I was asked an interesting question recently, and decided it would make a great topic for a health article! A friend of a friend told me about a family dog and their zany behavior quirks, one of which was tail chasing. After describing this unique canine to me, she asked me “Why do dogs chase their tails, anyway?”
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The short answer came right to mind, but as I spoke I realized that there were deeper issues that needed to be addressed as well. Dogs chase their tails for a few reasons, and not all of them are cute or benign!
Why Do Dogs Chase Their Tails?
We have all seen those internet videos, memes, and cartoons of a dog spinning in circles, trying to catch their tail. It can be really funny to see! All that drive, and yet, even if successful all the dog wins is…a mouth full of tail!
Let’s talk about tail chasing seriously, though! Yes, it can be funny, but it can also be a problem that gets bigger if it isn’t caught in time. Let’s answer the initial question first.
Why do dogs chase their tails? Because it is fun!
Just like a toddler spinning in circles until they fall over, some dogs just get a kick out of spinning around trying to get their mouth on their tail.
For most tail chasers, this kind of activity will peak in their early puppyhood, and tail off (sorry, couldn’t resist) as they get older.
When a dog chases their tail, their brain releases endorphins. This endorphin rush is a pleasant reinforcement of the behavior.
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So, if you dog enjoys chasing their tail, chances are they will continue to do the activity as long as they get that endorphin rush. For most dogs, this won’t be a problem, just a funny, quirky behavior you can leverage in YouTube videos and Facebook posts!
Some Breeds Are Known For Tail Chasing
Any dog can become a tail chaser…even those with nubbins instead of tails! But some breeds are definitely known for this behavior.
In general, terriers and German Shepherds are most associated with tail chasing. But among the terriers, I’ve heard of a lot of Jack Russell and Bull terriers who exhibit this behavior.
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It is a common behavior to see in dogs with a strong prey drive, so if you have a breed known for that trait, you may see some tail chasing as well!
When Tail Chasing Is a Problem
For most dogs, tail chasing will remain a fun and innocent activity that blows off some steam and entertains us dog parents! But if you have a tail chaser, it is important to monitor the activity for signs of medical problems.
Tail chasing can be a warning that there is something wrong with your dog. If you dog is NOT a known tail chaser, and suddenly starts doing it, you should probably take a look at their rear and consider a consult with your vet. Especially for adult and senior dogs, a sudden change in behavior is always a sign to look deeper into the problem.
Chewing On Tail or Around Base
Sometimes, I have had clients who describe a tail chasing behavior that isn’t really tail chasing.
If your dog is walking in circles trying to chew or lick at their rear, this is not likely tail chasing! It is a sign that something itches or hurts. Pay attention to where they are focused on chewing/licking. Is it their rear legs? The base of their tail? Or are they trying to lick their anus (gross, but they do it!)?
Anal Gland Problems
One of the first things to check when a dog starts suddenly focusing on their rear or anus are their anal glands.
These scent glands are located in a ring of muscle around the opening of the anus. Ideally, these scent glands will naturally empty themselves when your dog poops. But many dogs develop problems with emptying these glands, and need to have them expressed manually by a groomer or veterinarian.
The primary sign that a dog is having trouble with their anal glands is a desire to lick their anus, or scoot their rear on the floor indicating their discomfort. Sometimes the act of licking can look like tail chasing. You may also notice a strange, fishy-smell around your dog.
Once you know the smell of anal glands, you likely won’t forget it!
If you notice these signs, have your veterinarian do an anal gland expression. Don’t have a groomer do it, because if there is a problem your vet needs to see the discharge to help diagnose it.
Anal gland problems are not something you should ignore. It can take a dog a few hours to rub their rear completely raw. Also, an impacted anal gland can rupture, causing a lot of pain and bleeding.
If this happens, then your dog will need to have their glands infused with an antibiotic ointment by a vet, and will need pain medication and oral antibiotics. It can get expensive fast!
Another common problem that clients have described as tail chasing but isn’t are issues with skin around the rear and at the base of the tail.
If your dog is walking around trying to chew or lick these areas, you may notice that the skin is red, swollen, and/or bleeding. You may also see a loss of fur in that area.
The absolutely most common reason to have skin problems around the rear legs and at the base of the tails is an allergic reaction…to fleas. I could write an entire post about flea issues, but suffice it to say that they are the number one allergy we see in veterinary medicine by far.
FAD (Flea Allergy Dermatitis) is an allergy to flea bites or to the flea dirt (aka flea poop) that causes the skin to itch and burn.
While you can find signs of FAD anywhere on the body where fleas are present, it is not uncommon to have more fleas located around the rear of the dog than on the front. Fleas often avoid the areas of the dog that are easily scratched!
If you are not using a medicinal flea preventative, then you really need to be on top of your flea patrol. Use flea combs frequently, and look for the flea dirt, not the fleas themselves! By the time you are combing off live fleas, you have a massive infestation.
Flea dirt will be the first sign of flea activity. If you see it, treat ASAP! If your dog develops a skin infection from the fleas, you will spend a lot of money on antibiotics and veterinary care.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Some dogs, just like humans, can develop compulsive or OCD-like behaviors. Tail chasing can become a behavior problem in some dogs.
Remember, we talked above about how tail chasing is fun? It can release endorphins that create a sensation of pleasure in the dog’s brain. In some (usually more driven or intense) dogs, the tail chasing can become secondary to getting that endorphin release.
If you have a dog who obsessively chases their tail, non-stop, to the point of exhaustion, then you may have a dog with a compulsive or OCD behavior problem. Just like obsessive lickers, chewers and other damaging behaviors, a compulsive tail chaser needs to be evaluated by your vet.
Sometimes, using an over the counter calming aid or pheromone product can reduce the behavior. But for some dogs, their OCD can be severe enough that they need prescription medications. Your vet and/or a professional behaviorist can help you solve this problem!
Dog’s chase their tails mostly because it is fun!
In most dogs, the behavior is a short-term interest that declines as they get older. For other dogs, the problem can be a sign of a medical problem, like FAD or impacted anal glands. In the worst cases, it can also be a sign of a compulsive behavior problem. Always consult with your vet if you have questions about your dog.
Be sure to share your pictures and videos of tail chasing in the comments section!
Jen Clifford has a B.A. in Biology from Reed College. She was a field biologist for several years, and then spent 10 years working in veterinary medicine as a receptionist and technician. Jen is currently a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest with her tribe of pets. She is a passionate animal lover who is dedicated to helping people find solutions to their pet-related challenges.
To read more of Jen’s work, check out her website: https://mywickedtribe.com
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