OCD and Pets

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Janet Singer's son Dan suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) so severe he could not even eat. What followed was a journey from seven therapists to ...Read More

What is OCD in Animals?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in animals refers to repetitive behaviors or rituals that animals engage in excessively and without apparent purpose, such as excessive grooming, pacing, or tail chasing. While there are similarities between animal and human OCD, such as the repetitive nature of behaviors, the underlying causes and cognitive aspects may differ, as animals may not experience the same conscious obsessions and compulsions as humans.[1]

Observing OCD-like behaviors in pets may raise awareness and empathy among human OCD sufferers, helping them recognize that similar patterns of distressing behaviors can occur across species. However, individuals with OCD should seek professional guidance and treatment tailored to their specific needs, as the management and treatment of OCD in humans involve complex psychological and therapeutic interventions.[2] 

OCD Behaviors in Animals

While there is some overlap between OCD behaviors in animals and humans, animals still present with some behaviors unique to them. Some common OCD behaviors in pets include:

  • Excessive grooming or licking
  • Repetitive pacing or circling
  • Tail chasing
  • Compulsive digging or scratching
  • Excessive vocalization
  • Hoarding or rearranging objects
  • Self-injurious behaviors like feather plucking in birds

Causes of OCD Behaviors in Pets

The causes of OCD behaviors in animals are multifaceted and can stem from genetic, environmental, and neurological factors. Genetic predispositions may play a role, as certain breeds or lines within a species may be more prone to developing OCD-like behaviors.[1] 


Environmental factors such as stress, boredom, or lack of environmental enrichment can trigger or exacerbate OCD behaviors in animals. For instance, animals kept in confined spaces or deprived of social interaction may engage in repetitive behaviors as a coping mechanism.[3]

Neurological factors, including imbalances in neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate, may also contribute to the development of OCD-like behaviors in animals.[4]

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Disruptions in brain circuits involved in impulse control and behavioral inhibition may further predispose animals to engage in compulsive behaviors.

Understanding the interplay between genetic predispositions, environmental stressors, and neurological factors is crucial for effectively managing and treating OCD behaviors in animals. Implementing environmental enrichment strategies, providing outlets for natural behaviors, and addressing underlying stressors can help alleviate OCD behaviors and improve the overall welfare of animals.[3] 

Additionally, pharmacological interventions targeting neurotransmitter imbalances may be considered in severe cases, although these should be administered under the guidance of a veterinary professional to minimize potential side effects.[4]

The Science Behind OCD in Animals

Scientific studies have explored OCD in animals to better understand the phenomenon and its potential implications for human OCD research. 

Research findings indicate that animals, including dogs, cats, birds, and horses, exhibit behaviors similar to OCD in humans, such as repetitive grooming, pacing, and self-injury Studies have examined the genetic, environmental, and neurobiological factors underlying OCD-like behaviors in animals, shedding light on potential mechanisms contributing to the disorder.

Understanding OCD in animals can provide valuable insights into the etiology and treatment of human OCD. Animal models of OCD allow researchers to manipulate genetic and environmental factors, study brain circuitry, and test novel therapeutic interventions in controlled settings.[2] 

Research on animal OCD has identified similarities in neural pathways and neurotransmitter systems implicated in both animal and human OCD, highlighting the potential for research to develop effective treatments for OCD in humans.[2] 

By understanding the shared mechanisms underlying OCD across species, researchers can enhance our understanding of the disorder and develop targeted interventions to improve outcomes for individuals living with OCD.

Impact of Animal OCD on Human Companions

Living with an animal exhibiting OCD behaviors can significantly impact individuals with OCD, potentially exacerbating their own symptoms and emotional well-being. 

Witnessing compulsive behaviors in their pets may heighten a person’s distress and anxiety, as they empathize with their animals’ struggles while also contending with the challenges of managing their own symptoms. This is called empathetic stress and is a result of a shared experience of distress and frustration.

It’s very important for people with OCD to develop and practice effective coping strategies and seek support to manage empathetic stress and maintain overall mental health.

One Mother’s Story About Pets Helping OCD

My son Dan suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder so severe he could not even eat, and his anxiety levels were often so high, he could barely function. It would have been ludicrous for me to suggest he try yoga, or meditation, or any other stress reduction technique to help him feel better when, in fact, he could hardly get off the couch.

But he could pet our cats.

Our beautiful cats, Smokey and Ricky, both so lovable with distinct personalities, helped Dan immensely during those dark days. Whether they sat on his lap, curled up near him on the couch, or let him hold them, they allowed him to relax and brought him momentary peace. Sometimes they purred so loudly they sounded like engines revving, and this soothed Dan. Other times they would engage in various cat-like antics, inciting a rare, but oh so cherished laugh from our son.

They didn’t bombard him with questions, asking if he was okay, or if he was hungry, or what was wrong. They were just there with Dan, and for a short time, his focus was diverted from his obsessions and compulsions. Our pets were able to care for Dan in a way the rest of our family could not. An article in the April 15, 2013 issue of Time magazine called “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” explores how animals grieve. I found it fascinating, and no matter how you might interpret the various studies discussed in the article, I think it is hard to argue with the belief that animals do indeed form relationships, and are empathetic. What more does it take to comfort someone?

For those OCD sufferers who struggle with germs and contamination issues, caring for a pet can elicit many triggers. Cleaning a litter box, letting a dog lick your face, or having to tend to a sick pet are just a few examples of what OCD sufferers might have to deal with. Surprisingly, I have heard from many with OCD who are amazed themselves that these situations do not cause their OCD to spring into action. Could it be that their love for their pets transcends the fear and anxiety of OCD?

When my son moved into his own apartment last year, one of the first things he did was foster a cat from a shelter. He has always been an animal lover, and was looking for a furry friend to keep him company. As he knows, life is full of surprises, and come to find out, his new companion has a host of medical problems and needs to take medication to control her seizures. Instead of returning the cat to the animal shelter (something I very well might have done) he has embraced his role as her caretaker. Whether we have OCD or not, I believe this experience of putting another’s needs ahead of our own is so worthwhile. Focusing outward instead of inward gives us a different perspective on our own lives and challenges.

So it works both ways. We take care of our beloved pets, and they take care of us. Whether our furry friend is a specially trained service dog who can sense an imminent anxiety attack (yes, it’s possible!) or an adored rabbit, pets can benefit us all in countless ways. They require us to slow down our lives, they make us laugh, and they give us unconditional love. And for those who are suffering, they provide the much-needed comfort and serenity that often can’t be found elsewhere.


  1. McMillan, F. D., Serpell, J. A., Duffy, D. L., Masaoud, E., & Dohoo, I. R. (2013). Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242(10), 1359-1363.
  2. Garner, J. P., Meehan, C. L., Mench, J. A., & Mench, J. A. (2016). Stereotypies in caged parrots, schizophrenia and autism: Evidence for a common mechanism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39, e20.
  3. Luescher, A. (2003). Diagnosis and management of compulsive disorders in dogs and cats. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 33(2), 253-267.
  4. Wright, B. J., & Mansour, M. M. (2003). The serotonin syndrome in dogs: A review. Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, 13(1), 9-17.
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