Canine Self-Mutilating Behavior

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Amy Marder, V.M.D.

Luke looked pitiful when he walked into my office with his owner, Madelon. The three-year-old Doberman wore an “Elizabethan collar” around his neck, and I saw a healing skin wound in front his left armpit. Another Doberman with an unusual behavior problem, I thought.

Canine Self-Mutilating Behavior

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A few months earlier, Luke had begun to attack his own armpit as he screamed and growled “like a whirling dervish.” Since the behavior originated in the backyard, Madelon’s veterinarian suspected irritating plant material. Treatment for skin irritation did not stop the behavior, however, so Luke was fitted with an Elizabethan collar to keep him from biting himself. But as soon as the collar was removed, the behavior resumed. Puzzled, Luke’s veterinarian did blood tests and biopsied the area that the dog kept attacking. The bloodwork was normal. The biopsy showed inflammation of the local blood vessels, but it was unclear if the skin abnormality was the cause or the result of Luke’s attacks upon himself. The veterinarian prescribed medication to reduce inflammation. Unfortunately, it did not solve the problem, and the dog was referred to me.

The Clue at the Kennel
After listening to Luke’s history, I removed the collar to observe the canine whirling dervish. Although the behavior occurred almost everywhere that Luke was taken, it did not occur at the boarding kennel. Luke did not wear the collar at the kennel, and he did not attack himself. At the kennel, Luke was permitted to play with other dogs; at home, he was often outside by himself. Did the distraction of the other dogs keep his mind off his armpit? Maybe this all started as a way to get attention!

In setting up Luke’s treatment plan, the first objective was for the wound to heal. Healing tissue can itch, so Luke was to wear his Elizabethan collar at all times. Chewing of the area would only impede healing. At the same time, Madelon was to make sure that Luke was not alone in the backyard. She was to play with him (like the other dogs did) and do some obedience exercises. I also started Luke on Clomipramine, an anti-obsessional medication that has also been approved for use in dogs with separation anxiety.

Starting to Heal
Luke’s wound healed uneventfully. Shortly afterwards, Madelon went away for a week. Luke stayed at his favorite kennel. No self-attacks! I then asked Madelon to begin to take Luke’s collar off when he was in the house with people. The behavior didn’t recur! We are now trying him in the backyard without the collar, and so far, so good! Luke will stay on the Clomi-pramine for a month after the behavior has completely disappeared. Obedience and play with Madelon will continue.

We may never know exactly what caused Luke to begin this disturbing behavior, and we hope that with ongoing interaction with others, he’ll never feel the need to attack himself again.

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