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Repetitive Behaviour Can be a Sign of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

October 23, 2012

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, also known as stereotypic behaviour or stereotypy, is characterized by acts that are repetitive, constant, and appear to serve no obvious purpose.  

Stereotypy can be manifested in many forms. The most common stereotypy in small-breed dogs appears to be compulsive chewing of the front paws and nails. Biting at the air or tail chasing are other examples of stereotypy in dogs. In larger dogs, lick granulomas (i.e. self-trauma caused by chewing) are seen most frequently.  

Stereotypic behaviour may be the result of physiological causes, such as genetics or localized pyoderma (i.e. skin infection), or it may be due to aversive experiences and/or conditioned behaviour, such as conflict or fear. It can also be due to stress, boredom, or anxiety. There appears to be strong evidence that some species, breeds and lines of animals may be more predisposed or more sensitive to certain stereotypies.

Treatment of stereotypies, whatever the manifestation, requires patience and understanding. Simply applying a foul-tasting topical cream to an area that is being licked compulsively does not really address the problem and is usually ineffective.

The first step must be to rule out any medical problems via a thorough physical examination and appropriate tests by a veterinarian.  If no medical basis can be found, one should then try to identify the cause of the aberrant behaviour and remove or correct it (e.g. if anxious, remove the cause of the anxiety). Punishment should never be used, since in some situations, it may already be a contributing factor.

Despite these measures, if the stereotypy persists, a veterinarian with experience in behavioural problems should be consulted. Usually, he or she will suggest drug therapy along with physical prevention (if possible). In some cases, behaviour modification using the techniques of desensitisation and counter conditioning may prove helpful.