Repetitive behaviors in pets (Proceedings)


Attention-seeking behavior: What an animal does to get attention from a person or other animal.


     • Attention-seeking behavior: What an animal does to get attention from a person or other animal. Can range from usual behaviors to more unusual ones (spinning, tail-chasing).

     • Stereotypic behavior: intentional, repetitive behavior that is non-functional. Many of the behaviors are performed in a rhythmic manner. They usually develop in an effort to cope with environmental stress such as isolation, little exercise, or no schedules...There is considerable debate about whether stereotyped behaviors are totally bad for the animal, in that they do help it to cope, but there is no argument that it is better that they not develop at all. The behaviors are believed to have an internal reward and thus may continue as a favored activity even over eating and social interactions.

     • Redirected behavior: activity, recognizable from its form as being usually directed toward a particular stimulus, but on this occasion directed toward another stimulus. e.g. The dog sees another dog through the window, is barking and growling aggressively and grabs a pillow and shakes it.

     • Displacement behavior: an activity which may appear normal, and which may be directed toward its normal external stimulus, but which occurs at an inappropriate time. These behaviors may occur in situations when the dog is motivated to perform two conflicting behaviors at the same time (e.g. dog A has a bone, dog B who is dominant takes the bone, dog A wants the bone but does not want to challenge dog B, dog A starts licking his carpus).

     • Obsessions: persistent ideas, thoughts impulses or images that are experienced as intrusive and inappropriate and that cause marked anxiety and distress. Human diagnosis.

     • Compulsions: repetitive behaviors or mental acts, the goal of which is to prevent or reduce anxiety or distress, not to provide pleasure or gratification. In most cases, the person feels driven to perform the compulsion to reduce the distress that accompanies an obsession or to prevent some dreaded event or situation. Human diagnosis, but animal relation.

Attention seeking behavior

This is one of the most under-diagnosed behavioral problems in both dogs and cats. The behaviors involved may range from the mundane to the truly bizarre. When more extreme, this syndrome may be misdiagnosed as a compulsive or neurological disorder.

     • History and causes

          o The presenting complaint from owners may be "hyperactivity" or "attention deficit disorder". In these cases, the behaviors seen are usually behaviors like excessive vocalization, jumping on people, stealing objects, running around or pacing, pawing or nudging owners. Some dog owners misinterpret these behaviors as dominance gestures and assume that their pet is potentially dangerous.

          o Behaviors may be odd or bizarre, such as chasing shadows, biting at imaginary flies, tail chasing or engaging in other types of stereotypic movement. Owners often interpret their pet as having an "obsessive-compulsive disorder", "hallucinations", or a medical problem (e.g. seizures).

          o Other times, the behavior may include signs of illness such as anorexia, coughing, lameness, paralysis, and even autonomically mediated responses such as salivation, diarrhea and vomiting. The behavior may have been initially caused by a medical problem that has since been resolved; if not, resolve the medical problem first.

          o As social animals, it is normal for dogs and cats to seek attention from members of the household, whether conspecifics or a different species. Attention seeking behaviors are examples of operant conditioning. The dog or cat learns to associate an action (the behavior in question) with a desired outcome (attention). Similarly, they also condition their owner to respond to their actions.

          o Owners may describe these pets as "needy" and they may have other behavior problems, like separation anxiety. Dogs and cats may use attention-seeking behaviors to compete with other family members (humans or pets) for their owner's attention. However, even pets that receive constant attention from their owners can develop these problems!

     • Diagnosis

          o Differential diagnoses: medical; compulsive disorders; hyperactivity/hyperkenesis

          o Diagnosis is based upon finding that the behavior does not occur when the pet presumably believes it is alone. Have owners videotape the dog or cat when they are alone. Spying may also work to make a diagnosis, but owners must be very careful to fool the pet into thinking they have left.

          o Owners should also be carefully interviewed about their own behavior when their pet engages in problematic behaviors. Not just what the owner does now, but historical attempts to fix the problem or comfort their pet. The attention the dog or cat receives may not be comfort or affection; it may also be yelling or mild interactive punishment. Even though owners see their behavior as punishment, the pet sees it as attention and therefore a reward, so the behavior is reinforced.

     • Treatment

          o It requires tact to explain to owners that they are part of the problem. "Audience-affected behavior" is another term. The success rate with this problem is very high if the clients follow your instructions. The behavior can be extinguished if the undesirable behavior is completely ignored and the desirable behavior rewarded. This may be difficult if the behavior occurs frequently or is difficult to ignore (e.g. pet appears distressed, destructive behavior, etc.). In such instances mild remote punishment, such as a squirt with a water sprayer, can be used (surreptitiously) to disrupt the behavior so that good behavior can be rewarded.

          o Owners should act like the behavior "drives them away" by leaving the room or the house (best) when it occurs. Use a bridging stimulus at the moment the behavior occurs and then leave the room.

          o Good behavior (including lying still) should be rewarded with attention and affection (counterconditioning). This is usually the opposite of what owners were doing. When rewarding good behavior follow the basic principles in learning theory: start by rewarding any calm, relaxed behavior, gradually go to an intermittent reinforcement schedule (e.g. expect the pet to be calm for randomly longer periods of time before the reward is given).

          o Dogs and cats that present for "hyperactivity" should also be treated by increasing their exercise, both mental and physical. Interactive toys, reward-based training or sports, like agility, may be a great help in managing these patients.

Compulsive/stereotypic disorders

Problems, such as excessive tail chasing, fly-snapping, light and shadow chasing, flank sucking, wool-sucking, over-grooming, and licking of the carpus (acral lick dermatitis, ALD), seem to share characteristics with human OCDs (obsessive-compulsive disorders). However, we do not know if animals "obsess". The behaviors would appear to be abnormal with no adaptive value and could reflect abnormalities in neurotransmitters. Hence, some effort has been spent in using psychotropic drugs to "normalize" the dogs or cats. Much is made of the possibility that behavior or environmental stress can cause these problems. There are important diagnostic and treatment issues, especially in differentiating the behavior from acquired attention-seeking behaviors

     • History and causes

          o These behaviors do not occur in canids or felids in nature and would appear to be a result of artificial breeding, the human environment or confinement. It seems that some sort of stress, conflict, or constant anxiety predisposes an animal to repetitive patterns such as tail-chasing, fly-snapping, shadow chasing, tail "checking" or over-grooming, initially as displacement activities. Certain breeds of dogs and cats are reported to be predisposed to developing compulsive behaviors (e.g. flank sucking in Dobermans, shadow chasing in Rottweilers, tail chasing and self mutilation in German Shepherds and Bull Terriers, wool-sucking in Oriental breeds of cats). These behaviors also have been found to occur within certain familial lines, strongly suggestive of a genetic link.

          o One school of thought is that performing these behaviors leads to the release of endogenous endorphins. A second school of thought is that a neurotransmitter abnormality (serotonin, dopamine) predisposes certain individuals to developing compulsive disorders. A third line of thought is that some of these behaviors are psychomotor seizures, however, neither EEGs nor response to anti-convulsive therapy has conclusively proven this.

     • Treatment

          o Rule out attention-seeking causes. There may be a mixed etiology where some repetitive behaviors are compulsive and others are attention seeking or at different times the same behavior has different motivations.

          o Identify and alleviate any stress, conflict, or continuous anxiety that may be related to the onset. As part of alleviating stress and conflict the owners' interactions with their pet must change. Interactions should be structured, so the pet receives clear and consistent signals from all members of the household. Rather than only punishing misbehavior, owners should encourage and reward behaviors that are incompatible with the performance of the compulsive behavior (e.g. resting quietly, playing, obedience commands).

          o Avoid allowing the dog or cat to practice the compulsive behavior. Use devices like Elizabethan collars, crates, and head collars (Gentle Leaders) or harnesses to control the pet's actions. Turn off lights, remove reflective objects or wool items, and keep the pet away from locations where he is more likely to perform the behaviors.

          o Increase the pet's mental and physical exercise. Obviously this must be done is ways that do not exacerbate the compulsive behaviors.

          o Consider treatment with serotonergic drugs, as are used in people. In some cases it is possible to successfully wean a pet off medication, once the behavior has stopped for an extended period of time. However, if they become highly stressed or conflicted in the future, the behavior may return. Other individuals may respond to a medication, but need to stay on it indefinitely.

Psychogenic alopecia (excessive grooming)

You must rule out medical causes and stress-inducing causes. The diagnosis of psychogenic alopecia or hair loss due to behavioral causes is usually a diagnosis of exclusion. A medical evaluation, including dermatological workup, has to be undertaken. Most "psychogenic alopecic" cats are subsequently diagnosed with a medical disorder (primarily dermatological). One study (Landsberg) demonstrated that approximately 90% of cats presenting for "psychogenic alopecia" have an underlying dermatological condition.

Wool-chewing, wool-sucking, pica

     • History and potential causes

          o Breed predispositions: Anecdotally there is evidence that Oriental breed cats (Siamese, Burmese, etc.) may be more predisposed to perform these behaviors than cats of other breeds. However, any breed/breed type can perform these behaviors.

          o Early weaning/hand-rearing: If a cat has not been weaned properly, MAY suckle more than a cat that has been properly weaned.

          o Environment: Cats that are in a relatively barren environment (from a cat's point of view) may develop these behaviors as an outlet for other more normal behaviors.

          o Underlying stress or anxiety: Determine what role it is playing in the problem

     • Treatment

          o Avoidance. Place all objects that the cat potentially can eat or chew out of its reach.

          o Address any underlying stress or anxiety.

          o Increase environmental enrichment. Some options include: food-dispensing toys; self-play toys (battery operated); make an outdoor enclosure for the cat; increase consistent play with the owners; make cat an outdoor cat (often not an option).

          o medications – SSRI's, TCA's to treat anxiety and compulsive behaviors

Acral lick dermatitis (excessive licking of carpus or tarsus)

     • History and causes

          o Grooming (licking) is a normal behavior important for maintenance of the haircoat and removal of ectoparasites. Grooming of wounds has an adaptive cleansing function (saliva has both antibacterial substances and epithelial growth factors.) In fact, an absence of grooming is as abnormal as is excessive grooming.

          o Acral lick dermatitis involves what appears to be compulsive licking of the carpus, or sometimes tarsus or other areas, to the point where epithelium is eroded and scar tissue develops producing a cutaneous granuloma; hence the term "lick granuloma." Bacterial infection (staphylococcus) may occur in deep tissue. Bacterial infection and irritation can maintain the licking. Even after complete healing while the dog wears Elizabethan collar there is a drive to resume licking excessively.

          o The initial excessive licking may be related to sensory nerve dysfunction or social stress such as produced by confinement or a change in home or work routine of owners. There are breed predispositions with large sporting breeds (Labs) most likely to engage in this behavior. A new theory is that this problem reflects an abnormal activation of the relatively inactive canine "grooming clock."

     • Diagnosis

          o Before an accurate diagnosis of acral lick granuloma can be made the dog must be thoroughly worked up medically. This will involve treating any secondary skin infections and doing a full dermatological work up, including allergy testing, testing thyroid function, and skin biopsies. Radiographs of the affected area are often warranted. There could be an underlying orthopedic condition leading to pain or discomfort leading to the licking. There is also the possibility of secondary bone or periosteal infection. Nerve conduction studies may also be recommended.

     • Treatment

          o Treat any underlying medical condition. Treat underlying deep-seated infections.

          o Remove any identifiable sources of stress or anxiety. Increase exercise and structured interactions with owners. (as above)           o A variety of bitter or objectionable-tasting substances have been tried to discourage licking, but usually to no avail.

          o Drugs, including clomipramine, fluoxetine, hydrocodone and naltrexone, have been shown to reduce such licking in about 60% of affected dogs, presumably by affecting brain neural transmitters (serotonin, dopamine) or reward systems (endorphins). However, the behavior may return once drug treatment is stopped.

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