Encouraged, Rapoport designed a double-blind controlled study. Dogs with acral lick received one of two drugs for OCD that targeted serotonin, or a placebo, or an antidepressant that worked for depression but not OCD and wouldn't alter serotonin levels. The results were "dramatic": the only group that improved was the group that got the serotonin drugs.
Still, Rapoport took her findings with a grain of salt. As a psychiatrist, she says she usually needs to know what her patients think of their compulsions to give them a true OCD diagnosis: "Patients with OCD have insight and they say, 'Look, this is very embarrassing, I think this is crazy what I'm doing, but I can't stop,'" she explains. "Well, you can't get that sort of information from animals, so animal models are often very limited for psychiatry."After publishing her findings, she moved back to human patients. But her work caught the attention of a veterinary anesthesiologist with an interest in behavior: Nicholas Dodman.After an injection of morphine, a small black horse named Knightly Night began to repetitively paw at the ground.It was the 1980s, and Dodman had noticed that by using different drugs he could change the way animals behaved. In horses, he could "turn on" certain repetitive disorders that in the equestrian world were called stall walking or cribbing. Together with Louis Shuster, a professor of biochemistry and pharmacology at Tufts School of Medicine, he asked the question that would launch his career in animal behavior: if they could turn a behavior on, could they also turn it off?
Looking back, I think my inability to recognize that I had OCD was rooted in the belief that, as a human, I had control over my behaviors and thoughts.
"The reason canine genetics are so cool is one word," Elaine Ostrander tells me. "Breeds ."Ostrander is the chief of the Cancer Genetics and Comparative Genomics Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute, and has been working in dog genetics for 25 years. Her lab develops dog genome databases to look for genes that could be important for animal health or translate to humans. She says they've explored everything from infectious disease to cancer, including diabetes, kidney failure, retinitis pigmentosa and gout."If you want to understand the genetic underpinning of a complex disease, we know there's lots of genes involved," she says. "In human populations, there are dozens of genes that contribute. Every family is a little bit different. Some genes seem hereditary, some seem not to be, it's a very complex mosaic. In dogs, you simplify that mosaic."Within breeds, dogs are genetically very similar. But also between breeds of related dogs, Ostrander can see commonalities. By looking for disease genes in sick dogs in closely related breeds, she can exclude false positives; if four similar breeds with a disease all carry the same gene, one that unaffected dogs don't have, she knows she's got a strong candidate.
My current rituals mostly center on eating, swallowing and food safety. Right now, when I eat, I have to eat completely alone, and if someone else is in the room, I cannot eat.
In psychotherapy, we discussed the "reasons" for my anxieties. My parents are scientists and I learned about germs at a very early age. My father was also concerned with germs and cleanliness, food poisoning and food safety. I liked to be in control, and throwing up was a total loss of control, a window into vulnerability. These sessions made me feel better, and I do think my obsessions diminished a little bit as a result. I felt that knowing their origins and roots would help me manage them, help me talk them down.Looking back, I think my inability to recognize that I had OCD was rooted in the belief that, as a human, I had control over my behaviors and thoughts. Or that, if I didn't, it was because of deeper human thoughts – if I could just uncover them, I would regain control.But in situations where I was challenged, I quickly saw how little control I had. When I accidentally ate something that had gone rotten, I descended into total and utter panic for days. When my boyfriend got the stomach flu, I fled our apartment, staying in a hotel for three nights. When I got home, I bought hospital-grade cleaner and bleached and cleaned our home. I didn't feel safe for weeks; every day I thought obsessively about the germs that were still present, waiting to infect me.
We meticulously go through all my phobias, obsessions, and rituals and rate them on a hierarchy. Now my job is to attempt to cease the rituals, and expose myself to increasingly upsetting stimuli.