Tail Chasing Dogs May Have OCD
August 21, 2012

Tail Chasing And OCD: More Alike Than You May Think

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

While there are many fine reasons to own a dog, perhaps one of the best reasons are the hours upon hours of sheer entertainment you´ll receive for the price of some kibble and pet rent, where applicable.

You´ll be able to watch and laugh as your hound sniffs with a childlike curiosity at something hopping in the grass or take short videos of Fido as he chases an imaginary ship through your house and to the door, where he´ll sit and stare for hours on end. One great, classic time waster for dogs has been chasing their tail, a habit noted in most dogs. While some dogs will simply turn a few times before giving up, some chase with die-hard enthusiasm. Either way, watching a dog chase its tail has long been a pet-owners´ pastime.

Now, it turns out we may have to start feeling guilty for enjoying this spectacle as much as we do, as some researchers from the genetics research group at the University of Helsinki and the Folkhälsan Research Center have found that dogs chase their tails for much the same reasons as humans with obsessive compulsive disorder repeatedly perform basic tasks, such as washing their hands or turning a lock.

Working in collaboration with an international group of researchers, Professor Hannes Lohi led a team to investigate the genetic characteristics and environmental factors that go into compulsory tail chasing in dogs. In the end, they found many similarities between this tail chasing and compulsive behavior in humans.

Dr. Lohi and his team crafted a questionnaire study which covered close to 400 dogs. Once completed, this study showed that dogs can be effectively used as a model for studying the genetic background and environmental factors of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in humans. The results of Dr. Lohi´s study were published in the journal PLoS ONE on July 27, 2012.

These kinds of stereotypical behaviors have not often been studied in pets, despite the fact that many of these pets do exhibit some sort of compulsive disorder, such as compulsive barking, continuous pacing, or even biting their own legs.

In fact, many genetic and environmental factors have been suggested which predispose this obsessive behavior. In particular, some behaviors have simply been written off as a breed-specific trait, often found in German Shepherds or Bull Terriers.

Dr. Lohi and team set out to determine why these pets were so keen on chasing their own tails and if there were any possible environmental risk factors involved.

Some of these dogs who are believed to be more apt to chase their tail due to breed, such as Bull Terriers, Miniature Bull Terriers, German Shepherds and Staffordshire Bull Terriers, which were all part of the 400 dog study. First, blood samples were taken from each of the dogs in order to get a genetic picture of each animal. Then, the dogs´ owners filled out a questionnaire about their dogs' so called “stereotypical” behavior, in addition to answering questions about the dogs´ traits in puppyhood and the daily routine of the dogs´ life.

As a result, the study showed that most dogs began chasing their tails before they reached sexual maturity, around 3 to 6 months old.

Of particular interest to Dr. Lohi and his team was a link between tail chasing and vitamins. Those dogs who received nutritional supplements, especially vitamins and minerals, were less likely to chase their tails than other dogs who did not receive supplements.

“Our study does not prove an actual causal relationship between vitamins and lessened tail chasing, but interestingly similar preliminary results have been observed in human OCD” said one of the researchers, Dr. Katriina Tiira. The team now aims to discover if these supplements can effectively stop tail chasing in dogs.

In the end, Dr. Lohi and his team were pleased to discover the number of similarities between dogs and humans and, as such, will be able to study dogs to get a better understanding of why humans contract these types of psychiatric diseases.

Says Dr. Lohi, “Stereotypic behavior occurs in dogs spontaneously; they share the same environment with humans, and as large animals are physiologically close to humans. Furthermore, their strict breed structure aids the identification of genes.”