Compulsive disorder

I know a girl who spends a lot of her day pulling out tiny hair from the backs of her fingers and scratching her pimples till they bleed and scar. Some humans mutilate themselves by inflicting cuts on their bodies. Not to kill themselves but to cause pain that makes them feel better. Some people chew nails right down to the cuticle and seem to enjoy the ache. Others go and get regular tattoos that hurt a lot. What makes people do this? They give all sorts of fancy names – borderline personality disorder, for instance. The fact is that no one knows what the trigger is.

Do animals do the same? I have adopted a very strange dog who was thrown out of his house because all he did was bite his own body till he got smelly sores. While he has stopped most of it, he does it again when his hair gets long. He pulls the hair out, making whimpering noises of pain- usually when I have visitors. Some years ago, we had a dog who licked and licked his front foot till he had a large wound. Any dressing was quickly bitten off. We had to put an Elizabethan collar round him till the wound healed. Dogs that are tied up in the same place all day are likely to start hurting themselves.

Some owners complain that their cats lick themselves so hard that they get red oozing sores. They do not do it in front of humans, being secret lickers.

Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Alsatians, Great Danes, Dobermans are some of the dogs that also suffer from this: they lick themselves obsessively till they develop sores. Most abused parts of the body are the base and tips of the tail and the legs. This has nothing to do with fungus, fleas or infection. It has no reason. Watch an animal do this and you will see the dazed hypnotized look on its face. Vets have named it Canine Compulsive Disorder.

Turtles do it too, biting at their legs. Snakes chew their tails. Horses bite their flanks violently drawing blood and opening old wounds. This is accompanied with bursts of spinning, kicking and bucking. Zoo animals do it a lot: circling for hours, rubbing their skin to the point of breaking it, banging their heads against walls, picking out hair.

Humans with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) get fixated on cleaning their hands. The same problem is obsessive cats who use their rasping tongues to clean themselves, or as vets call it, overgroom.

Caged birds are the worst. They pull out their feathers from the roots, shrieking with pain but carrying on till the feathers lie in a heap and there is blood on the root shafts.

In nature, grooming each other, monkeys pulling out insects, or simply combing each other’s hair, is done to make each other feel good. Cats and rabbits spend a few hours of each day washing and cleaning themselves. Seals and sea lions comb their own fur. Birds fluff and preen themselves. Snakes finish a meal by wiping their faces on the ground. Humans go to hairdressers and massage parlours to relax. Grooming changes the chemistry of the brain. It releases opiates into the blood, brings down blood pressure, slows breathing. People do lots of small things: twirl hair, twist eyebrows, scratch ears, stroke their own cheeks, bite nails, chew gums, poke noses – anything that relaxes the body . Sometimes these processes are painful – like picking pimples till they burst or scratching scabs before they are dry – but the pain is followed by release. All people do some of these things to maintain an active yet calm state. Self mutilations enlarge this pain-pleasure syndrome. “ Q. Why are you doing this ? A. Because it feels so good when I stop.” The routines at a beauty parlour are also painful- body waxing, threading, acid peels, electrolysis, lasers, botox injections, facelifts. This is pain for self care. This could tip over into self-harm.

When vets see this syndrome, the good ones ask about the environment of an animal. Acute stress, boredom, isolation are the three main factors. The problem of isolation should be solved immediately. This has an immediate impact on the mutilation. All herd animals like horses get very stressed when alone. The single most common denominator among animals who self harm is isolation. Birds, monkeys, donkeys, horses, rabbits, people and pets are all social creatures. Touch plays a big role in the lives of all of these species and, when left alone, that physical contact disappears and anxiety increases. Preening and self-grooming is one way animals and people cope with anxiety. Self touch is soothing but a poor substitute for contact with others.

The boredom of doing the same thing everyday also leads to this problem. Vets advise enriching the environment and doing more things with the animal. Dogs need to be exercised, both mentally and physically. Parrots are known for over-preening, feather plucking and even picking open their flesh with their beaks. Feather plucking is often a symptom of boredom. Parrots are highly intelligent creatures and with nothing to do but preen, they eventually get overzealous. In Phoenix Zoo when two coyotes were found mutilating themselves, the keepers hid their food on different branches, gave them food to play with and made them forage for their food. Within a week, the mutilation had stopped. Basically the animals need to be excited and distracted into wanting to live.

Stress can come when feeding is erratic or the animal is faced with an ever present danger – birds who are in cages with cats around, wrong temperature, harsh smells, for instance. Emotionally disturbing situations cause self-injurious behaviour, particularly those over which the individual has little or no control, like being locked up alone. The cause of stress must be eliminated. Scientists have noted for years that primates in captive situations are prone to self-mutilation, especially if kept in solitary conditions. Rhesus macaques bite themselves. Primates that are extremely frustrated may also present self-harming behaviours. If the animal cannot escape or attack when something or someone induces fear, it may bite itself in the same spot repeatedly. These injuries will start small and eventually become obvious. Sometimes the animals may even lose limbs because the damage is so severe.

Humans too need stimulation. Boredom, as everyone knows, is the starting point of harm to the individual and all the people around him/her. Isolation for a human is the worst thing you can do because we too are herd animals. A number of self mutilators have been cured by simply getting them pets.


Maneka Gandhi

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*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*