Behaviorists call these behaviors stereotypies; veterinarians prefer the term compulsive disorders. These are behaviors that an animal does over and over again, in an identical pattern. A familiar example is animals confined in a zoo who pace back and forth in their pens. Often, these enclosures are too small and the animals don’t have enough to do.

Stereotypies in pets can develop for a variety of reasons. This is one problem for which you should absolutely have your dog or cat thoroughly evaluated by your veterinarian, and perhaps by a veterinary neurologist, dermatologist, ophthalmologist or specialist in internal medicine. Your pet may have a skin infection, a vision problem, or something wrong with his nervous system.

Stereotypies can also develop for behavioral reasons. A common cause is stress or conflict. Perhaps your pet is being harassed or bullied by another pet. Maybe your pet has just joined your family and is stressed from trying to adapt to his new living situation. Moving to a new house can also be a stressor that can trigger a stereotypy as can an unpredictable lifestyle or even consistent and unpredictable noises that your pet is afraid of.

Or, like confined animals in a zoo, these behaviors can also develop if your pet’s environment and lifestyle isn’t meeting his behavioral needs. Perhaps your dog or cat is left alone a lot, or doesn’t have enough to do to occupy his time.

Behavioral researchers have found a strong genetic component to some of these behaviors, such as tail chasing in bull terriers. Sometimes these behaviors can persist even after the event that started them goes away. For example, perhaps your cat begins pulling her hair out because she is stressed after a new kitten is added to the family. Or your dog begins licking her paw excessively because she is afraid of the frequent summer thunderstorms.

Even if the kitten is rehomed and thunderstorm season ends, if the hair pulling and licking have become the pets’ preferred way of coping with stress, the behaviors can persist.

These problems can be quite complex and often require both behavior modification as well as medication prescribed by a veterinarian to resolve.