Can Dogs Lead Us to a Cure for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder?

Have you noticed your dog running around in circles or chasing shadows? He may be suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Yes, that’s right. Dogs can suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) just like humans. Scientists are hoping to use what they learn from our canine companions to help both them and human patients who suffer from OCD and related conditions.

Certain behaviors can manifest in dogs, which can even be breed-specific, that range from endless circling and chasing shadows, as mentioned above, to biting the air, blanket sucking and hoarding items to more troubling ones like self-mutilating or destroying the house when they’re left alone as a result of separation anxiety.

For dogs, these behaviors can lead to “bad dog” labels and a frustrating relationship for their owners, at best. At worst, they may end up causing dogs to be given up or euthanized. For people, these disorders can become debilitating and many don’t seek treatment until they’ve reached a breaking point. The delay for seeking help means researchers can’t study how changes in the brain progress from start to finish or assess potential risks for development in individuals. While current drug treatments help, they’re not a cure.

Dogs aren’t the only animals to suffer from anxiety-related disorders, but they make an ideal model for studying behaviors, especially when it comes to looking at inherited traits in purebreds. They are also widely available as patients, suffer from behaviors that mimic human ones and respond similarly to drug treatments.

Scientists have been studying the ways that these disorders manifest in dogs in the hope that what they learn will help with the development of better diagnostic tests and treatments for both types of patients. Their work was once again highlighted in a recent article in Boston Magazine that explores the work of Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a renowned animal behaviorist and professor of clinical sciences at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, and other experts in animal behavior, psychiatry and genetics who have been on this trail for a while now.

Dodman believes that studying these behaviors in dogs can offer us a window into human disorders. What was once believed to be a result of neurosis, as opposed to brain chemistry, is now believed to be caused by a combination of both environmental and genetic factors. While some issues are believed to be driven by stress, trauma or abuse, the exact triggers and pathology are still not understood.

In a study published this summer that was conducted through a collaboration between researchers at Tufts and the McLean Imaging Center at McLean Hospital, scientists found that the structural abnormalities found in Doberman pinschers with canine compulsive disorder (CCD) are similar to humans with OCD. Both were found to have higher total brain and gray matter volumes and lower gray matter densities in certain parts of the brain. According to Dodman, the finding is another piece of the puzzle for understanding and treating OCD, and they hope to begin doing brain scans of dogs with CCD over their lifetime to see how their brains develop.

“While the study sample was small and further research is needed, the results further validate that dogs with CCD can provide insight and understanding into anxiety disorders that affect people. Dogs exhibit the same behavioral characteristics, respond to the same medication, have a genetic basis to the disorder, and we now know have the same structural brain abnormalities as people with OCD,” said Dodman.

In both humans and dogs there also appears to be a genetic link to compulsive behavior disorders as well. In 2010, Dodman published a study linking a a specific gene to CCD in Dobermans who were prone to sucking objects, or themselves, which led to further research elsewhere for the gene in humans.

Next up is securing grant money to conduct a long-term study that combines genetics, environmental influences, brain changes and drug therapies. Despite the potential for answers that could help both animals and people, there are still many that are unwilling to fund such research or even admit that we could actually learn something about ourselves from other species.

“There are a lot of heavy-duty people who really believe in what we’re doing, but there are still some naysayers out there. You know, flat-earthers,” said Dodman.

A better understanding of the causes for certain obsessive behaviors in dogs can also lead to improved relationships between them and their caregivers and an increase in people who seek professional help for issues, instead of giving up on them or punishing them for behaviors they really can’t control.