Pet health: The ABCs of OCD

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By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
For Pets Best Insurance

A dog with pet insurance displays OCD symptoms.

Obsessive behaviors in animals can be funny, especially at first. Turning again and again to bite a tail, or chasing a light obsessively seem humorous and harmless, but can be a part of obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD) in pets. While we don’t know what our pets think, and therefore can’t comment on obsessive thoughts, OCD is a recognized disorder that can require medical and behavioral intervention. Some pet insurance companies, like Pets Best Insurance, even offer limited coverage for behavioral issues.

True OCD behaviors are defined as inappropriately repetitive motor patterns and can include such behaviors as rocking back and forth, pacing, weaving, feather pulling in parrots, licking and obsessive grooming, shadow or light chasing, spinning, and flank sucking in dogs. Some behaviors can be harmful, especially excessive licking. Some animals can create significant self-inflicted tissue trauma that will require medical treatment.

There are many postulated underlying causes for OCD. Recently there has been discovered a genetic link in Dobermans with flank sucking behavior, suggesting some behaviors can be inherited. Stress, the environment in which the animal was reared, frustration, boredom and underlying medical problems can all be possible causes for OCD.

Kittens weaned early often have ‘wool sucking’ and kneading behaviors. Dogs bred for herding, such as Border Collies will often be obsessive about chasing lights, especially laser pointers. Underlying arthritis might cause a dog to obsessively lick a painful joint, causing damage to the skin.

The first step in treatment of OCD behaviors is a medical work-up by making an appointment with your veterinarian. Consider pet health insurance, which, in some cases, can help defray veterinary costs if a limited behavioral benefit is included. Intervention earlier when the behavior starts is more likely to manifest in a positive and successful outcome.

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Treatment can include psychopharmacological administration, such as anti-anxiety medication, and behavioral and environmental modification.

Behavioral modification involves teaching substitute behaviors the dog can use to cope with whatever feelings are prompting the inappropriate behavior can be an important part of behavioral treatment. For example, a dog that chases its tail can be taught the command ‘sit’ and ‘stay.’ Repeat until the dog forms a habit choosing the alternate behavior.

Environmental enrichment includes ensuring your dog gets plenty of one-on-one attention, lots of exercise and something to ‘do.’ When you are not able to supervise, a place for the dog to rest and stay out of trouble is ideal, such as a crate or kennel. This place must not be abused, or it will become a source of more stress to the dog.

Prescription medications are reserved for the pets with more harmful behaviors, with severe anxiety, or ones that have not responded to behavioral and environmental changes. The two medications most commonly used include clomipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant, and fluoxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Both have shown promising results. Goals of treatment are to wean the dog off medications while you, the owner are implementing behavioral training.

Not all dogs need medication. For some, the aspects of a treatment plan may be sufficient. It is always important to rule out underlying medical reason for a sudden change in behaviors and seeking veterinary advice first is warranted. Research pet health insurance companies that offer limited behavioral coverage early on, so that if your pet develops OCD later, you will have coverage options.

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