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How would a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist determine if your pet is exhibiting a compulsive behavior? Compulsive behaviors are repetitive and the animal appears fixated on a goal. They typically are variations or intensifications of normal behavior, such as:
Normal grooming → Excessive grooming resulting in loss of fur or open wounds
Predation → Tail chasing; pouncing on shadows or light or imaginary objects
Ingestion → Eating non-food items, such as rocks, dirt, cloth, etc.
Locomotion → Running in large circles; pacing in a specific pattern
The behavior may have initially started due to a situation of conflict or frustration but now the behavior manifests at any time. The behavior may continue for a long time if the owners do not interrupt it and, even when interrupted, the animal may resume the behavior. Sometimes the pet cannot be interrupted. If the repetitive behavior does not help the pet to calm down and cope with the situation or interferes with daily life, then it is considered a compulsive behavior. I have some canine patients that become so fixated on chasing shadows or lights or running in circles that they may not stop to eat. Or they grab a bite of food but keep on chasing. Sometimes these animals cause injuries to themselves due to the repetitive nature of the behavior. I have some dogs who chase their tails and bite them hard enough to cause wounds or to pull off the fur. Other dogs may lick an area of their legs, paws or flank repeatedly to the point where they cause fur loss and abrade their skin to the point where there is an open wound and infection.
The most important thing to do (again, after ruling out medical causes) is to keep a diary of the events for as long as your veterinarian directs. In the diary, you should record if there are triggers for the behavior, does it occur around a certain person, where does it occur, can you disrupt the behavior and how often and how long does it occur?
Generally, once medical causes are ruled out and you have recorded your observations, a consultation with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist can help determine the appropriate treatment plan for the pet, which might include a combination of behavior-modification exercises and medical options. Also keep in mind that, except in a very few situations, owners don’t cause or contribute to the development of these behaviors, as many are already genetically programed.
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