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I have a ~7 year old Rat Terrier. My wife and I adopted her from a rescue when she was ~2 years old. She was a stray, so we don't know exactly how old she is. She has always been very afraid of, well, everything: every noise, other dogs, people (sometimes) even a breeze or a leaf blowing by. She can be reactive to some things. She is always good with my wife, and usually with me, but you can tell she is more comfortable with women than men. She will usually run up to people and other dogs, but she only wants to check them out; she hates when other dogs try to smell her. She typically snaps at any dog that pays any attention to her. She does this to people sometimes if they aren't paying attention to her body language. She never bites, but she will put an open mouth on you to get you to stop. Whenever she reacts, you can tell she's scared, and she will immediately roll over and be submissive after doing that.

It seems that she was not socialized with other dogs and could have been abused. We have never been able to get her to show any interest in toys, except to fetch a ball, but she only does that for food, which is her only motivation. Even food-related toys haven't been helpful. We have tried different types with similar results: A ball with food inside that comes out as you roll it made noise, so she was scared of that. Other types she will just lick, even if she isn't getting the food out.

That leads me to the more immediate issue we're having. She licks. A lot. She grooms herself like a cat. She licks every inch of her body she can reach. It's never in one area, so she doesn't get hot spots. She licks the floor (tile or carpet), even when there is nothing there. She will lick your hand forever if you let her, again, even if there's no hint of food. She hacks up hair balls every once in a while. She will sometimes have poop strung together by one of my wife's hairs and waddle around confused.

Several years ago, she was noticeably uncomfortable one evening. She was pacing and constantly stretching. She then started vomiting repeatedly. We took her to an emergency vet and they ultimately had to perform surgery. Something had started to digest that was stuck between her stomach and intestines so it couldn't be passed. When the doctor described this to us, she said it was a conglomeration of hair and other "stuff," but that the problem was there was a thread like fiber that had started to be digested that was part of this mass, and, because it couldn't break up or be digested, they had to remove it. We tried to figure out what she possibly could have eaten that fit that description. She tries to eat all sorts of things when she's outside: mulch, twigs, acorns, rabbit poop, little pieces of paper or plastic. She has to be watched like a hawk. Our best guess was she could have gotten a hold of a piece of floss, or maybe a carpet fiber from the licking. We checked all the edges of the carpets for frayed ends and switched trash cans in the bathrooms to make sure she couldn't get in them (although I doubt she would get in them anyway, because she would be too scared). Life went on.

Until the exact same thing again a few weeks ago. Same symptoms, same surgery. This time, the doctor (a different doctor), gave us a slightly different explanation. There was, essentially, a hairball in her stomach that she didn't throw up. Part of it started to get digested, but, because it had been in her stomach for so long and was so matted together, it couldn't break up and allow that part to be passed. This made much more sense, and was probably what happened the first time.

Unfortunately, we don't really have a good solution. We have tried the "bitter apple" spray, and it seems to do OK for a little while, but we would need to keep her entire body constantly coated in it for that to work. We have been brushing her more frequently and giving her baths more frequently. We obviously tell her to stop licking whenever we see her, and she will, but we aren't there all the time. We vacuum more often. The doctor didn't have any great suggestions either. He said hair balls aren't normal for dogs, so that should have been a clue. He said we could try feeding her pumpkin to keep things moving from her stomach, which we're doing, but he didn't sound particularly confident in that. One of the techs suggested "Rescue Remedy" (below), as she had good success with it with her own dogs and knew other people had used it as well. It's for stress relief, so that assumes the stress/anxiety is a cause.

Amazon.com : Bach Rescue Remedy Pet - 20 ml : Pet Supplies

Our regular vet said it could be pica, and, naturally, sold us something for that, which I was skeptical about. It hasn't helped. He said we could try something for the anxiety (Xanax for dogs). He also said we could test for allergies. If the allergy tests are anything like those for humans, she will surely be allergic to something and it may, or may not, be relevant. I've been to an allergist for a specific allergy, and they did a full test on me. It turned out I was allergic to dozens of things, almost all of which I'd been around my whole life and never had any sort of reaction to whatsoever.

I'm hoping someone can offer some advice and possibly other suggestions so I can decide on the best option to try next.

Thanks,
Matt
 

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Until you get the licking/eating stuff under control, I would probably try using a basket muzzle for her so she can't lick and hoover stuff off the ground. That will help keep her safe while you work on solving the actual problem. You probably would either need a wire muzzle so the cage doesn't bend when she pushes on it, or you can buy a "stool guard" to put in the plastic/rubber/leather ones so they can't eat poop/other stuff on the ground. Alternatively, to keep her from licking herself, you could try an elizabethan (cone) collar, but again, that's only preventing her from doing it, not making her not want to do it, and it wouldn't do much to keep her from eating other stuff.

I would try adding more enrichment/activity to see if she does it less when she's more tired/content. Teach her some simple, fun tricks and when you see her licking herself, do those instead, then when done, give her a longer lasting chew so she can lick/chew that instead of everything else. It might not be a bad idea to look into taking a training class with her, either in a small group, or privately. Make sure she's getting enough exercise, but try not to make her more anxious by taking her places that make her nervous. There's a lot of stuff you can do at home, given her breed, she might like a flirtpole? There are some softer rubber food dispensing balls (Planet Dog makes one that is very quiet), you might try one of them? I would actually try to give most of her food either through training as treats, or in food dispensing toys. When you aren't able to directly engage her and prevent her from licking, either muzzle her, leash her to you, or crate her to prevent her from hoovering other stuff, but you may have to use an e collar to keep her from licking herself.

If that doesn't help or you think it's not feasible, I don't think it would be a bad idea to try anti-anxiety medication, either natural/OTC or prescription. I have known some dogs who lick due to nervousness/anxiety, though not to the degree that she does. If rescue remedy doesn't help, homeopet makes an anxiety formula that seems to help some dogs, and there's also "composure" which is another anti-anxiety supplement/natural thing, thundershirts, and/or the DAP dog pheromone collars, plug ins, etc. Or there are a number of rx drugs that may help, though it's trial and error with dogs just like people and you may go through a few before finding something that helps.

It may be worth asking your vet about trialing a medication in case it's an allergy, if you give an antihistamine or other rx that shouldn't have a significant affect on her temperament and it helps, that would definitely help pinpoint it. I've seen lots of dogs that lick constantly due to allergies (they usually have saliva stains), though they don't normally lick the ground, etc as well.

You could also try consulting with a veterinary behaviorist of you suspect it is behavioral rather than medical. They are vets with additional specialty schooling in behavior, so they may be your best bet at figuring out what's going on.
 
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