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Dogs chasing their tails may reveal why humans struggle with OCD

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We’ve all watched with befuddled amusement while our pets loop around in a dizzying and fruitless attempt to capture their own tails. A new study now suggests that a closer look at that peculiar canine behavior may bring answers about genetic variations that lead to obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) in people.

According to Today Health on Monday, human and canine versions of the compulsive disorders are very similar from a genetic point of view. “Dogs may lick their paws to the point of injury while people may wash their hands until they bleed,” Today points out as an example.

Therefore, scientists hope that by taking a closer look at specific dog breeds that are prone to tail-chasing – German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, bull terriers and Shetland sheepdogs – they may better understand the underlying genetic mechanisms that trigger neurotic repetitive behaviors in humans, and be in a position to formulate more effective treatment options.

Elinor Karlsson, Ph.D., a scientist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge and at the Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University, says that in neuroscience, a biological network or neural pathway is formed by millions of interconnected neurons, which form a recognizable linear pathway.

In other words, a familiar trail of cells is made in our brain, and this pathway leads to logical conclusions, at least for most of us. Karlsson hypothesizes that in dogs with OCD, and perhaps humans with OCD, “the circuit that tells us when a task is complete, for example, is somehow broken.”

“Basically, maybe there’s no message being sent that says a task is completed, it’s time to stop,” Dr. Karlsson explains.

Hyun Ji, Ph.D., a peer of Karlssons and a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute, said: “Dogs have a simpler genetic architecture, and that simpler architecture gives us a lot of really important clues about human OCD.”

Dogs with OCD respond well to treatments, such as medication and behavior modification. According to PetMed, “common dog behaviors which can be classified as compulsive include spinning, tail chasing, fly biting, light chasing, barking, chewing, staring into space, sucking on a toy, or sucking on a part of the body.”

Dogs with such compulsive disorders are often given medications to lower arousal and ease a dog’s sense of internal conflict. Owners are also trained in behavioral responses to employ when they see their pet engaged in obsessive behavior.

“Dogs are a really powerful model for us, and eventually the hope is to help both dogs and humans with OCD,” says Karlsson. “We owe a big debt of gratitude to the dogs and their humans who send in the DNA.”

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