In Dr. Pretlow’s presentation, one section concerns a male fish who somehow knows that after he mates with the female, she will kill him. He actually should run away. But he wants to stay and mate, so there is a tremendous conflict, which he deals with by doing a displacement behavior, bouncing up and down on his head.
Next is a section about displacement behaviors in dogs, which can include yawning “when they are confused about what to do.” This recalls advice given to drivers who need to stay alert on long trips. They are told to chew gum, because supposedly when the jaw moves, more oxygen gets to the brain. (Is it possible that the yawn is not pointless, and this is not an out-of-context, inappropriate action? Maybe a confused dog knows from experience that some jaw motion will help clear his head a bit, and end his confusion?)
Likewise, excessive paw-licking, to the point where it becomes an acral lick disorder, is believed to be caused by psychological reasons like boredom, stress, or anxiety. But even an amoeba knows to avoid pain (or at least to distance itself from something that would hurt, if it had a nervous system). Is it possible, at least sometimes, that paw-licking is not displacement behavior; that the animal is simply licking because the paw hurts or itches, and the humans have not yet understood that? There are several physical causes that a good veterinarian will first rule out, before declaring the harmful licking activity to be psychologically based.
How do researchers know such things?
Some of this science is based on looking at what is effective for humans and working backward from that. Clomipramine treats OCD, panic disorder, depressive disorder, and chronic pain in humans. So, it was given to dogs, who then ceased their obsessive and harmful licking. But was that because the drug had a psychological effect, or simply because it relieved physically-caused pain or itching?
Because of its side effects, clomipramine is disliked by humans. Another drug, sertraline, is much better tolerated, and preferred by people suffering from OCD, panic attacks, depression, PTSD, and social anxiety. However, sertraline also treats chronic pain, so the same shadow of doubt might remain. When a dog abandons excessive paw-licking, is it responding well because the drug is effective against the canine equivalent of OCD? Or is it simply responding to the relief of pain caused by some other, as-yet-unknown physical problem?
One of the fun things about a pet cat is watching what it does, on the rare occasion when it embarrassingly loses its footing. More than likely, the cat will casually start licking itself, as if to say, “What are you looking at? I’m just doing my normal grooming over here.” What else is it supposed to do? It can’t blush. Chances are, any activity the cat engaged in at this moment would be classified by the human observer as displacement behavior.
The tricky thing about displacement behavior is that it can look just like normal behavior, except that human observers have determined that the activity is not proper in the animal’s particular context at the moment.
A cat tip
Experts say, go easy with the laser pointer. Don’t let it be your only cat toy, or even the main one. The laser is a lot more fun for the human than for the cat, who experiences frustration at chasing prey it can never catch. This might lead to some wacky displacement behavior, like licking a big patch of fur off itself.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Image by jeffreyw/CC BY 2.0