The Dogs Must Be Crazy
Can animals get OCD? A leading Massachusetts veterinarian says yes—and his work might hold the key to understanding human obsessive-compulsive disorders as well.
On a muggy July afternoon, Nicholas Dodman, the director of Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, in North Grafton, was presented with a six-month-old German shepherd named Ryeko who wouldn’t stop chasing his tail. The dog’s maddening behavior had made his owners desperate for a cure. They’d hired pricey trainers, changed his diet, intensified his exercise routine, scolded him, ignored him, and scoured the Internet for remedies. In a final attempt to help their pet, they sat in Dodman’s office, anxiously awaiting a diagnosis as their dog whirled incessantly in frenzied circles, careening into the desk, the chair, and then the wall.
Dodman’s reputation for solving the most intractable animal-behavior problems has made him a celebrity. He’s written several bestselling books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help, and his insights into animal minds have landed him on Oprah, Today, and Nova. He scanned Ryeko’s chart through wire-rimmed glasses. Then he looked up and pronounced, “I’ve seen a lot worse.” He told Ryeko’s owners that he suspected the dog was suffering from a canine version of OCD—and that he knew how to rescue the pup from a lifetime of misery.
Dodman, now 67, is convinced that his animal research could revolutionize the treatment of human obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) as well. According to Dodman, human and animal compulsions are rooted in the same causes, and open to many of the same remedies. If his theory proves true, his studies will offer scientists a powerful new way to decode the human mind and add yet another layer to the deep bond that lets people and dogs help one another heal.
Nicholas Dodman didn’t set out to be a pet shrink. He’d trained as an anesthesiologist, joined the Tufts faculty in the early ’80s, and first encountered compulsive animal behavior shortly thereafter, when the Tufts pharmacologist Louis Shuster invited the young faculty member to consult on a horse with a troubling habit known as cribbing.
What Dodman saw affected him deeply: Cribbing horses spend their days obsessively biting their stall doors, troughs, or nearby fence posts. They grip the wood in their mouths and arch their necks while gulping air. Over time, cribbing horses wear down their teeth, swallow splintered wood, and often become emaciated. The behavior had been observed for centuries, but no one knew what caused it or how to stop it.
In those early days of animal-behavior research, the idea that animals other than humans might suffer from mental illness was considered absurd. Habits such as cribbing were believed to be “stereotypies”—mindless actions without any deeper meaning or avenues for treatment. But Shuster wasn’t convinced. He’d read that morphine injections sometimes triggered cribbing, and he had a hunch that if morphine, an opioid, could activate the habit, then blocking the brain’s homegrown opioids—endorphins—might counter the urge. To test his theory, he needed an anesthesiologist, and recruited Dodman to inject the horse with opioid receptor blockers. Sure enough, after the injection, the destructive behavior vanished.
Dodman and Shuster had stumbled upon a completely new idea. Endorphins are the brain’s defense against pain, stress, and anxiety. Dodman surmised that these stall-bound horses were “bored out of their minds,” and that, through all that biting, huffing, and puffing, the horses were getting a stress-relieving high off their own endorphins. When the drugs blocked the high, cribbing lost its allure.
“That’s when the penny dropped,” Dodman told me when I visited him in his Tufts office. The disordered jumble of books, journals, and tchotchkes in the space were in stark contrast to Dodman himself, an Englishman dressed neatly in an Oxford shirt and tie underneath his white medical coat.
Inspired by the success of the horse study, Dodman opened his animal-behavior clinic in 1986—and soon began seeing species-specific compulsions everywhere he looked: tigers obsessively pacing in their cages, captive monkeys incessantly masturbating, aquarium seals devouring coins tossed into their tanks. But dogs, with their tail-chasing, blanket-sucking, and invisible rabbit–stalking, were his most frequent patients.
Now, 27 years and countless dogs later, Dodman is on the cusp of using his research to treat a very different kind of animal: man.