When Pet Grooming Goes Bad?

If physicians worked more collaboratively with veterinarians there would be tremendous benefits for both animal and human health according to Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, authors of the new book, “Zoobiquity:  what Animals can Teach Us about Health and the Science of Healing.”  Natterson-Horowitz is a professor of cardiology at UCLA and a cardiovascular consultant to the Los Angeles Zoo.  This new book is full of examples of from a variety of species that reveal the potential benefits of this collaboration, but a particularly interesting one is the potential link between dogs who chew themselves destructively and people who cut themselves.

In animals, grooming is part of the social structure.  We see this all the time when our son’s 15-pound terrier mix Oscar dutifully gives our 125-pound Newfie Splash a dental.  According to Natterson-Hortowitz, “The huge importance of social grooming isn’t limited to primates or even land mammals.  In the fish world, it sometimes keeps the peace.  A tropical reef dweller called the cleaner wrasse operates what are, in effect, underwater spas, where it eats parasites and scar tissue off other fish.  These include much larger predators that would normally (and literally) eat the wrasses for breakfast.  But in the calming atmosphere of the cleaning station, the wrasses approach the bigger fish without fear, darting around their teeth and even into their gills.  Scientists have found that grooming’s calming effect is felt not only by the fish receiving the cleaning but also by fish waiting their turn.  Both the anticipation and the experience of grooming seem to make the predator fish less likely to chase any fish in the area…Grooming’s powerful calming effect applies as  much to solo as to social cleaning rituals.  Cats and rabbits may spend up to a third of their waking hours fastidiously licking themselves.”

Grooming alters the neurochemistry in the human brain as well, releasing opiates into our blood stream, lowering our blood pressure and slowing our breathing.  So maybe that’s why so many of us love a trip to a spa?
But why does pet grooming go bad?  Why do some dogs compulsively chew themselves (known as overgroomers by veterinarians)?  Why do some people cut themselves (known as self-injurers by psychiatrists)?  Could the reason be biochemical?

Some monkeys harm themselves.  Natterson-Hortowitz reports, “Researchers in Massachusetts outfitted a group of rhesus monkeys known to be self-biters with tiny vests housing heart-rate monitors the scientists could check with a remote control.  They found that when the monkeys naturally nibbled at their unfamiliar new ensembles, their hearts showed no significant spike or drop.  But when the monkeys bit themselves, their heart rates were markedly elevated for 30 seconds before the behavior then dropped dramatically the instant their teeth hit fur.  A precipitous drop in heart rate – especially one that comes suddenly after it’s been elevated by thrill or fear — can create the feeling of calm.”

She theorizes, “So one reason people and animals self-injure may be biochemical:  they are caught in a neurotransmitter-based feedback loop in which their bodies reward them with calmness and good feelings after they do something that causes pain.”

Currently, veterinarians suspect dogs that gnaw themselves are suffering from allergies, boredom, stress or isolation.  So we change a dog’s diet and turn them into coneheads to try to prevent the chewing.  But what if the cause of a pet’s destructive grooming habits is in their brain chemistry?  Should we be trying to alter their biochemistry instead?  Should we be looking into using drugs such as Prozac or Busbar rather than worrying about switching from a lamb & rice based food to salmon and potato?  Since our dogs can’t speak how will we know if they’re having worrisome side effects from the drugs?  Have you used drugs to combat hot spots? What do you think?

Thanks for reading!