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OCD About Pets and Animals: Harm

pets-and-ocd

Unfortunately, not even man’s best friend is immune from OCD’s influence. Pet obsessions may focus on harm, violence, contamination, scrupulosity, and sex.


Obsessions focusing on pets and animals incorporate all the common themes: contamination, checking, harm, scrupulosity, and sex.

In this 3-part blog series, I discuss some of the common ways obsessions may target our lovable, snuggable friends.

This article, Part 1, will focus on harm obsessions; Part 2 will cover contamination obsessions; and Part 3 will address sexual obsessions and scrupulosity, as they pertain to pets and animals.

Pets. You gotta love ‘em. They’re so cute. They’re so cuddly. They always get excited when they see you.

So why does OCD hate them so much anyway?

Probably because we love them.

Just as OCD tends to torment parents who love their children, OCD also loves to torment pet owners who love their pets.

Get ready to brace yourself for all sorts of violent and horrific thoughts about pets and animals.

It doesn’t matter what type of pet you have. Dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, bunnies, snakes, flying squirrels, chinchillas, mice, rats, guinea pigs, gerbils, potbellied pigs, fish, horses, cows, chickens, frogs, turtles, lizards, YOU NAME IT! The list goes on and on. Obsessions about pets and other animals can occur across all species.

Let’s begin by identifying some examples of pet- and animal-focused OCD harm obsessions:

OCD and Pets – Fear of Accidental Harm

These OCD violent obsessions often focus on preventing possible harm to pets or other animals. Worries include the fear of causing harm through negligence or irresponsibility. Here are some examples…

  • Fear of not locking a fence/gate properly and having your dog escape and be injured or killed.
  • Fear of leaving on an appliance (e.g., a stove, curling iron), starting a fire, and burning down your house…thereby killing your pet.
  • Fear of forgetting your cat or dog’s medication and causing some type of resultant harm.
  • Fear of accidentally hitting your dog with your car.
  • Fear of accidentally trapping your puppy or kitten in the oven.
  • Fear of unintentionally putting your mouse in the microwave.
  • Fear of inadvertently trapping your dog or cat in the dishwasher.
  • Fear of your cat or dog getting stuck in the washing machine or dryer.
  • Fear of trapping your dog in a hot car or other vehicle.
  • Fear of not closing the front door properly and having your cat or dog escape and be hurt or killed.
  • Fear that you may accidentally harm your rabbit/puppy/kitten while holding it (i.e., break its neck).
  • Fear that a wild animal nearby may be in danger and feeling the need to seek it out and protect it (in the absence of any information that this is actually occurring). For example, you may “sense” that a deer nearby is about to be hit by a car and then feel compelled to seek it out and protect it.
  • Fear that your dog’s leash may break during a walk and your pet might be killed.
  • Fear that you may not be able to protect your pet in a dangerous situation (e.g., when approached by another animal).
  • Fear that you may drop and injure your guinea pig while holding them.
  • Fear of accidentally choking your dog with its leash.
  • Fear that you may roll over and crush your puppy or kitten in your sleep.
Pets and OCD – Fear of Intentional Harm

These OCD animal obsessions often focus on intrusive thoughts that you are a bad person or the fear that you might secretly want to harm your pet. Similar to obsessions in other forms of Pure-O OCD, these violent obsessions often evoke a preponderance of Pure-O OCD mental rituals.

  • Fear of being a serial killer or sociopath and taking action to harm, murder, or kill your pet.
  • Fear of becoming possessed and killing your pet.
  • Getting mad and then fearing that you secretly want to harm your pet.
  • Intrusive urges/impulses to murder or maim your pet while holding him/her (e.g., the impulse to break its neck, strangle it).
  • Intrusive images/movies in your head of harming your pet.
OCD and Animals – Fear of Losing Control and Harming Your Pet

These violent obsessions are similar to those above but focus on a loss of control. They often involve “what if” thoughts about the possibility of harming your pet while in an altered mental state.

  • Fear of sleepwalking and causing harm to your pet in your sleep.
  • Fear of losing consciousness and harming your pet.
  • Fear of harming your pet while intoxicated (e.g., while drinking, using drugs, etc.).
  • Fear of blacking out and harming your pet due to the effects of a new medication you’re taking.
  • Fear of “going crazy” and harming your dog or cat.
  • Fear of becoming possessed and harming your pet.
Pets, Animals, and OCD – Magical Thinking and Fear of Harm

These OCD-based animal obsessions involve magical thinking, which is when you perceive connections between two events that are not logically related. For example, you may perceive that if you don’t do a certain ritual, something bad may happen. For many pet-related violent obsessions, you may fear that resisting certain compulsions could result in your pet’s injury or death.

  • Fear that if you don’t perform a certain ritual, your dog or cat will get sick or die.
  • Fear that if you complete a certain behavior while having a bad thought, the Pure-O OCD bad thought will come true. For example, if you have a thought about your dog getting hit by a car while walking through a doorway, you may feel the need to reenter the doorway while having a “safe” or neutral thought.
  • Fear that if you don’t tap a certain number of times, something bad will happen to your cat.
  • Intrusive, violent images/movies in your head of your pet being harmed that you feel you must neutralize through a compulsion.

As you can see, we have the potential to worry a lot about our pets, our trusted animal companions. Just as with other family members, we’re invested in their survival and well-being, which is exactly why OCD tends to target them.

Whether you’re experiencing the fear that you might accidentally be responsible for causing harm to your pet, or you’re fearful that you might secretly want to harm your pet, it’s important to learn to use exposure and response prevention (ERP) as a tool to stand up to your OCD.

In vivo and imaginal exposure for OCD can be transformative for reducing your symptoms.

OCD wants you to take animal obsessions seriously. OCD wants to you to ritualize by analyzing your violent thoughts, checking your thoughts and intentions, and verifying that every door and gate is locked and secure.

At first, it can be difficult to ignore and resist these rituals. After all, compulsions tend to be framed in the most helpful of terms. Who wouldn’t take a few seconds — a few minutes — a few hours to make sure that everything’s okay? Only a bad person would ignore those thoughts, right?

WRONG!

Overcoming OCD involves learning to notice your thoughts, your feelings, your inclinations to act…and then deliberately choosing a non-response, rather than choosing an action based on OCD guilt or fear. It involves staring your fear in the eye.

Sometimes this is uncomfortable. You may feel negligent, irresponsible, careless, or evil.

But that’s just the tactic that OCD uses to manipulate you in order to keep itself strong.

In reality, doing rituals and following OCD’s directives is short-sighted. Although compulsions may feel good initially, rituals and avoidance provide only short-lived relief and ultimately perpetuate OCD’s game plan.

If you’re not doing rituals, what should you do instead?

Hug your pet, hold your pet, and walk away from the gate without looking back.

Join me next time for Part 2 – Contamination Obsessions Involving Pets and Animals.

Questions?  Do you experience OCD about pets or other animals? Harm-based worries getting you down? Sounds off below.




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18 Comments

  1. Hello Dr. Seay,

    I fear I’m suffering from Harm OCD. Against other people and my pets as well.
    I would like to know if it’s common to experience “urges” to act on violent thoughts against other people and pets when dealing with OCD?
    I doubt myself… lately I’ve been thinking I actually want to act on my violent thoughts, that I would enjoy to act on them and something inside of me wants me to “check” if I really want todo it. I’ve been trying hard, but I just can’t be sure I don’t want it, even though I’ve never thought of anything like this before 4 months ago… the urges seem too real for me to believe it’s just a “lie” OCD is telling me.
    I will sometimes think “the only way out is acting on these thoughts” and fear I’ll choose (not lose control) to act on them soon.
    Is what I have just Harm OCD? Could it be something else? Maybe I turned into a soon to be murderer because of many years of depression, high anxiety, low self-esteem and self hatred…?

    The worst part is I’m not even disgusted by these thoughts anymore. I don’t fear the violent images in my head anymore… now the worst part is doubting myself, my own values and morals. And the feeling I will willingly choose to act on it soon.

    I live in a very poor place in Brazil and have no ways to seek treatment. 🙁

    • Harm OCD is often associated with urges/impulses like you’ve described, and it’s also common for people to worry that they may choose to act on their thoughts. Be careful of using disgust/anxiety as a reassurance, though. Some people feel a level of comfort when they’re disturbed by their thoughts but then frantically begin to second-guess themselves when they begin to habituate to the thoughts. This is common with many types of obsessions, including harm and sexual obsessions.

      Even if it’s difficult, I would encourage you to try to seek out a specialist in OCD treatment who can guide you. If there’s not a local specialist in your part of Brazil, you could probably Skype with a Brazilian OCD specialist who may be at a distance. Here in the U.S., many people don’t have access to a local OCD specialist, and they may consult with remote providers, as needed.

      • Thank you so much for your answer, Dr. Seay! It’s greatly appreciated.

        Can you please explain what are these “urges” about? Are they real “urges”, do we deep down really want to do it…or are they a mix of fear + imagination, or something like that?
        I understands most of it right know – that the thoughts are ego dystonic, that I should not seek reassurance, stop checking and analyzing, etc. But I still can’t comprehend the nature of these “urges”.
        Can you please explain why it happens? I’ve searched but couldn’t find an answer/explanation.

        Thank you, and sorry for taking your time.

        • Be careful to not fall into over-analyzing even the term “urges.” I think this can easily become a form of reassurance. The fear is that the “urges” related to OCD represent “real urges” instead of an OCD symptom. Many people struggle with this. Even though it can be frightening, the best tactic is to accept uncertainty.

          When I have patients who struggle with this, (e.g., What if I’m REALLY a serial killer? What if I’m REALLY a pedophile?), then they have many different options for dealing with it.

          1) Practice mindfulness to notice the urge, but work on observing it rather than judging it. Sit with the feeling and don’t define the experience based on your fear.
          2) Lean into uncertainty. “Maybe this urge is ‘real.’ Maybe it’s not. I’m not going to give into my anxiety and analyze it to death. However, I AM going to actively put myself in situations that bring on this feeling.”

          Once people get better at dealing with these situations, a third technique involves actively agreeing with the unwanted thought and magnifying it. (“This is definitely a true urge, and I can’t wait give into these urges and kill as many people as possible.”). This third strategy is primarily a way to practice good response prevention (i.e., not pushing back against the thought) and take away the power of thoughts. I’m not sure if this third strategy is right for you YET — you’re probably better off with #1 or #2.

          • The problem with urges is indeed entertainment. Why would anyone feel urges to harm if they don’t want to harm? I literally feel urges to grab dangerous objects and have to restrain myself (or at least I feel like I need to, maybe it’s OCD/anxiety tricking me once gain).

            That’s why I’m so curious about this, but can’t find a good explanation anywhere. I think it’s a mix of fear + anxiety + imagination + our regular need to “check” if it’s real… but I just really wanted to find a “professional” answer/explanation about the “mechanism” of the urges and why do they happen.

            I’ll try to find help soon, but while I don’t I’ll definitely stop mental rituals as much as I can. I’ve already stopped some of of it and can say I feel better when I don’t do anything with my thoughts.

            Thank you so much for the tips, your help and taking you time to explain and talk to us, that’s so kind of you.
            Hope you have a great, peaceful week. Thank you!

          • One more thing — it also sounds like part of your struggle is that you’re blending “urges” with “intentions.” It sounds like you feel that intentions drive urges, or that urges are a natural byproduct of intentions or “desires” or “wants.” Wouldn’t it be freeing if you didn’t see it that way? If you could simply notice “urges” as neutral, rather than loading them up with meaning about who you are, what they say about you, and what you “really” want, etc. That is partly the goal of mindfulness — to see things as they are, rather than seeing them through the filter of our thinking or our fears.

            I’m not at all saying that perceptions of “intention” remain intact in OCD. They most certainly don’t. Many people with severe OCD can’t tell what they “want” or who they “are.” That is the nature of their problem. But you might find it helpful to at least treat these constructs as distinct.

            I also think your search for finding a good explanation is a reassurance-based ritual. Yes, it’s completely understandable, and yes, it would be wonderful if you could perfectly conceptualize it. But pursuing this too much really is an attempt to make your thoughts “safe” or get certainty that you won’t do anything to harm anyone. At some point, you have to accept that science and experts can’t exactly give you the answers you seek, and that the most healthy goal is to accept the uncertainty and get practice feeling it.

            “I may not know whether or not these thoughts or ‘urges” are safe, but I’m going to get a lot of practice experiencing them and putting myself in situations where I feel vulnerable to them.”

            Then do the ERP. 🙂

      • I was forgetting: Ok, I’ll try to find a therapist who could talk to me via Skype. Thank you so much, once again.

        The only therapist I know who could help me can do CBT but she doesn’t apply ERP; she basically only tells us to stop reacting to the toughts and focus on something else. Could Harm OCD be cured without ERP?

  2. I try to understand.but how can i feel some safety to go on when i have urge to kill my closest family ?i need some way to trust myself.before they only came so real and stayed for a little While,and i knewed that i loved them and WouldNT act.but now it ha been here for 5 weeks without a break. I dont know how to mote on.and know for sure i maybe cant stay with my family,when the thoughts is about my doughter. Maybe i have to let them live alone with out me..

    • I think it’s time to get some professional assistance with this. ERP can be absolutely game-changing. If you have OCD, any rituals or avoidance you might engage in will only make it worse. This would include taking a break from being around your family. If you have OCD, this will give you temporary relief, but it will only make the OCD stronger in the long run. Read some articles or books about harm OCD, but do seek out a therapist who can help. If you’re having trouble locating one, the International OCD Foundation (iocdf.org) might be able to assist.

  3. Im diagnosed with ocd,i have had different thoughts for 17 years,but i still doubth.am i not dangerous for my family then?

    • As I’m sure you’ve read elsewhere, despite their violent thoughts, people with OCD who have harm obsessions are not “dangerous people.” Rather, they’re generally nice people who tend to have bad habits in dealing with unwanted thoughts. They often over-interpret (and overreact to) unwanted thoughts. These overreactions (i.e., compulsions and avoidance) result in them having more frequent and more intense intrusive thoughts.

      The challenge in dealing with OCD is that most everyone with harm obsessions has doubts about whether or not they truly have OCD. They want perfect proof that they’re not dangerous. Because perfect proof is impossible, they get stuck. That’s why — ultimately — OCD treatment is based around accepting uncertainty rather than striving for perfect proof.

      • Thank you.can you explain what impulse is,and what it can feels like?can it feels like a want to act?is it like a urge?

  4. Hei.thank you so much.i have a good terapist here in Norway, but not so man spesialist in erp.here is write about pets.but, is it the same with harm ocd of own children babies or family?

    • Yes, harm obsessions are similar across the board (pets, family members, children, strangers, etc.).

  5. Dr. Seay, Over the years I have developed an intense fear of harm occurring to my dogs. Unlike the fear categories you described above (intentional harm or accidental harm due to negligence), my fear involves no perceived fault of my own. I fear that when I take my dogs out for walks (always on leashes) other people’s dogs might attack them. I have had several actual experiences like this where other dogs were not on leashes or got away from their owners and ended up being aggressive or actually attacked my dogs. Thankfully, no serious harm ever resulted, but I was quite shaken each time. I can recall the earliest incidents going back 20 years (with different dogs), but it is only in the last 5-6 years that my fear has increasingly inhibited my ability to enjoy being outside with my dogs. Dog parks have become out of the question. And for the past year I have been virtually paralyzed by the fear to the point where I can’t walk my dogs outside at all. I don’t even like the idea of anyone else taking them for walks, but I can sometimes allow it. For awhile I used to push through it, distracting myself on walks by listening to music on headphones or talking on the phone, but then an incident happened where my neighbor’s dog broke through their electric fence and attacked my dog, and I’ve pretty much been unable to walk the dogs since. Fortunately we have a fenced yard at my home, and a large enclosed field for them to run around in at our vacation home, so they do get outside, but even so it causes me great stress and guilt that they can no longer enjoy daily walks with me. I cannot give them the regular exercise they need. Even walking to the bottom of the driveway makes me extremely anxious. I happen to love all dogs and really have no fear of being around them myself. I have tried a variety of methods to self-treat, and had temporary partial improvement with a few sessions of hypnotherapy a couple of years ago. But then it got worse again. Only recently did someone suggest to me that my issue is a type of OCD. That never occurred to me before as I have no apparent rituals (unless avoidance can be considered a ritual). I considered it a phobia and have avoided the fear by keeping the dogs confined. But that is not a solution. I am somewhat of an anxious person in general, but this is the only situation in which I have not been able to overcome my fear. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts. Does this sound like a form of OCD? If so, what would ERP look like in my situation? Are there other approaches you would recommend? Thank you in advance for your feedback.

    • Avoidance is considered a type of ritual, so OCD would be a possibility. There are also other mental rituals that can be associated with this type of OCD, including preplanning rituals, analyzing rituals, and reassurance seeking rituals. A phobia is also a diagnostic possibility. It’s also possible that you might be experiencing symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although the diagnostic criteria for PTSD are a bit different than those of OCD.

      Regardless, the most helpful approach would involve developing an exposure hierarchy. Identify all the situations that scare you, and rate then on a 0-10 scale. Your initial exposures might consist of activities in the ~3 range. You would typically repeat these activities at least daily (or more often!), until some of the anxiety has habituated. You might also initially take along an “exposure buddy” that you fade out, as you continue to get more practice. If you get consistent practice in tackling lower level exposures, the anxiety should diminish, which will empower you to tackle some of the more difficult ones. It’s also important to mention that you might be doing rituals while walking — visual scanning, listening, etc. These may seem like reasonable behaviors given your history, but sometimes these types of behaviors can also interfere with habituation.

      The great thing in your situation is that you sound highly motivated. That’s a great predictor of success. If you find yourself getting stuck or discouraged, it might be helpful to work with a therapist who could more actively help shape your efforts. Hope this helps.

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