Why Do Dogs Chase Their Tails?
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley May 22, 2020
One of the reasons we love dogs so much is because of how silly and playful they can be. Watching a dog play freely can be a fun and relaxing experience. A classic silly move that dog parents might have seen before is when a dog chases its own tail. Have you ever wondered what this behavior means, and why dogs do it? In this article, we will discuss why dogs chase their tails and whether this behavior is a good thing.
Why Do Dogs Chase Their Tails?
Dogs chase their tail to burn off energy. When dogs are younger, the behavior may just be a fun game as they learn what their tail is. But as adults, tail chasing could be a sign of boredom or a sign of an underlying physical condition that needs to be addressed (Burn, 2011).
A dog chasing its tail may seem like a harmless behavior, and in theory, it is. But the act of chasing their tail is often a sign of boredom or discomfort. Bored dogs will find ways to entertain themselves. It may start off with chasing their tail and evolve into more troublesome behaviors such as excessive barking or destruction. Dogs chasing their tails out of discomfort might be able to find relief after a trip to the veterinarian (Burn, 2011).
Is It Normal For A Dog To Chase Their Own Tail?
It depends on the reason for the behavior. In general, there are two types of tail chasing. The first type is the classic play behavior where a dog is spinning in circles at a quick pace trying to catch their own tail. The second type is a slower spin, where a dog may try to lick or chew their tail or rear end due to discomfort or irritation. More specifically, dogs may chase their tails for the following reasons:
- Playful chasing
Puppies may chase their tails when they are feeling playful (Burn, 2011). They are still learning about their bodies and the sight of their own tail may trigger curiosity, causing them to chase it. Playful puppies will also turn anything into a toy or game, so once they learn chasing their tail is fun, they may continue to do it during their puppy phase.
As dogs age, they may still chase their tail when they are being playful, but it is not as common. Dogs who chase their tail into adulthood may be bored and in need of more physical and mental stimulation (Burn, 2011).
- Attention seeking
Some dogs may have learned that chasing their tail causes their human to pay attention to them, rewarding the behavior. They may chase their tail simply because they are trying to get our attention and know we get a big kick out of it (Burn, 2011)!
- Health issues
In rare cases, dogs may obsessively chase their tail due to neurological issues or due to anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (Tiira et al., 2012).
- Chasing due to discomfort
Dogs that are turning slowly and trying to reach their tail or rear end may be experiencing some sort of irritation or discomfort in their back end. Dogs with docked tails may feel lingering discomfort in their tail that causes them to turn and lick the area regularly (Gross & Carr, 1990). If your dog is slowly turning and trying to lick or chew their tail or rear end, check them over for parasites or wounds. Dogs that have external parasites, such as fleas or ticks, may bite or lick at themselves. Furthermore, dogs with internal parasites such as tapeworms may also show this behavior. Whereas aging dogs that chew or lick their back end may be experiencing aches and pains (Burn, 2011).
Dogs may be genetically predisposed to chase their tails, especially dogs that do it due to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Dog breeds that are most likely to exhibit compulsive tail chasing include Bull Terriers, German Shepherds, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Anatolian sheepdogs, Jack Russells, and West Highland White Terriers (Burn, 2011; Tiira et al., 2012).
Why Do Dogs Chase Other Dog’s Tail?
Dogs that chase other dogs’ tails may be doing so playfully! When dogs are engaged in play behaviors, they may chase and bite each other’s tails. This is most prevalent in juvenile dogs that still exhibit a lot of play behavior. Puppies may chase and bite the tails of adult dogs because their tails look like big fluffy toys. Young dogs are still learning manners and bite inhibition. If they bite another dog’s tail a little too hard, they may get a stern correction from the other dog, which is dog language for telling the puppy they are playing too hard and need to settle down.
How Do You Stop A Dog From Chasing Their Tail?
To stop your dog from chasing their tail, it’s important to first identify why you think they are chasing their tail in the first place. Are they just being playful, or do you think they have a mental or physical health problem that needs to be addressed? If you think your dog is chasing their tail out of playfulness or boredom, try providing them an alternative behavior to engage in instead. Provide them other toys to play with, throw toys around with them, or do a training session to get them paying attention to something else. If you notice your dog gets a bout of energy at certain times of the day that causes them to chase their tail, anticipate this change in energy and arrange for them to get a walk during that time. This will help redirect their energy to something positive. If you think your dog is chasing their tail to get your attention, ignore the behavior and then reward them when they do something else instead. Ask yourself why they are trying to get your attention and find a way to give it to them under different circumstances.
It is important to note that dogs need 30-120 minutes of exercise daily, depending on their age, breed, and health status (Burke, 2019; PDSAc). Daily walks should be a high priority for dogs that are physically able to do so. The purpose of these daily walks should be to allow your dog the opportunity to sniff the world around them. Too often, people expect their dogs to walk briskly at their side during walks in order to burn energy. However, they neglect to allow the dog to sniff. Dogs who are allowed to sniff on daily walks are generally happier and develop fewer problem behaviors. In addition to daily walks, dogs can go on runs or hikes to burn off excess energy.
Mental stimulation is also important. Providing physical and mental stimulation is known as environment enrichment. The goal of environmental enrichment should be to stimulate the dog’s senses and allow them to participate in species-typical behavior (Kogan et al., 2012). Examples of environmental enrichment include feeding dogs with puzzle feeders, walking your dog in different places and on a variety of surfaces, allowing your dog to swim or play in puddles, going to a training class with your dog (positive reinforcement classes only!), and scheduling play dates with dogs they like.
Lastly, if you think your dog has a medical issue, schedule an appointment with a veterinarian and/or veterinary behaviorist to address this issue.
When Should I Be Concerned About A Dog Chasing Their Tail?
You should be concerned if your dog is chasing their tail due to discomfort, irritation, or health issues, and it is important to bring them to a veterinarian for a checkup (Burn, 2011). If your dog is chewing or biting their rear end or tail to the point of causing sores, they will likely need to wear the cone of shame until the issue is resolved.
What Alternatives Can I Provide My Dog To Chase?
If your dog enjoys chasing their own tail, they may enjoy chasing other objects like toys. It may take some trial and error to figure out what toys your dog will engage with. Some dogs love playing fetch with balls or frisbees outside, while other dogs may prefer playing with plush toys in the living room. It is generally not a good idea to let your dog chase wildlife outside, such as squirrels and deer. While the wildlife will likely get away safely, this can build up anxiety and energy at the sight of prey animals causing behavioral problems. Behavioral problems such as reactivity or aggression towards small animals and destruction inside the house as your dog tries to chase prey they see through the windows can occur. If your dog has a strong prey drive that causes them to chase, training them to be a hunting dog may be a good alternative to allow them to use their prey drive.
Dogs chasing their tails can be a perfectly normal behavior, especially for young dogs that are still very playful. However, tail chasing can also be an indicator of behavioral or health problems. Not addressing these issues can lead to more severe behavior or health problems that can be harmful to the dog’s welfare. If you suspect your dog is chasing their tail due to boredom, try providing them more physical and mental stimulation. If you suspect your dog has an underlying physical condition that is causing them to chase their tail, a checkup by your veterinarian is the best way to find a solution. If your dog is young and healthy, and is just having a silly moment, feel free to share in their silliness for a moment!
Burn, C.C. 2011. A vicious cycle: A cross-sectional study of canine tail-chasing and human responses to it, using a free video-sharing website. PLoS ONE 6(11):e26553.
Gross, T.L., and S.H. Carr. 1990. Amputation neuroma of docked tails in dogs. Veterinary Pathology 27:61-62.
Kogan, L.R., Schoenfeld-Tacher, R., and A.A. Simon. 2012. Behavioral effects of auditory stimulation on kenneled dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 7:268-275.
PDSAc. The right exercise for your dog. Retrieved on February 22, 2020.
Burke, A. 2019. How much exercise does a dog need every day? American Kennel Club. Retrieved on February 22, 2020.
Tiira, K., Hakosalo, O., Kareinen, L., Thomas, A., HIelm-Björkman, A., Escriou, C., Arnold, P., and H. Lohi. 2012. Environmental effects on compulsive tail chasing in dogs. PLoS ONE 7(7):e41684.