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Why Do Dogs Chase Their Tails?


Stella, a one and one-half year old Bull Terrier mix was caught in a vicious cycle. Literally. The behavior had started when she was a pup. Back then it seemed harmless, an endearing puppy behavior that she would surely outgrow. But instead it became an obsession. A mere glimpse of her tail and Stella would start spinning. The frenzied circling and snapping at her tail would go on for many hours of the day until Stella was exhausted. She lost interest in any social contact, and barely had time to eat. The tip of Stella's tail was scabbed and threadbare, a source of chronic irritation that could only increase Stella's fixation. Stella's owner was desperate for a solution.

Behavioral Causes of Tail-Chasing in Dogs

  • Anxiety, such as separation anxiety, social stress, or a fear of storms.
  • Boredom. Long days at home without enough stimulation or social contact
  • Frustration over a dilemma the dog can’t resolve, such how to get over the fence or out of the crate.
  • Conflict. Wanting to play with other dogs but also afraid of other dogs.
  • Inadvertent reinforcement. Your amusement or displeasure at this behavior may be just the encouragement your dog needs.
  • Genetics. Bull Terriers and German Shepherds are considered susceptible, and it can run in families of dogs.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It’s thought that some tail-chasers may suffer from OCD, analogous to the condition in humans that’s linked with compulsive hand-washing and other ritualized behaviors.
  • Partial Seizures. It’s a tricky diagnosis, but some tail-chasers may have a rare form of epilepsy.

Occasional tail chasing is normal for some dogs. It's especially common in pups in the weeks before they discover that their tail, that tantalizingly elusive plaything, is a body part. But when the behavior persists beyond puppyhood, is intense and frequent, and leads to self-trauma, it is clearly pathologic. If your dog is exhibiting symptoms like Stella's, it's time to visit the veterinarian.

Your veterinarian will first want to do a full examination to rule out medical problems, especially ones that could cause itching or discomfort in the tail area. Fleas, skin disease, or impacted anal glands could be at fault. Burning or tingling sensations from nerve injury or a tumor could also set a dog spinning. Such medical conditions must be ruled out first.

Your veterinarian will then conduct a thorough behavioral history. He or she will inquire about the duration, intensity, and frequency of the behavior. What is the dog's daily routine? Are there other pets in the home and how do they interact? What are the triggers? Are there additional bizarre behaviors? These details are critical for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Providing video of your dog's tail-chasing rituals can be invaluable.

Taming your whirling dervish

dog_walkThe behavioral causes of tail-chasing are often deep-seated, rooted in anxiety or frustration, with a touch of genetics thrown in (see box). So it can be a stubborn problem to fix. It requires commitment and a systematic plan. Quick fixes such as Elizabethan collars and tail docking (the surgical shortening of the tail) rarely work in the long run. They fail to address the underlying causes of the behavior—and in fact may be considered inhumane—except in cases of medical necessity (i.e. as part of the treatment prescribed by a veterinarian for a severely traumatized tail). Your veterinarian or animal behaviorist are your best allies in addressing the problem.

Most behaviorists recommend starting with a head collar such as the Gentle Leader®. This enables the owner to calmly interrupt the behavior, give praise, then redirect the dog to more suitable activity. Some dogs can be trained to relax and settle on command.

The next step involves removing or decreasing the anxiety, frustration or conflict that is at the heart of the problem. Establish a daily routine for your dog that includes lots of species-appropriate exercise, such as long walks, running, chasing and fetching. Work to alleviate oppressive circumstances, such as long periods of confinement. Keep your dog busy with obedience training, hide-and-seek games, and lots of fun toys (such as King Wubba Friends, CombatX Bow Tie Toy, and Atomic Treat Ball Dog Toy). Feeding toys are a great choice for dogs who suffer from separation anxiety or who must be left alone for long stretches. Address adversarial relationships with other pets or people. Seek your vet's advice for managing separation anxiety, inter-dog conflict, or fear of thunderstorms if these issues play a part. Herbal supplements such as Bach Flower Essence Rescue Remedy may be helpful in some cases.

Behavior modification should always be the cornerstone of treatment. But for chronic cases, drug therapy is often necessary as well. Anti-anxiety medications such as clomipramine or Prozac®, can work wonders for dogs like Stella when used with appropriate behavioral therapy. (Note: Medications should only be given to your dog by your veterinarian, or as per your veterinarian's specific instructions.)

Stella was a success story. After a full veterinary evaluation, and some antibiotics to help heal her tail, Stella was referred to a licensed animal behaviorist. Stella was fitted with a head collar and taught to settle on command. Stella's owner enrolled her in obedience classes, developed a more active routine of long walks and outdoor playtime. She hired a dog walker to break up Stella's long days alone. Anti-anxiety medication was also very helpful. Stella has gotten her life back. She still occasionally circles, but thanks to conscientious care, it's more like a victory lap.

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