Last summer, Mozart nibbled his foreleg fur down to the bare skin. The 13-year-old schipperke often licks the fur off his front legs and sometimes chews at his hind legs — behaviors that baffle his owner, Melanie Coronetz of New York City.
“He can’t be bored,” Coronetz says. “I have two other dogs and he lives a life of luxury, plus he gets plenty of love.”
A trip to the veterinarian revealed no skin-related disorders. Mozart is simply a little neurotic, his veterinarian concluded.
Licking, chewing, spinning, tail-chasing and running after shadows or beams of light can be normal behaviors in dogs and cats, but in some cases they become repetitive and harmful, stressing not only the dogs or cats involved but also the people who live with them.
Lexiann Grant of Little Hocking, Ohio, says she sometimes wonders whether 10 a.m. is too early to add a slug of chocolate liqueur to her coffee as her 14-year-old Norwegian elkhound, Wylie, paws incessantly at the tile floor.
“Being around someone, even a dog, engaged in compulsive behavior gets to you eventually,” Grant says. “At first you tune it out, but then it goes on and on like Chinese water torture and it shatters your calm. It impacts everyone. The other animals clear out of his way when he starts the pawing.”
When normal behaviors become repetitive or sustained and don’t seem to make any sense, a dog or cat is often diagnosed with compulsive disorder. Common repetitive behaviors in dogs include licking to the point of causing a wound known as a lick granuloma, tail-chasing or spinning to the point of exhaustion, and chasing shadows or light rays. Cats are known to suck on wool, groom excessively or chase their tails.
These behaviors can become so extreme that they affect the animal’s well-being, says veterinary behaviorist Amy Marder, director of the Center for Shelter Dogs at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. Some dogs become so focused on the behavior that they stop eating. Cats that chew or suck on wool and other fabric can move on to swallowing it, causing dangerous obstructions.
How problems begin
Emotional conflicts, stress, genetics, medical conditions and a pet’s environment can lie at the root of compulsive behaviors — but sometimes, as in Mozart’s case, the cause is unknown, perhaps triggered by a situation that went unnoticed at the time.
“The longer it goes on, the more disassociated it becomes with an actual trigger,” says Karen Sueda, a veterinary behaviorist who practices at VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital. “There’s a theory out there too that besides genetic or anxiety components that sometimes there is an endorphin release that might occur when animals engage in these types of repetitive behaviors that makes it almost self-rewarding to engage in it. We’re never 100 percent sure how much of it is going to be a genetic component versus learned versus anxiety versus a self-rewarding behavior.”
In other cases, described as conflict situations, animals face circumstances in which they have difficulty choosing between two different types of behaviors or don’t feel as if they have an acceptable course of action, says Lore I. Haug, a veterinary behaviorist at Texas Veterinary Behavior Services in Sugar Land, Texas. For instance, the owner might call the dog, but the dog can tell the owner is angry, so it’s partly motivated to come but also afraid to come at the same time. At moments like this the dog may short-circuit and perform a “displacement” behavior, such as spinning.
A pet’s environment also can be a factor, Haug says.
“Too much confinement, not enough physical and mental stimulation, not enough access or ability to engage in normal behaviors for that species — we do see some of those factors play a role,” she says.
Repetitive behaviors can have a genetic basis as well, Haug notes. German shepherds and bull terriers are known for tail-chasing. Herding breeds such as the Belgian Malinois and the border collie have a tendency to chase light and shadows. Dobermans can develop a condition called flank sucking in which they turn around and grab a fold of skin on their side and suck on it.
“That’s not really something seen in any other breed, so we know there are genetic predispositions or sensitivities to that,” Haug says. “You see certain ones in certain breeds, and you can also see the behavior show up more frequently in certain families of dogs. When we look at wool sucking in cats, it’s more likely to show up in Siamese and some of the related Oriental breeds. We see it more frequently in those cats than other breeds or mixes of cats.”
Wylie, the Norwegian elkhound who paws tile floors, is an example of a dog whose repetitive behavior is related to a medical condition. He’s been diagnosed with systemic laryngeal paralysis, a neurological disease that’s often seen in elkhounds.
Spinal and neurologic diseases can trigger repetitive or seemingly compulsive behaviors because of changes in sensation in the animal’s limbs, Haug says. It might be a pins-and-needles feeling or a sensation of constant itching that makes the animal want to attack the area.
Ruling out a medical cause is the first step in a diagnosis. Once it’s clear that a behavior is truly compulsive, behavior modification and sometimes anti-anxiety medication can help. A professional evaluation with a veterinary behaviorist involves
- assessing the pet’s living arrangements to see how the animal is interacting with other pets and family members in the household;
- determining whether the pet has an anxiety disorder;
- determining whether the pet is getting adequate exercise, nutrition, social interaction and training;
- and developing a program to help the pet deal with the circumstances that trigger the compulsive behavior and learn alternate ways to cope with those situations.
Sueda, who says that 5 percent to 10 percent of the cases she sees involve some kind of repetitive behavior, recalls a cat that had licked all the hair off his belly, the inside of his thighs and the inside of his front legs. He was having issues with the other cats in the household as well as the presence of a new baby.
“We ended up reintroducing him to the cats in the household, making a lot more positive associations between the other cats in the household and the baby, as well as prescribing the cat some anti-anxiety medication,” Sueda says. “Within a month, he grew all of his hair back.”
Anti-anxiety medications that can be effective include clomipramine and Prozac. Marder, the veterinary behaviorist from Boston, used a different medication to help a cat that was chasing its tail.
“The owners had tried many things and nothing worked,” she says. “I put him on gabapentin, which is an anticonvulsant in people and also affects pain sensitivity. It worked very effectively.”
Drugs aren’t a quick fix; it can take up to four months to see results. And simply giving a pill to a pet won’t solve the problem. Behavior modification and, if necessary, environmental changes also must be part of the treatment.
While medication won’t necessarily eliminate the behavior, it can reduce its intensity to the point where behavior modification has a better chance of succeeding. Treatment with medication may last only a few months or it may be required throughout the animal’s life, depending on the severity of the problem.
Drug costs can vary, depending on the size of the pet and the type of drug used. To save money, pet owners can purchase medications at mass merchandisers such as Target or Costco or participate in discount programs available from certain credit cards or chain pharmacies such as Walgreen’s.
Punishment isn’t the answer
Wylie has been taking a low dose of phenobarbital for the physical signs of his disease, and Grant says it has helped take the edge off his behavior. She also helps him relax with light massages, short walks, interactive calm play and low-level obedience exercises at home.
“He gets lots of affection when he gets stressed, and we redirect him when he starts pawing, telling him, ‘No paw’ and moving him, or putting a different dog bed or rug in front of him, which seems to interrupt the behavior momentarily,” she says.
Low-tech solutions also can help in less severe cases. Coronetz bought a custom-made quilted cotton “lampshade” collar for Mozart to prevent him from nibbling on his legs.
Punishment never works and can even make the situation worse, but owners who are willing and able to make the necessary changes can successfully manage their animals’ behaviors, Haug says.
“It also depends on to some degree on the strength of the genetic predisposition. Some animals, mostly in bull terrier lines, truly seem to have almost a treatment-resistant tail-spinning behavior, and some of those animals end up being euthanized because the treatments just aren’t successful,” Haug says.
“But in my experience the majority of animals with compulsive behavior problems respond, and they respond to a level where the owners are pretty happy and the animal can live a good quality life.”
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.