Pet problems

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Think your dog's tendency to chase its own tail is cute?

How about the way your cat constantly licks its stomach area?

Behaviors that were once considered stereotypical in pets -- anything from digging in the backyard to aggression -- are now treated as compulsions.

While much of the current research focuses on canines, Dr. Gwenn Freitag at La Croix Pet Hospital says she has dealt with both obsessive compulsive dogs and cats.

"Any symptom that occurs multiple times in a week or day, anything that is self-mutilating or uncontrollable, may be a compulsion," said Freitag.

That including barking, licking and chasing shadows. Freitag has seen cats that have compulsively licked all the hair off their stomach area. Some dogs lick certain spots so much that sores develop.

Some breeds are more inclined to a certain compulsion, said Freitag. Dobermanns, for example, often have a problem with flank sucking. Siamese cats may become obsessed with sucking or chewing on clothing.

The first step to helping pets overcome such behaviors is a trip to the veterinarian to make sure there isn't a physical defect, like a skin problem or a neurological problem.

"A lot of it is behavior management, both the behavior of the pet and sometimes the owners," said Freitag.

That doesn't necessarily just mean more attention for the animal.

Working dogs, like shepherds and other herders, may need more mental stimulation than other breeds.

"Just being in the backyard and playing catch may not be stimulating enough," said Freitag. "Try playing hide and seek."

Sometimes, medications similiar to those used in human cases of OCD are needed, though Freitag does not consider that a longterm solution.

"Just like in people, you use the medication to get them focused enough to do the behavior modification," she said.

If the case is extreme, Freitag may refer animals to a veterinary behavior specialist in St. Louis.

Freitag suggests distracting pets from negative behaviors by encouraging them to do something positive and then following that with a reward.

If the animal is digging a hole in the backyard, encourage it to "sit" and then offer a reward.

In the end, said Freitag, the sooner a behavior is modified the better the prognosis.

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