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Dog Tail Chasing: What Does It Mean When My Dog Chases Its Tail?

If you’ve been around dogs at all, chances are you’ve seen a dog chase its tail. You may have thought this tail chasing was funny. And on first glance, it is pretty humorous.

However, the truth is that in many cases, dog tail chasing (or spinning) is not funny at all. It can often point to a psychological issue that is affecting that dog’s quality of life. It can also lead to tail amputation and even euthanasia.

black dog chasing its tail


Read on to understand what it means when a dog chases its own tail, when a dog chasing its tail is a problem, and how to deal with dog tail chasing behavior.

But first … Check out this Shih Zu Chasing Its Tail


Why Do Dogs Chase Their Tails?

In some cases, there is nothing troubling about dog tail chasing. For example, puppies can play with their tails in much the same way that infants play with their toes: they’re discovering that they have one and learning about what it does.

Young dogs may continue occasional tail chasing just for fun.

But most dogs outgrow this behavior. If your dog keeps chasing his tail more than occasionally, pay attention. He may have a medical condition or a psychological disorder.

Medical Reasons

If your dog’s tail chasing behavior is sudden in onset, he may have a medical problem.

Look for signs of an injury first. Your dog may have gotten his tail caught in a door, for example. Dogs will often lick sore areas. Their saliva has antibiotic properties, so licking is a natural behavior for them when they’re injured.

If that sore area is on his tail or rear-end, he will appear to be chasing his tail as he’s trying to reach the problem area.

Your dog could also be trying to scratch an itch. If he’s been chewing and biting on his tail, he may be trying to lick an itchy spot to soothe it.

Fleas and ticks can cause itchy spots. Skin or food allergies are other possibilities.

He could also be trying to reach an itch in the anal region. If this is the case, your dog may have worms or impacted anal glands.

In the worst-case scenario, your dog may have seizures or another neurological problem.

Your dog needs to be seen by a vet for any of these issues. He may need medication for allergies, antibiotics for a possible infection, deworming, or draining of the anal glands.

In the case of allergies, your vet may recommend a special diet. If your vet suspects a neurological problem, they may order an MRI.

Psychological Reasons

If you have ruled out a medical cause for your dog’s tail chasing problem, the behavior may be psychological.

Like humans, dogs can exhibit compulsive behaviors they can’t control. Tail chasing or spinning are examples of compulsive behaviors that should cause concern, particularly as a dog outgrows puppyhood.

Many times, this behavior will be a symptom of dog obsessive-compulsive disorder. If your older dog has a sudden onset of prolonged or frequent tail chasing, you should be concerned and speak to your vet about seeking treatment.

For a complete discussion of OCD in dogs, please see Dog Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (Causes and Treatment).

What Causes Compulsive Tail Chasing?

Compulsive behavior doesn’t always have a clear trigger. When it rises to the level of OCD, animal psychologists think that a combination of factors causes it.

Contributing factors can include:

Anxiety

Just like with humans, anxiety is at the root of dog OCD. Nicholas Dodman, DMV, gives a classic example of how the two go hand-in-hand.

On the BBC Future web site, Dr. Dodman tells about a dog who was obsessed with water. This dog swam laps in a pool for over 7 hours, “whining in anxiety the whole time.” (This certainly suggests that dogs don’t indulge in compulsive behaviors for the fun of it.)

Dr. Dodman did not specify what breed that dog was, but any breed of dog can develop anxiety. Some breeds, however, are more prone to it than others.

Herding dogs may be more susceptible to anxiety than other breeds. This is because they have been bred to work closely with humans.

When they don’t have a job to do or enough exercise for their high energy levels, they can develop frustration and anxiety.

The same is true for many toy breeds. Most were bred to be human companions and for nothing else. This makes them more vulnerable than many breeds to separation anxiety.

Following are breeds that are more susceptible to anxiety disorders, which include separation anxiety:

Genetics

Tail chasing appears to have a clear genetic component since there is a distinct breed predisposition for it. Bull Terriers are much more likely than other breeds to exhibit tail chasing. German Shepherd Dogs also show the behavior more than other breeds.

Unfortunately, molecular geneticists have yet to identify the specific set of genes involved.

Medical Issues

As above, your dog may be chasing its tail because of an itch or an injury. Or he could have an underlying neurological disorder.

Lack of Proper Socialization

Lack of socialization may be the single most important contributor to anxiety in a dog, and thus to tail chasing.

Puppies that aren't appropriately socialized are much more likely to suffer from anxiety and phobias as they grow.

It's essential to expose a puppy to as many people, settings, and situations as possible so they can navigate their world confidently.

The best way to ensure your dog is well socialized is to get it from a reputable breeder. If you buy a dog in a pet store or from a backyard breeder, you have no way of knowing that dog’s history.

For those who prefer to adopt, shelter or rescue personnel can usually tell you how well-adjusted a dog is from their experience with that dog. You can also perform a temperament test yourself.

Early Weaning

At least one study has found that pups that were separated from the mothers 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.

Past Experiences

Internal emotional conflict can lead to tail chasing and OCD. Excessive physical restraint—such as being chained outside or kept in a crate for long periods—can cause this type of conflict.

A traumatic event, such as being attacked by another dog, can also be a cause of anxiety and compulsive behavior.

Social Conflict

Social conflict can also bring about problematic tail chasing. One example of this type of situation is when a dog is given a command to do something that scares or confuses him.

Maybe a previous owner did not allow him to potty on the lawn. Understandably, that dog would feel conflicted and struggle with obeying a command from a new owner to use a grassy spot at his new home.

Adjusting to new rules can be very stressful for an adopted dog that’s making the transition to a new home.

An unpredictable environment is another potential social stressor that can lead to OCD-type behaviors. Dogs find security in structure and routine.

If they’re in a home where rules are not consistent and they don’t always know what’s expected of them, that situation is likely to cause stress.

Lack of Exercise or Mental Stimulation

Many dog owners don’t fully understand the importance of exercise and mental stimulation to their dogs. Dogs who don’t get enough of either will often have behavioral issues.

These can include digging, chewing, or incessant barking.

They can also cause compulsive behaviors like self-injurious licking or tail chasing.

Aging

If your older dog begins tail chasing when he has never done it before, he may be experiencing cognitive dysfunction due to aging. This is similar to senile dementia in humans.

Conditioning

Conditioning also plays a part in developing compulsive behaviors.

Let’s say that the dog’s tail was itching, and this triggered the initial episode of tail chasing. If humans witnessing the tail chasing behavior find it funny and laugh, the dog would see that as positive attention, which could reinforce the behavior.

Even if you yell at him to stop or punish him in some way for the behavior, the dog may still see that as attention.

Pretty soon, even though the itching has stopped, the dog continues to tail-chase. He has been conditioned that tail chasing benefits him.

Dogs can also be conditioned to chase their tails for any of the medical reasons mentioned above; for example, if the dog licks a sore area on his tail or rear-end.

The licking releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers. The dog begins to associate licking with feeling good. He has then become conditioned to repeat the behavior because he enjoys that feeling.

When conditioning becomes a problem

Ultimately, the compulsion takes over and the dog no longer enjoys the behavior. Sometimes dogs are witnessed chasing their tails and crying as they do it, as discussed above.

In many cases, these dogs will injure themselves while chasing their tails. Some incessant tail-chasers can wear off their footpads from the constant spinning.

They will continue to spin even when they’re banging their heads on walls and furniture.

Some dogs will actually draw blood from chewing on their tails. Some have their tails amputated because of the self-injury.

Tail-chasers with severe OCD have no control over their spinning, and it can progress until the dog has no quality of life.

These dogs can be so obsessed that they hardly eat or sleep. They may even stop interacting with their human families. Some owners elect euthanasia for dogs with severe OCD.

For these reasons, early intervention is critical to prevent your dog from developing full-blown OCD.

How is Tail Chasing Treated?

First, you must rule out a medical problem. Your vet will need to look for an underlying cause for the tail chasing. They may also need to treat any self-injury your dog may have done.

If your vet can’t find a medical issue, they may confirm that the compulsive tail chasing is an OCD behavior.

OCD can be mild, moderate, or severe. Mild OCD can often respond to behavioral modification that you can do at home.

Severe forms, however, usually warrant outside help.

Your vet will probably recommend working with a certified behavioral therapist. The behaviorist will likely recommend a combination of medication and behavioral modification.

The process can take months, depending on how long the behavior has been going on. As mentioned above, catching the behavior early is the key to the best possible outcome.

Mild OCD

But if your dog has only mild compulsive behaviors, interventions you can try at home may help.

However, it's essential that you recognize if you're finding it difficult to be firm and consistent with these training methods. Again, if OCD symptoms go on for too long, they will be much harder to treat.

Be sure that you know when to say “when” and call in a professional.

That said, here’s a list of things you can try with your dog at home:

Ignore the behavior

If your dog is just beginning to chase his tail, ignoring it is the best thing you can do. Leaving the room would be even better. Taking away your attention may be enough to stop early tail chasing.

Distract and redirect

If ignoring it doesn’t solve the problem, interrupt your tail-chaser by redirecting him to another activity. But be careful how you do this.

You must anticipate the trigger so you can redirect your dog before he begins tail chasing. Otherwise, he may interpret your attention as a reward for the behavior.

Likewise, you don’t want to use treats or a favorite game for this because they would reinforce the negative behavior.

A quick training session would be a good distraction. Work on whatever commands you may currently be training with him or perhaps some trick training.

Keep toys around that your dog can learn to self-comfort with, such as interactive puzzle toys, a favorite stuffed animal or squeaky ball, or a Kong filled with peanut butter.

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.

If you have identified a trigger for your dog’s tail chasing behavior, try to eliminate or avoid it.

Keep him busy

As above, exercise is critically important to a dog’s well-being. Exactly how much depends on the breed, but try to give him as much as possible.

Exercise can reduce anxiety and frustration, both of which are associated with compulsive behaviors. It’s vital to the treatment of anxiety.

A tired dog does not have much energy left for tail chasing.

Positive reinforcement training

Whichever methods you use to help your dog with his tail chasing at home, be careful. Never punish your dog!

Punishment techniques will only increase anxiety and make tail chasing worse.

Positive reinforcement not only avoids this conflict, but it will also strengthen the bond between you and your dog. Punishment does just the opposite.

Helpful Dog Training Resource:

For help with training your dog, you should take a look at The Online Dog Trainer by Doggy Dan. Doggy Dan is an expert Dog Trainer based in New Zealand. His online resource contains Hundreds of Excellent Dog Training Videos that will take you step-by-step through the process of developing a healthy, happy well-behaved dog.

Moderate to Severe OCD

The later stages of OCD nearly always require the services of a behavioral therapist. OCD symptoms usually progress without skilled intervention.

Symptoms can become as severe as weight loss, loss of appetite, and loss of interest in exercise. It can even get to the point of aggression when humans try to intervene with their compulsive behaviors.

Medication

Your vet or behaviorist may suggest an antianxiety or antidepressant medication such as fluoxetine (Prozac). This is the same drug that doctors prescribe for humans.

Other drugs they might prescribe are a sedative-like acepromazine or an antiseizure medication. Gabapentin is common for dogs whose tail chasing is associated with seizures.

They may also recommend memantine, a drug used to treat dementia in humans.

At least one study suggests that hypericin (a component of St. John’s Wort) may work better than fluoxetine for tail chasing.

Behavioral modification

The behavior modification program a behaviorist will likely use include physically preventing the dog from chasing his tail. This will probably mean interrupting and redirecting him.

You may also be asked to use a muzzle if biting or chewing on his tail is an issue.

Your behaviorist will probably recommend a plan that includes desensitization and counterconditioning.

Desensitizing a dog involves subjecting him to a mild and progressive version of a stimulus that causes anxiety. For example, lights going on or off is sometimes a trigger for compulsive behaviors.

If your dog chases his tail every time you turn the lights off for bed, desensitize him to it.

Switch the light on and off for brief moments during the evening until your dog gets used to it.

Once he’s reacting calmly to that, turn them off for a few seconds longer. Gradually increase the time the lights are off until your dog habituates to it. In time, he should stop reacting anxiously to that stimulus.

Counterconditioning involves guiding your dog to substitute a positive emotion for a negative one. For example, if your dog becomes anxious and starts tail chasing when a neighbor’s dog walks by, pay attention to the time of day it happens.

The next time the dog walks by, the moment you see it, start “jolly talking” your dog and feeding him treats, one after another. Once the dog passes by, stop immediately.

Do this every day for as long as it takes for your dog to start looking to you for treats when he sees the neighbor’s dog coming.

You will have counterconditioned him to expect something good (treats) instead of something terrible (fear or anxiety) when that dog walks by. You can then gradually phase out the treatment sessions.

Routine

Most dogs do best with a structured routine; it means security to them. But routine is even more important for dogs with anxiety and compulsive behaviors such as tail chasing.

Try to keep your dog’s daily schedule predictable. Regular exercise sessions, feeding times, and playtime will help with his anxiety.

While you’re working with him on resolving his tail chasing, try to avoid situations that are stressful to him, such as strangers or loud noises—anything that might trigger an episode.

Conclusion

On the surface, tail chasing doesn’t appear to be concerning. It can even be humorous.

But tail chasing can point to a much more serious problem with your dog—it can be a sign of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. If it’s left untreated, your dog can experience great mental distress, self-injury, and poor quality of life.

Catching tail-chasing early is critical to prevent your dog from developing full-blown OCD.

An occasional episode, especially in a puppy, is not cause for concern. But for a full-grown dog, if you see tail-chasing that’s frequent or progressive, don’t waste any time. Make an appointment with your vet.

Dog tail chasing is no laughing matter.

References and Further Reading

  1. Bain, Melissa J.; Fan, Christina M. (2012-03-01). UC Davis. “Animal Behavior Case of the Month.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 240 (6): 673–675. doi:10.2460/javma.240.6.673. PMID 22380802
  2. Buzhardt, Lynn, DVM. VCA Hospitals. Why do dogs chase their tails?.
  3. Kramer, David F. Pet MD. Anxiety disorders in dogs: symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.
  4. Love, Shayla. BBC Future. How do you treat a dog with OCD? June 27, 2017.
  5. Miller, Pat, CBCC-K, CPDT-KA. Whole Dog Journal. Help for OCD dogs. Updated June 21, 2019.
  6. Mosallanejad, B., Najafzadeh Varzi, H., Avizeh, R., Pourmahdi, M., & Khalili, F. (2015). Comparative evaluation between hypericin (hypiran) and fluoxetine in treatment of companion dogs with tail chasing. Veterinary research forum: an international quarterly journal6(2), 167–172.
  7. Tiira, K., Hakosalo, O., Kareinen, L., Thomas, A., Hielm-Björkman, A., Escriou, C., … Lohi, H. (2012). Environmental effects on compulsive tail chasing in dogs. PloS one7(7), e41684. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041684.
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