves. “It’s not cute,” Dodman say.

– Dobermans engage in flank and blanket sucking that can lead to bucked teeth and intestinal disturbances, for instance. It’s an action derived from suckling, Dodman says, an appetitive behavior. “These disorders are not trivial,” he says. “It’s not good for human, animal companion bond.”

Rob Petit’s dog Lief, a 96-pound German Shepherd adopted from a shelter, chased leaves incessantly and never bonded or otherwise engaged with the people around him.

“He wouldn’t interact, wouldn’t make eye contact,” says Petit, a software engineer in Attleboro, Mass. “He was in his own little world. You’d see him staring at a spot on the wall for noticeable amounts of time — 5-10 minutes — or he’d start chasing his tail. Dogs do that — it can be a cute, playful thing, but this was different. You could physically stop him, but then he’d go right back to it. This was a driven behavior.”

Lief was diagnosed with canine OCD and, after an initial medication failed, he began taking Phenobarbitol, a powerful barbiturate, which completely transformed his behavior.

After Lief died of liver disease and a neurological condition, Petit got another German Shepherd who is also psychologically challenged. Chase, the dog, was recently diagnosed with extreme separation anxiety. How did Petit discover the condition? When he left the house, Chase chewed and clawed his way through a wooden door; he’d tear up the furniture and pee in the house. Now Chase takes Zoloft daily and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, when needed. “It takes the edge off,” Petit says.

It’s becoming increasingly evident that when it comes to health and health care, animals  are very much like people. Hedgehogs are undergoing pricey cancer surgeries, horses get acupuncture for pain relief and cats and dogs are facing an obesity epidemic.

Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a professor and cardiologist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA wrote a best-selling book called “Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human And Animal Health,” which examines the importance of investigating animal health, including mental health, to better understand and treat human illnesses and conditions.

In a chapter called, “Grooming Gone Wild” about obsessive, cleaning-related behaviors, she writes:

Many of the compulsive behaviors seen in horses, reptiles, birds, dogs, and humans share core clinical features, including the potential to cause suffering and profoundly disrupt a patient’s life.

Natterson-Horowitz, who is also a trained psychiatrist, wasn’t involved in Dodman’s research studies. But she says his work is profoundly important, in a field that’s been “overlooked.”

“There has been so much reluctance to allow ourselves to consider that animals have mental illness,” she said. “Now we are beginning to acknowledge the overlap in compulsive and anxiety disorders — this whole field is emerging.”

She says there’s something truly clarifying about “understanding the suffering associated with human psychopathology through animals.”

To that end, she says, she shows her medical students video of a dog with OCD chasing his tail. “You see this poor dog, chasing, chasing,” she says. “In the beginning, the students are laughing, and I just let the video run.  As it continues, the laughing subsides and it gets very quiet because the students realize this ‘patient’ — animal — can’t do anything but this unattainable task of running and running trying to catch his tail. Watching that dog suffering is so intense, it’s really helpful for students and gives them a better understanding of how humans suffer from this.”

Natterson-Horowitz also says that Dodman’s work on the genetics of OCD will ultimately go a long way toward de-stigmatizing mental illness. “As we recognize that, just as diabetes, there’s a genetic substrait that underlies this, and that mental illness has a biologic and genetic infrastructure, that will help the stigma to fall apart,” she says.

As for Casey, the tail-chasing dog, her owner, Paula Bagge, is simply resigned to dealing with her unique behavior. “The doctor said to me, ‘You just have to face it, you have a special needs dog,” Bagge said. “We wouldn’t give her away, who would take care of her? You wouldn’t get rid of your own kid.”

For more background, here’s extra detail on Dodman’s study, which was published online in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, from the Tufts news release:

The Tufts/McLean research team, led by Niwako Ogata, BVSc, Ph.D., who was a behavior researcher at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is now an assistant professor of animal behavior at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, examined a sample of 16 Dobermans. Comparing MRI brain images of eight Dobermans with CCD to the control group, Ogata found that the CCD group had higher total brain and gray matter volumes, lower gray matter densities in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and right anterior insula, and higher fractional anisotropy in the splenium of the corpus callosum (the degree of which correlated with the severity of the behavioral traits). These findings are consistent with those reported in humans with OCD.

“It has been very gratifying to me to use our imaging techniques developed to diagnose human brain disorders to better understand the biological basis for anxiety/compulsive disorders in dogs, which may lead to better treatments for dogs and humans with these disorders,” said Marc J. Kaufman, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the McLean Hospital Translational Imaging Laboratory.

“Canines that misbehave are often labeled as ‘bad dogs’ but it is important to detect and show the biological basis for certain behaviors,” said Ogata. “Evidence-based science is a much better approach to understanding a dog’s behavior.”

The study builds on existing research to better understand the etiology of compulsive disorders in animals such as CCD, which affects Doberman pinschers and other canine breeds. In 2010, researchers from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Broad Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified a genetic locus on canine chromosome 7 that coincides with an increased risk of OCD.

Readers, please share the mental health sagas of your beloved animals here.

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  • Doc C

    As a holistic veterinarian, I have found that most OCD behaviors are easily treatable with homeopathy, Reiki, Flower essences, TCVM (traditional chinese veterinary medicine), chiropractic, HTA, TTouch and many other modalities. Drugs, with their damaging side effects, are rarely needed.

  • julia

    i can’t believe (unfortunately i can) that people think giving their dogs medications is the answer. let’s medicate everyone! the vast majority of owners do not know how to take care of their dogs or know the extent of care the dog needs.. they lack adequate exercise and boundaries. do you let your kids walk all over you? probably.. but exercise, training and boundaries (not necessarily physical ones) are needed for him to be healthy and happy. I walk dogs.. every single owner i walk for has no idea their dog is better behaved with me.. and their excuses.. “oh, he just likes to pull.” a 90lb lab yanking me down the street, that was stopped pretty quickly.
    how about learning the word No? then teaching the dog.

    • cuvtixo

      That’s not going to happen. Medication is far more likely to be an effective solution than trying to change the owner’s behavior. By the way, you seem to be having problems with your customers! Maybe you should reconsider your profession.

  • HealThyAnimals

    Amazingly, Paula Bagge lives in a town with a wonderful holistic practice, MASH. Casey could actually be completely cured of the severe OCD and not need to stay on Prozac. As a homeopathic veterinarian of over 30 years who teaches about the wide variety of healing modalities possible, I suggest that clients with OCD animals never give up, and start with the most gentle approaches before moving to drugs which merely help, but not cure. TCVM (traditional chinese veterinary medicine), homeopathy, flower essences, intuitives, trainers (many approaches from Milan to Monks of new Skete to Dunbar), Reiki, common sense (do not leave dogs alone for long periods), TTouch, HTA, acupressure…and the list goes on. Many of these you can do yourself, others need trained practitioners.

    Flower essences and Reiki never harm, so they are the best home care with which to start. I would suggest that Casey be seen at MASH right there in Hopkinton. Dr. Margo roman is an excellent holistic veterinarian who could most likely completely cure Casey.

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

    Who spends ten minutes watching an animal that is in distress and just keeps watching? Or makes a large dog stay in a small space at all!! Each of the people mentioned in this article are not capable of being pet parents. From the parrot owner who does not care that the pretty bird in the cage is suffering in solitary confinement, to the person who watched their dog self harm and tried to solve it by clipping him to a table? I wonder how each of them would feel if put in the same situations as they force their pets to go through! I have a 7 month old dog he gets 3 walks lots of play time and interaction with other dogs on a daily basis. If you are not ready to do that for your dog, get a stuffed animal.

    With any luck the ASPCA is listening to this and those animals will find better homes.

  • JO

    No mention of over-breeding as the culprit. All of the dogs mentioned in the article – Beagles, German Shephards, Dobermans, are some of the most inbred groups of dogs.

  • Pete

    I am a veterinarian who adopted a dog who suffered from several OCD issues and panic attacks. He was destructive to my home and to himself. His obsessions often even prevented him from sleeping. Patient training and consistency in every aspect of his life and my communication with him was not enough. After trials of multiple “human” anxiety medications, a low dose of Prozac finally brought him some relief. As with humans, there is no single quick fix for pets with behavioral disorders, but they can certainly be helped by a family devoted enough to work with them.

  • crazy cat

    Get a cat instead.

  • BE

    Cesar Millan “the Dog Whisperer” claims he has cured hundreds of “lost cause” dogs with obsessive behavior, by simply teaching them (and their owners) how to be a dog. The dogs basically were horribly confused because their owners were treating them like people. This developed a huge identity crisis against their natural instincts, and resulted in all kinds of odd psychological behavior. See the book “Cesar’s Way” at Amazon or CesarsWay.com. I think his basic premise is that the owner has to know how to consistently act like a strong alpha dog in the pet relationship in order for the pet to feel secure and comfortable.

    • floating doc

      I’m a veterinarian, and I would like to address this. Cesar has a big following. He may help some dogs, but his theories are based on flawed science, and I’ve seen enough of his techniques to consider them dangerous.

      As an example of the flawed science, Cesar’s theories on wolf social behavior came from a discredited study that used captive non-related wolves that were forced to live together in a small enclosure.

      The interactions between these wolves were used as a model for normal canine behavior. Imagine being locked up with a bunch of strangers. Now think of the implications of that: would you interact differently with these strangers than you would with your own family, in your own home?

      My advice to my clients: rather than go for a one-size-fits-all approach devised by a self-taught celebrity animal trainer, find a board certified Veterinary Behavior Specialist. The chance of a good outcome is much, much greater.

      • Atticus

        Much like most Western doctors, most Western veterinarians are not trained to take a holistic approach to patient care. Here is where Cesar is right on: dogs are animals; they are not humans. We can’t expect them to take on a modern human lifestyle without consequences. Some people I know leave their dogs in crates for 12 hours a day and wonder why the dogs go crazy when they let them out. (My sister is one such person. Her veterinarian told her that dogs can hold their bladders for up to 14 hours per day, and she takes full advantage of not rushing home after a long day at work to get the dogs out. Yes, dogs, as in plural, and she lives in a condo. She has no business having dogs, but the local Humane Society doesn’t do a good job of vetting. Her dogs are anxious and destructive.) These same people will walk their dogs one block and declare they have given their dog(s) plenty of exercise. I know other people who don’t keep their dogs in crates, but they never, ever walk the dogs or otherwise give them access to exercise. The bottom line here is that humans need to stop taking on the very weighty responsibility of having dogs if they cannot properly care for them.

        • Patrick Folman

          Your sister is an abuser and should be stopped. Have you talked to animal care?

      • hoosfoos

        I’ve never seen any wolf theories of Cesar’s, but I have seen nine years worth of dogs he has helped. His dog theories are so simple they take a while to sink in for the average human. He didn’t have the opportunity to become board certified — all that he knows about dogs came from observing them carefully since he was a little boy on the farm.

        The kinds of problems he has solved when I was watching include a dog who was obsessed with rocks, with pinecones, several dogs who spend much of their time spinning or chasing their tails, or pacing throughout the house until they drop from exhaustion. Also dogs who chew tires and chase trucks until they are seriously injured, one of whom lost an eye.

        Several of the dog owners have tried medications and one trainer after another. After patient repetitions of Cesar’s methods, the dog is born again. The owner must learn, first of all, that he is a DOG, and a dog has needs, and the owner must fulfill the dog’s needs, and not his own. Many owners have a need to have a baby to play with or a clown to entertain them by choosing whatever he wants to do. When Cesar comes on the scene, the dog doesn’t jump on the couch until he’s invited. In this way he learns to do what he is told, which according to Cesar makes him feel secure. When he feels secure, all sorts of bad behaviors come to a halt.

        The Dog Whisperer is on National Geographic network — in my area it’s on (in reruns) three times a day.

        • cuvtixo

          I think actually where Cesar actually excels is dealing with people, with the dogs’ owners, who I’d say make up 99% of pets’ problems. There are better animal behaviorists, but many of them can’t deal or relate to the pet owners. Rather than a dog expert, I think of him as a people expert.

      • julia

        self taught.. also known as hands on practical experience.

  • guest

    In some cases if OCD in humans, the cause has been found to be an autoimmune reaction to the Strep bacteria. I wonder whether this could be true in dogs as well.

  • JJ

    I think that while people have their hearts in the right place when they adopt a pet, unfortunately, they do not always know how to take proper care of that pet. The cat or dog is left home alone all day, by itself, without another pet companion. I would not want to stay in alone day after day either. I would develop feelings of loneliness and anxiety too. Dogs also need to go for frequent walks. Yes, it is challenging to have pets –oh but they bring us such happiness—and, no, they are not humans, but nevertheless we need to take a common sense approach in taking proper care of them on a daily basis in order to reciprocate that happiness they give to us.