Why Do Dogs Chase Their Tails?

black dog chasing its tailMost dog owners have seen a dog “chase its tail”. One’s initial reaction is usually one of humour — well, it’s certainly something that looks part of a clown act. But a closer look at the dog’s face reveals that the dog isn’t finding it funny at all!

In fact, most professionals consider tail chasing a psychological disorder. Whoa! is a reaction of some persons, dogs have psychological disorders? Since when?

Well, that animals have psychological disorders is now part of the mainstream of professional thinking. There are a number of documented cases of obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD); horses with OCD exhibit something called “stall vices” — cribbing, weaving and stall walking; chicken may “feather pick” other birds, sometimes even killing the hapless recipient in the process; and dogs can demonstrate licking, excessive drinking, spinning and, of course, our case in point, tail chasing, among other OCD behaviors.

Check out this Shih Zu Chasing It's Tail

What triggers it

OCD behavior usually does not have a clear trigger. Instead, animal psychologists think that it is a combination of factors that pushes the individual over the edge, so to speak. In the case of tail chasing in dogs, research has shown that at least the following play some role:

Genetics

Tail chasing appears to have a clear genetic component since there is a distinct breed predilection for it. German Shepherds and Bull Terriers are much more likely than other breeds to exhibit tail chasing. Unfortunately, molecular geneticists have yet to identify the specific set of genes involved (once they do, the potential for treatment increases!).

Early weaning

Some excellent research carried out by a team of Canadian, Finnish and French researchers presented in the paper, “Environmental Effects on Compulsive Tail Chasing in Dogs,” indicate that pups who were separated from the moms earlier than eight weeks were significantly more likely to develop tail-chasing.

Nutrition

The same study found a correlation between nutritional deficits — vitamin B6 and vitamin C were highlighted — and tail-chasing.

Experiential

Internal emotional conflict, that predisposes to OCD, can be induced by excessive physical restraint, social conflict, or an unpredictable or uncontrollable environment.

Conditioning also plays a part. Let me try to explain this a little more. Let’s say that the dog’s tail was itching and this triggered the initial episode of tail-chasing. Now, if humans around the tail-chasing dog appear to be encouraging the behavior (by laughing or cheering, perhaps), the dog’s behavior could be reinforced. Pretty soon, even though the itching has stopped, the dog continues to tail chase because it is getting some psychological benefit from it. It’s a bit like inculcating good habits into children. Brushing teeth is a classic example. After years of being reminded as children, teeth-brushing prior to going to bed has become an ingrained habit in most adults

Surprisingly, boredom does not seem to play a role in triggering tail-chasing. However, the presence of children and/or other pets appears to reduce the likelihood of tail-chasing.

Why should you get worried?

dog tailThere’s no harm with the odd episode of tail chasing. But do investigate, as there may be a legitimate itch — or worse! — that’s triggering the behavior. To prevent “conditioning”, investigate and remove the primary trigger as soon as possible.

However, when tail chasing becomes more of a norm, more than ten minutes at a time for example, your antennae should perk up.

The really obsessive dog can actually draw blood from her tail. Some incessant tail chasers can wear off their foot pads as they struggle to constantly turn. These dogs can be so obsessed that they hardly ever sleep or even stop to eat and their social interaction is so low that they make very poor pets. Some owners have even elected euthanasia for such pets.

How to deal with tail chasing

Catch it early

This is probably the most important thing you can do because the longer such OCD behavior is allowed, the more embedded it becomes in the psyche of your dog and the more difficult it is to eradicate.

Don’t Punish

Never use punishment as it can contribute to the OCD by increasing your dog's anxiety levels.

Change the “channel”

Interrupt your tail chaser by introducing some other activity. This can be tedious for you, but persist. The idea is to prevent your tail chaser from getting sucked into the downward spiral of ever-increasing OCD behavior.

Encourage daily exercise and reward based training

This has been known to keep a dog (and owner) happy. And, the happier your dog, the less likely an OCD behavior.

Identify and remove the source of the conflict

Some tail chasing episodes are directly linked to a specific trigger. For example, loud shouting or exposure to a neighbor’s aggressive dog. Or, possibly, separation anxiety. Needless to say, if you have been successful in identifying such a source, get rid of it or avoid it.

Conclusion

I don’t know of statistics for how common tail-chasing is in the entire dog population, so we do not recommend limiting your breed selection when acquiring a puppy. However, do ensure that your puppy comes from a reputed breeder and has been socialized appropriately.

Tail chasing can become a serious condition for both the pet and the owner if left untreated. Such OCD behavior needs to be nipped in the bud, so the earlier you address it, the more success you are likely to have.