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How Tail Chasing Dogs May Help People with OCD

Dogs and OCD

Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, is a challenge to understand and treat, but man’s best friend is providing some useful information. Behaviors such as tail chasing, typical of canine compulsive disorder (CCD), have similarities with OCD in humans, and this relationship may help treat people with the disorder.

People and dogs have a similar behavioral disorder

About 2 percent of the population has OCD, a condition characterized by unreasonable fears (obsessions) and thoughts that cause people to perform repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Even if you realize your obsession thoughts are not logical and you try to stop them, the mere attempt to cease causes more stress and anxiety.

Common OCD behaviors include compulsively checking to see if you have shut off the stove or locked the doors, washing your hands again and again because of a fear of germs, or doing things a certain number of times (e.g., always arranging items in stacks of 10). Dogs with CCD may chase their tail, suck on towels or blankets, or chew their flank.

Researchers have known that patients with either OCD or CCD both respond to similar treatments, but a new finding by veterinarians at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and scientists at the McLean Imaging Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, shows that the similarities between humans and dogs go one step further.

In fact, Doberman pinschers with CCD have structural abnormalities in the brain that are similar to those seen in humans who have OCD. This discovery is important, as noted by Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVB, professor of clinical sciences at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, because it validates that “dogs with CCD can provide insight and understanding into anxiety disorders that affect people.”

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Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate the brains of 16 Dobermans: 8 with CCD and 8 without the disorder. Dogs with CCD had larger volumes of total brain and gray matter, lower gray matter densities in certain areas, and specific findings that correlated with the severity of the behavioral characteristics—all of which were similar to findings seen in the brains of people with OCD.

More about CCD
Canine obsessive compulsive disorder (also called canine OCD) is believed to have a strong hereditary component as well as be associated with a history of abuse or neglect. In addition to the behaviors already mentioned, dogs with CCD may bark, spin, dig, scratch, pace, try to catch imaginary flies, or chew excessively.

CCD can be a potentially dangerous medical condition if a dog engages in self-mutilation. Treatments for CCD include behavior modification, medications (e.g., tricyclic antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), massage therapy, performance training, and acupressure.

According to Andrew Luescher, director of Purdue University’s Animal Behavior Clinic, about 2 percent of dogs have CCD. He notes that drugs alone are not the answer to remedying the problem in dogs, and that success depends largely on how dog parents deal with the situation, with punishing the dog for its behavior being especially harmful because it reinforces the underlying cause—stress and anxiety.

Dogs are much more than man’s best friend. Research into both OCD and CCD show that these disorders have many common characteristics and that studying CCD in dogs can provide important information to be used to lead to better treatments for dogs and people with these disorders.

ABC News. Vet diagnoses dogs with compulsive disorder.
Ogata N et al. Brain structural abnormalities in Doberman pinschers with canine compulsive disorder. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry 2013 Aug; 45: 1-6