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Dog Anxiety – Canine Compulsive Disorder

By Colleen Williams
April 7, 2016 • 5 min. read
dog anxiety

Animals experience the same emotions as us – not only happiness, but also depression and anxiety. But as they’re unable to communicate their symptoms, pets’ feelings often manifest in unusual behaviors. Dogs are creatures of habit, so anything out of the ordinary in your pet’s personality or appearance should be taken as a sign something is wrong. Even “normal” acts can turn harmful when anxiety strikes, causing excessive grooming, scratching or eating.

Compulsive behaviors like this are often an animal’s way of coping with a stressful or traumatic situation. Be patient with your pet, especially when bringing home a new dog! Through a combination of behavioral modification and medication, dog anxiety can be easily managed. Take the time to destress with your dog, and everyone will be the healthier.

Canine Compulsive Disorder – OCD in Dogs?

new dog
Since dogs can’t tell us what they’re experiencing, it’s important for pet parents to note any abrupt changes in their pet’s behavior. (

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental condition diagnosed in about two percent of humans and refers to intrusive or excessive thoughts, which prompt repetitive behaviors such as sorting or touching objects a specific number of times. Unfortunately, we don’t know what dogs are thinking (yet), so the root cause of their actions can only be guessed at. However, canines can display compulsive behaviors; a 2013 study at Purdue University College of Veterinary medicine found the brains of dogs with CCD and humans with OCD were strikingly similar structurally.

Dog Anxiety and CCD Symptoms

dog chasing tail
Although initially adorable, common canine behaviors like tail chasing can develop into compulsions. (

Typical dog behaviors like licking and chasing tails can become extreme, affecting a pet’s ability to eat, sleep or play. One of the most common dog anxiety symptoms is excessive grooming; some pets will lick or gnaw on themselves to the point of skin damage. What may start as a cute puppy quirk – sucking a favorite blanket or chasing her tail – can evolve into a compulsion. Any behavior done to the point of exhaustion or injury is clearly unhealthy and requires a visit to the vet:

  • Tail-, light- or shadow-chasing
  • Barking
  • Grooming to the point of self-harm (i.e. licking, chewing, sucking fur)
  • Object fixation
  • Pacing or spinning
  • Excessive water consumption

Some dog breeds are more prone to developing specific compulsive behaviors. German Shepherds, for example, have a penchant for tail-chasing that can result in a chewed-up, balding rump. Dobermans have been described as “sucking” their flanks, while Golden Retrievers and Labradors are also notoriously excessive lickers.

What Causes CCD and Dog Anxiety?

In order to alleviate an animal’s symptoms, the underlying cause must first be determined. As pets can’t give us a detailed list of their complaints, the diagnostic process can require a series of trial and error. Skin issues are especially prone to initial misdiagnosis by vets, as the sheer volume of potential causes prevents them from narrowing the list of suspected conditions. Further complicating a veterinarian’s job is the frequent coexistence of medical conditions, including mental health issues.

dog depression
Each dog’s anxiety has a unique trigger, which can range from a sound in its environment to a changed routine. (

Dog anxiety can develop for a variety of reasons, but a dysfunctional environment is seen the most common. Animals who spend an extended period homeless or in an abusive household may develop behaviors to cope with their trauma and gain control. If the compulsive behavior is very un-doglike, improper socialization could be the culprit; if a pet isn’t formally introduced to a variety of humans, animals and situations by their handler, they will develop their own instinctual set of responses. Food aggression in dogs is an excellent example of this – pets who were starved often hoard their food, refusing to let anyone near it for fear it will be taken away.

However, even a pet from the most pampered background can develop canine compulsive disorder. Dog anxiety springs from prolonged exposure to stress, which can be defined differently by different animals. Moving with a pet, traveling, changing schedules, having a child, or adopting another pet can all adversely affect your dog’s mental health and result in development of a compulsive behavior.

Treating Dog Anxiety

Once the underlying cause of your dog’s symptoms has been diagnosed, it’s time for treatment. As mentioned before, many other medical conditions can be confused for canine compulsive disorder. Food allergies, parasites, poor vision, head injuries, and even epilepsy all display signs similar to CCD or dog anxiety. All of these disorders are easily manageable, and only a few have long-term consequences. Either way, your veterinarian will treat any problems your pet has, another reason pet insurance comes in handy – no need to worry about the cost.

dog training
Behavioral modification training is best done by a certified professional, who can retrain your pet’s responses to triggers.(

If CCD is responsible for your dog’s abnormal acts, behavioral modification therapy is needed. This is more complex than it sounds: once you figure out your pet’s triggers (and happy places), you can set about removing them! When removing the offender isn’t an option – i.e. car horns or thunderstorms – talk to your vet about desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC) treatment, which essentially reteaches your dog how to respond in a more appropriate way. A certified, veterinarian-referred professional is needed at this stage, such as an animal behaviorist or dog trainer.

Medication may be prescribed by some veterinarians in tandem with behavioral modification or if therapy fails to have an effect. Although many types of dog anxiety medication are also prescribed by human docs, never give your pet anything without a veterinarian’s approval and prescription! Even seemingly harmless drugs like ibuprofen have an extreme effect on animals, whose medicinal dosages are many times smaller than those for humans.

How To Manage Dog Anxiety

dog running on beach
Exercise is a key part of your any dog anxiety treatment plan! Keeping your canine’s mind and body occupied can help beat bad habits. (

Whether your pet suffers from CCD or separation anxiety, a little distraction can be beneficial! Both mental and physical stimulation distract a dog from its surroundings – or the inside of its head. DIY some dog puzzle toys and get ready to teach an old dog a new trick; both get your pet’s mental gears moving and focused. Make sure your pup is getting a full 30 minutes of exercise daily! High-energy dog breeds, like German Shepherds and Labradoodles, need two hours of physical activity in order to be happy and healthy. This doesn’t mean you have to pound the pavement endlessly: take your pup to the dog park or beach or throw a ball in the backyard, with a leisurely stroll around the block later in the day.

Avoid abruptly yelling at or punishing your dog, especially for a compulsive behavior beyond his control. If your pet is re-traumatized every time he acts out, the cycle of anxiety will only worsen. On the opposite end of the spectrum, refrain from coddling or praising your dog after a CCD episode – this reinforces the negative behavior.

colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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