Behavior Counseling - Compulsive, Stereotypic and Displacement Disorders

What is displacement behavior?

Displacement behaviors are those that are considered normal in certain situations but abnormal when they occur in a different situation. They don’t make sense at the time they are displayed.

Displacement behaviors arise from situations of conflict or frustration. Emotional conflict occurs in situations where there is motivation to perform two or more competing behaviors. For example, when a dog is asked by its handler to sit and stay when approaching to greet a friend, the dog is motivated to move forward and greet, and is also motivated to follow the sit/stay cue as trained. She might sit, as asked, and at the same time lick her lips or yawn. Both licking and yawning are normal behaviors, but in this case, they stem from frustration and are out of context.

Another example: A dog confined by a barrier, such as a fence, may be motivated to approach a dog passing by the yard. The dog might exhibit a displacement behavior such as digging near the fence line.

Other common displacement behaviors include scratching or licking the body when there is no “itch”, shaking a toy outside of the context of play, and shaking off when there is nothing on the fur.

What is redirected behavior?

Redirected behavior is directed toward an alternative target - not the original stimulus for the behavior. Most commonly, this is redirected aggression. Redirected behavior reflects an underlying frustration related to the inability to access the stimulus that triggered the initial response. For example, a house cat sitting on the windowsill notices a cat outdoors. The house cat may become aroused but cannot get through the window to reach the outside cat. While in this state, he may turn to a nearby house cat or person and redirect his aggression toward them.

What is stereotypic behavior?

Stereotypic behaviors are repetitive behavior patterns that appear to have no purpose or function. The behaviors are usually short or partial sequences of normal behaviors. Stereotypic behaviors may be performed as components of displacement behaviors or compulsive disorders. Stereotypic behaviors such as circling and head bobbing can also be seen with certain neurologic diseases. Examples of stereotypic behavior include repetitive pacing and excessive grooming.

What is a compulsive disorder?

A compulsive disorder is a condition diagnosed when a pet engages in a repetitive behavior pattern that has no function and is performed so often it interferes with normal daily function. An animal may initially engage in a repetitive behavior when in a state of emotional conflict. Initially, a specific trigger may be apparent. Over time, the behavior becomes more intense, occurring in the absence of a clear trigger. These behaviors can be very difficult to interrupt. Common examples of compulsive behaviors include circling, tail chasing, light or shadow chasing, self-trauma, and wool sucking.

Can compulsive disorders be prevented?

There may be a genetic predisposition to developing a compulsive disorder even in the absence of emotional conflict. For example, German shepherds from certain bloodlines are predisposed to chasing their tails, and some breeds of cats (Burmese, Siamese) are at risk of developing wool-sucking behavior.

If you notice your pet exhibiting a repetitive, out-of-context behavior, have your veterinarian screen for a possible underlying medical condition. Pets experiencing pain or pruritis (itchiness) can begin to lick or scratch repetitively. Neurologic conditions can cause circling, self-mutilation, and air snapping; gastrointestinal illnesses can cause pets to lick surfaces.

"If you notice your pet exhibiting a repetitive, out-of-context behavior, have your veterinarian screen for a possible underlying medical condition."

If there is no medical explanation for the behavior, the next step is to identify possible sources of emotional conflict. Often, there are environmental factors to address. Be sure your pet has adequate social and environmental enrichment (see handouts “Cat Behavior and Training - Enrichment for Indoor Cats Behavior Management” and “Using Predictability, Scheduling, and Enrichment to Train Your Dog”).

A behavior professional can help you identify and address underlying anxiety or frustration. It is important to recognize common trigger situations or contexts. Some triggers may be easily avoided, while others may require a behavior modification program to reduce arousal (see handout “Overcoming Fears with Desensitization and Counterconditioning”).

In the early stages, compulsive behaviors may be easily interrupted. It can be helpful to teach your pet an incompatible behavior you can ask for whenever you notice the compulsive behavior beginning. For instance, you can teach your dog or cat to lie down with their chin on the ground and hold that posture for a minute or two, long enough that the urge to engage in the repetitive behavior has passed.

It is important to guide your pet to an alternative behavior that is calming, and avoid inadvertently rewarding the problem behavior. Particularly in the early stages, if you simply call your pet for a treat or toy when she begins the compulsive behavior, she may engage in the behavior more frequently, having learned that she would receive a reward. At this point, the behavior may be a motivated desire for attention, not a compulsive disorder. Do not encourage your dog to chase her tail even it she appears to be playful. Dogs should not be invited or encouraged to chase laser light beam toys.

It is important that you do not scold or punish your pet. Punishment can trigger fear and increase anxiety. If the behavior represents a compulsive disorder, punishment can put your pet in a state of emotional conflict, as she would be “compelled” to do the behavior despite the risk of being punished.

If your pet is overgrooming or chewing on herself, it is rarely helpful to simply use a bandage or Elizabethan collar to block her access. Sometimes protection is needed to allow lesions to heal; however, without a behavioral treatment plan that addresses the cause of the behavior, it is likely to resume once the protection is removed - often with an increased intensity.

Can drugs help treat compulsive disorders?

Medications that reduce frustration and anxiety may be useful for pets with compulsive disorders. Lowered serotonin and increased dopamine levels may be associated with some compulsive disorders. Drugs that normalize one or both of these neurotransmitters may be most effective (e.g., clomipramine, sertraline, paroxetine, fluoxetine). This class of medication is used daily. Additional medications may be used as needed when exposure to a stress-inducing trigger is anticipated. Some compulsive disorders, such as head bobbing in dogs and hyperesthesia (extreme sensitivity to stimuli) in cats, may be difficult to differentiate from seizure disorders. Your veterinarian may recommend you try an anticonvulsant medication prior to prescribing behavioral medication.

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