We recently treated a cat and a dog who kept compulsively chewing a body part. This blog about self-mutilation is not for the faint of heart, so I will try to keep it PG 13 and will not share pictures of the damage…
I will describe how we “cured” both pets, and then I will try to explain why pets do that to themselves.
Ethel and her tail
Ethel, a 4-year-old kitty, was obsessed with chewing her tail. Her owner remembers (recall, this is not for the faint of heart !!!):
“It started out of the blue. One morning, I noticed a large spot of blood on a blanket that the cats sleep on at the bottom of my bed. After checking them out, I found out that the end of Ethel’s tail was bleeding. The bone at the end of her tail was sticking out through the skin. I still do not know what caused the injury.”
The ER doctor recommended removing the tip of her tail. Ethel had no issues for the first 3 days after surgery. On the 4th day, the owner removed her cone to help her eat. While she wasn’t looking, Ethel started licking her tail and removed some of the skin around the stitches! The owner went back to the ER, where more of the tail was removed. This time, the owner removed the cone after 2 weeks as instructed. Ethel was fine for the first day, but then she started chewing and licking at her tail constantly. She damaged her tail yet again, and the cone went back on for 10 days! After a third surgery to fix the damage, Ethel was referred to HRVSS.
There was no logical explanation for Ethel’s obsession with her tail and her self-mutilation. When we met, I told Ethel’s owner that being wishy-washy would lead to the same result. So I recommended sacrificing the entire tail with the hope – not the guarantee – that it would solve the problem once and for all. After her tail amputation, Ethel recovered smoothly from anesthesia.
Her owner commented: “When I first saw her, it was a little strange seeing her with a shaved butt and a nub for a tail. The surgery didn’t change her behavior.” Her owner concludes: “I don’t think that she even realizes that she has no tail anymore. Since her surgery, she has no new compulsions and has no new injuries caused by licking or biting.”
6 months after surgery, Ethel is still back to her normal self.
Gracie and her foot
Our second patient, Gracie, a 4-year-old Lab mix, was obsessed with chewing her foot. There was trauma in her case, but nothing dramatic: her owner accidentally stepped on her right front paw while playing basketball. She ended up with 2 small wounds on her foot. The owner cleaned her wounds, put ointment on them & wrapped her paw. She thought Gracie was on the mend after about 4 days, “but she started licking, nibbling & eventually chewing at her paw over the next few days.”
The ER vet cleaned her paw and bandaged it again. When we met, I told Gracie’s owner that being wishy-washy would lead to the same result.
SENSITIVE READERS, PLEASE BEWARE BEFORE YOU CONTINUE…
By the time I saw the foot, 2 toes were severely damaged (with bone exposed and all), and all of her nails had been bitten off. So I recommended removing 2 toes (i.e., a double toe amputation), with the hope that the rest of the foot would heal enough to allow Gracie to use the leg again. This was a big leap of faith for the owner. The surgery went well, and Gracie recovered smoothly from anesthesia. After surgery, her owner remembers “I was so relieved & I could immediately tell she was happy to see me!!”
“The day I brought her home from surgery, besides a limp or not wanting to walk on that foot, her personality was right back to normal. She is not missing her 2 toes. She hasn’t been trying to bite or nibble her foot at all. She’ll lick it occasionally, but nothing abnormal. She hasn’t started bothering with any other areas. She was SO QUICK to be back to herself the day she came home; I think she was just SO relieved the “bad part” of her foot was gone.”
4 months after surgery, Gracie is still back to her normal self.
Why do pets chew a body part?
This is a difficult question to answer since pets consistently refuse to answer the question. Self-mutilation can take multiple forms: flank sucking, tail chasing, overgrooming, chewing (of the foot or many other body parts) are forms of compulsive disorders. Finding the cause is difficult but critical. If there is a condition of the skin, the nerves, or the spine, it may be treatable.
In some pets, behavioral therapy and medications may help. And in some cases, we just don’t know.
Now… if you think about it, many pets left unattended, or pets whose owners remove the plastic cone too soon after surgery will frantically lick their incision. They can cause irritation, infection, or even open it up. And people are no better: many of us chew our nails, rip our cuticles, or chew the inside of our cheek… and it can get far worse (if you suffer from self-mutilation, please seek medical help). Why do we do it, knowing it will hurt later? We are complex living creatures, and so are pets…
Thankfully, Ethel’s and Gracie’s owner trusted that amputation was a good solution, and they were rewarded for their trust. And now Ethel and Gracie can enjoy life again…
– Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified