Vet Diagnoses Dogs With Compulsive Disorder

Have you ever noticed that some people look like their dog, or cat?

Well, maybe that's just my imagination, but it turns out that many of us have pets that are far more like us than we might think, and that's not always good.

Andrew Luescher, a veterinarian who is director of Purdue University's Animal Behavior Clinic, has found that many dogs even have emotional disorders that are more commonly associated with humans than pets. Luescher, one of about 30 board certified animal behaviorists in the country, estimates that about one dog out of 50 suffers from canine compulsive disorder.

"That's a very, very rough estimate," Luescher says, but the disease is common enough that most people have probably had a close encounter with a pet that was, well, emotionally screwed up.

The condition sometimes causes a dog to bark for hours on end, in a monotonous monotone, even when there isn't much around that's worth barking about. Or chase its tail in endless circles. Or lick itself until its skin is raw.

Luescher has a couple of trials underway in his lab in West Lafayette, Ind., to see if drugs prescribed for humans suffering from a similar disorder might also work for dogs. But he says drugs alone are not the solution. A dog's ability to pull itself out of canine compulsive disorder depends largely upon how the owner deals with the situation. It's a lot easier to make things worse than it is to cure the pooch, the vet says.

Don't punish the animal for exhibiting the symptoms, regardless of how annoying they are, he says, because punishment reinforces the underlying causes of the disorder — anxiety and stress.

Possible Causes of Canine Compulsive Behavior

Although there is probably a genetic component to the disease, Luescher says, the main contributor is the environment that the dog is forced to live in.

"Their environment is unpredictable, or they can't have any control over it," he says. Sometimes, he adds, the problem can simply be another pet.

"Maybe there's another dog in the house that they're afraid of," he says.

To deal with the stress, the dog begins by exhibiting normal behavior, like barking, or running around, or looking away.

"That's where the compulsive behavior starts," he says. "They are comfortable using that behavior, which is totally normal, but if repeated frequently it becomes easier and easier to trigger it. And then they start to show that behavior whenever their anxiety level or arousal level is high enough, regardless of the situation."

So a dog that is going through separation anxiety because its owner is about to leave for work may lie down and lick its paws, and soon find itself licking its paws whether the owner is there or not. Eventually, it may lick its paws, or some other part of its body, endlessly, even to the point of wearing away its fur and exposing its raw skin to infection.

Treating a Doggie Disorder

The way to solve the problem is to seek professional help, the vet suggests, but there are a number of things the pet owner can do to help the animal.

First on the list is to find out what started it all, or what first caused the dog to get so aroused that it began to make a fool of itself. Then, remove that conflict, if possible.

It's also important, Luescher says, to "give the dog as much control over its environment as possible."

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