4 reasons why dogs chase their tails, from boredom to parasites, and when to call your vet
- Tail-chasing is fairly common for puppies — they might treat their tails like just another toy.
- An adult dog who often bites or chases their tail may be bored or in pain, or have worms or fleas.
A tail-chasing dog going around in circles, getting dizzy and disoriented, may offer the perfect picture of canine playtime behavior. And for young dogs, tail-chasing can be totally normal. Puppies often nip at their tails as soon as they realize, "Hey! I have a tail!"
But while occasional tail chasing can be a harmless sign of play, constant tail chasing or biting, especially for adult dogs, may point to underlying health or psychological issues.
Here are four reasons your dog might be super interested in their tail and when it's time to call a vet.
"Dogs do what feels good, makes them happy, or provides a reward," says Angela Logsdon-Hoover, regional technician director with VCA Animal Hospitals.
Your dog might naturally feel excited when they look back and catch a glimpse of their tail wagging in all directions. And of course, when they start to chase it, they might find it somewhat easier to catch than that pesky backyard squirrel.
Over time, this occasional behavior can turn into a habit. According to Logsdon-Hoover, this is especially common in dogs that spend a lot of time in cages or kennels or are regularly left alone at home for long periods — particularly in high-energy dogs with tails. But even tailless dogs can develop spinning habits.
What to do next: If your dog gets playful with their tail once in a while, you probably don't need to worry.
On the other hand, a dog that spends a great deal of time tail-chasing may need an outlet for their pent-up energy, Logsdon-Hoover says.
If your dog can't seem to leave their tail alone, consider talking with a veterinarian or animal behaviorist about the issue, Logsdon-Hoover says.
But how can you tell your dog isn't just having a fun time?
"A behavior becomes obsessive when it begins to interfere with daily life," says Alison Creighton, registered veterinary technician with VCA Animal Hospitals.
In short, if your pup is constantly spinning after their tail and you're struggling to redirect their attention, it's probably time to seek professional help.
Your vet can offer more guidance with finding the cause, and if needed, they may prescribe mood stabilizer medications to help minimize obsessive behavior like tail chasing.
Humans who feel pain or discomfort might rub the offending area or grab some type of pain relief medication, like Tylenol. Since dogs can't do these things, they may bite at painful areas instead, Creighton says.
Pain in your dog's tail may result from a traumatic injury directly to the tail, Creighton says, but it can also crop up due to chronic conditions like arthritis, allergies, or anal gland issues.
Infections around the backside or tail can also prompt your dog to bite or nip at the area. Signs of an infection may include:
- Foul-smelling discharge
- Missing spots of fur
- Crusting on the skin
According to Creighton, your dog may be in pain if you notice them limping, walking more slowly than usual, avoiding running or jumping, and holding their tail low.
Other possible signs of pain include:
What to do next: If your dog seems like they're in pain or they have signs of an infection, you'll want to make an appointment with your veterinarian right away. Most infections won't improve without prescription antibiotics.
Keep in mind, too, that your dog might be in pain for any number of reasons. A qualified professional can help narrow down the cause — and location — of your dog's discomfort and recommend the appropriate treatment.
If your dog suddenly has an excessive interest in their tail and backside, parasites might be the culprit.
"It's common for fleas to congregate towards the rear end," Creighton says.
You can often spot fleas with your naked eye, but you may also notice other signs of a flea infestation, including:
- Excessive itching, chewing, or biting of the skin
- Visibly irritated skin
- Small red bumps on the skin
- Hair loss and dullness
Creighton says that intestinal parasites can also cause intense anal itching that might lead your dog to lick or gnaw excessively at the area — or drag their butt across the floor.
Other common symptoms of intestinal parasites include:
- Weight loss
- Bloating that results in a potbelly
- Blood in the stool
What to do next: "The best way to treat and prevent fleas are prescription preventatives available through your veterinarian, paired with environmental decontamination," Creighton says.
Along with a topical or oral flea medication, you'll also want to make sure to:
- Wash your pet's bedding in hot water — at least 95 °F (35 °C) — and dry on high heat.
- Thoroughly vacuum carpets, furniture, car seats, kennels, and anywhere else your pet hangs out to eliminate fleas and eggs.
- Consider treating your yard for fleas.
Quick tip: Adding a flea collar to your vacuum bag or canister can help kill fleas as you clean.
A vet-ordered fecal sample can confirm the presence of intestinal parasites, and your vet can prescribe deworming medication to kill them off.
4. Cognitive issues
Tail chasing can also result from age-related cognitive decline or brain abnormalities that affect cognitive function, like tumors or birth defects — though these issues are fairly uncommon in dogs.
According to Dr. Abel Gonzalez, veterinarian at Fuzzy, signs to pay attention to include:
- Sudden changes in behavior or personality
- Consistent head tilting
- Asymmetrical facial expressions
- Lack of coordination
What to do next: Ultimately, treatment of neurological issues depends on the underlying cause, so a good next step involves contacting a vet who can offer more guidance with identifying and managing neurological conditions.
If you've noticed any signs of neurological problems in your dog, Gonzalez suggests making an appointment with a veterinarian to start the diagnostic process.
When to call a vet
Gonzalez recommends making a vet appointment anytime your pet's tail chasing becomes obsessive, to the point where they can't seem to focus on anything else.
For instance, if your dog ignores meals, treats, or the prospect of playtime, you'll probably want to call your vet asap. You'll also want to get in touch with your vet right away if they chew their tail so much they begin to leave wounds.
For tail chasing that doesn't have an underlying medical cause, your vet will likely recommend a combination of behavior and drug therapy to curb the behavior. This might include:
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Training with a head halter to redirect attention during spinning or tail chasing
- Exercise and other enrichment activities like trick training
Random tail-chasing sessions usually don't pose any major cause for concern, but if your dog seems utterly fixated on their tail, it might be time to make an appointment with a vet.
Your dog's preoccupation with their backside could suggest they're experiencing discomfort due to infection or parasites — concerns that typically won't improve without medical treatment.
In rare cases, obsessive tail chasing might even result from neurological issues, which your vet can help diagnose and treat.
Of course, your dog's tail chasing could just mean they're bored. If that's the case, your vet can also offer some helpful tips to enrich their daily routine.
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