While many may feel they are chasing their tails at times, a study of canine behavior promises to provide insights into the genetic roots of compulsive behaviors.
University of Helsinki researchers, in collaboration with an international group of researchers, are using an animal model to study the genetic background and environmental factors associated with human obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD).
Researchers reviewed a questionnaire study completed by nearly 400 dog owners and discovered several similarities between compulsive behavior in dogs and humans.
Investigators report the following commonalities: early onset, recurrent compulsive behaviors, increased risk for developing different types of compulsions, compulsive freezing, the beneficial effect of nutritional supplements, the effects of early life experiences and sex hormones and genetic risk.
The study has been published in the journal PLoS ONE.
Experts say that stereotypical behavior in pets has not been studied extensively, even though several different types of compulsive behavior occur in different species including dogs. For example, a dog may recurrently chase lights or shadows, bite or lick its own flank, pace compulsively or chase its own tail.
Researchers believe different environmental and genetic factors can predispose to compulsive behavior. Many stereotypes are breed-specific, which emphasizes the role of genes.
Compulsive tail chasing occurs in several dog breeds, but worldwide it is most common in breeds such as bull terriers and German shepherds.
The aim of this study was to describe the characteristics of tail chasing in dogs, to identify possible environmental risk factors, and to find out whether a previously discovered gene region associated with compulsive behavior is also linked to tail chasing.
Nearly 400 Finnish dogs were included in this study, including bull terriers, miniature bull terriers, German shepherds and Staffordshire bull terriers.
Researchers discovered a connection with stereotypic OCD behavior and vitamins and minerals. Dogs that received nutritional supplements, especially vitamins and minerals, with their food, chased their tails less.
“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 researcher Katriina Tiira, Ph.D.
Follow-up studies will aim to determine whether vitamins could be beneficial in the treatment of tail chasing.
Researchers also found that in comparison to control dogs, tail chasers suffered more from also other stereotypic behaviors. In addition, tail chasers were more timid and afraid of loud noises.
This finding also correlates to human behavior.
“Different types of compulsive behavior occur simultaneously in humans suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder or other diseases such as autism” said the head of the study, Dr. Hannes Lohi.
Dogs may turn out to be of significant use in investigating the causes of human psychiatric diseases, he said.
“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.”
The gene region previously associated with compulsive flank licking and biting in Dobermans was not found to be associated with tail chasing in any of the breeds in this study. The next aim of this research project is thus to discover new gene regions connected to tail chasing.
The study is part of a larger DOGPSYCH project, funded by the European Research Council, in which the genetic background of different anxiety disorders, such as timidity, compulsive behavior and sound sensitivity are investigated, as well as their similarities with corresponding human diseases.
Source: University of Helsinki