Why do dogs chase their tail?

Updated November 29, 2020

Have you ever had this zoo experience? It takes a careful and patient observer. You’re enjoying watching an animal moving around their exhibit (after all, many animals are asleep or aren’t even visible) when suddenly you realise “hang on, this animal is doing exactly the same thing over and over again”?

This is stereotypic behaviour and it’s the bane of every zoo. Here’s the polar bear at Seaworld on the Gold Coast in 2007 who would do this for hours on end.

Stereotypic behaviour is a form of Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour or OCD. It can be a real problem in dogs, and below you’ll see videos of two of our patients. Every puppy owner should be alert to the causes, signs and what to do if it starts. Once it becomes a habit, it’s very hard to stop, even with the best advice.

What are Compulsive Behaviours?

These are a series of movements performed in a repeated, exaggerated, ritualistic and sustained manner with no obvious purpose.

We mainly see them in dogs. They include:

  • Tail chasing
  • Shadow chasing
  • Spinning
  • Pacing
  • Fly snapping
  • Flank sucking
  • Barking repetitively
  • Licking to the point of mutilation
  • Drinking (Psychogenic polydipsia)

All these behaviours can be normal in small amounts. They become a problem when they start interfering with a dog’s normal functioning.

What causes OCD in dogs?

  • Genetics. The fact that certain breeds are prone to certain disorders tells us that genes are very important. Border Collies often chase shadows, Bull Terriers and German Shepherds more commonly spin or tail chase, fly snapping is mainly seen in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Dobermans are known for flank sucking.
  • Anxiety to an external stimulus. This is very common.
  • Physical Causes. The tail chasing or licking may start with an injury or irritation.
  • Poor Environment. Sometimes we suspect the involvement of factors such as confinement or boredom, conflict with other animals, separation or isolation, poor socialisation or abuse and arbitrary punishment.

Above all, don’t feel you are to blame. Most of the time compulsive behaviours occur in well-cared for dogs.

Once these behaviours start, they usually worsen and happen in more situations than just to the original cause. The owner giving attention to the behaviour may accidentally make it worse but it’s not really an attention-seeking behaviour.

What can be confused with compulsive behaviours? Read our article on separation anxiety, which can look very similar. Also, compulsive behaviours generally start before two years of age, so if your dog is older there’s usually a better explanation.

How Do I Stop My Dog From Tail Chasing?

This applies to all compulsive behaviours.

  • Seek help early. These behaviour problems are some of the worst we see. Don’t try to go it alone. Your vet can confirm there aren’t other causes and recommend expert help.
  • Medication may be needed. Read here about the use of anxiety meds for dogs.
  • Identify and remove sources of stress, conflict or anxiety. Great to do but unless this is done early you may not see much change.
  • Don’t punish. It only makes it worse. It’s best to not pay attention to the compulsive behaviour when it is happening.
  • Will a second dog help? Almost certainly NOT
  • Predict and redirect the behaviour. If you can see your dog about to go into a compulsive behaviour, give them something else to do and reward them for doing it instead.
  • Improve the environment. Provide at least 30 minutes of strenuous exercise as part of a predictable daily routine and give lots to do du.ring the day such as treasure hunts, treat dispensers & puzzle toys.
  • Reward based dog training is almost always helpful for any behaviour problem. Even with the best of care we usually only expect to control the problem, not cure it. Puppy preschool classes would be great preventive help.

So what happened with the three animals in the videos?

The Tail Chasing Dog

The Staffordshire Bull Terrier has seen a behaviour specialist and his owner has a greater understanding of how to manage the problem.

The Shadow Chasing Puppy

The Border Collie is a puppy just starting the shadow chasing and we think he’ll do well if we refer him quickly.

The Polar Bear

The polar bear certainly improved. I can’t say exactly why but if you look for later videos you’ll often see other objects being played with. These are examples of environmental enrichment and are a big part of tackling the boredom and frustration probably felt by these intelligent animals in captivity.

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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.