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Why do dogs chase their tails?

It’s cute, but too much tail chasing could be a sign of an underlying concern.

Dogs wag their tails to express emotion and to communicate with us and other pups. A big, wide wag clues you in on happiness. On the other hand, a tucked tail might mean the pup is feeling fearful. But why do dogs chase their tails? Is it a sign of playfulness, or is your dog trying to tell you something more? Here’s why dogs chase their tails and the tell-tale signs it’s time to visit the vet.

Why do puppies chase their tails?

When puppies are figuring out their bodies, a losing game of catching their tail might become the norm.

“Puppies are still learning about their bodies and how to make them move,” Dr. Zazie Todd, Ph.D., an animal-behavior expert and the author of “Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy,” explains. “They may chase their tail just for fun or as part of learning what it is.”

Exploration and play are important for healthy puppy development. As long as your puppy is in a safe space and isn’t hurting themselves, there’s no need to discourage tail chasing.

The reasons why dogs chase their tails

“There could be several reasons why a dog chases their tail — it could be play or excitement, or it could be anxiety, extreme boredom or other psychological or medical issues,” Dr. Todd says.

If you notice any changes in your dog’s behavior, including constantly chasing or biting their tail, visit your veterinarian for a health exam. Here are the reasons a dog chases their tail, according to Dr. Todd:

Playfulness

When dogs run in circles trying to catch their tail, they typically want to play. They could also be excited about meeting someone new, playing with a new toy or being fed a delicious treat. If your dog hasn’t had their morning walk or afternoon run yet, they might be hinting that it’s time to get out and about.

Medical conditions

A need for exercise and stimulation aren't the only reasons dogs chase their tails — some medical conditions can trigger the activity, too. Changes in behavior can be due to an illness like arthritic pain, flea and tick bites, kidney and liver disease, toxins and brain tumors.

Canine compulsive disorder

Certain dog breeds, including German Shepherds and Australian Cattle Dogs, are prone to developing canine compulsive disorder (CCD). Dogs with CCD repeat everyday activities — like excessive licking, patterned barking or the repetitive chasing of the tail.  

Anxiety

If your dog chases their tail before a stress-inducing event like a vet visit or during a thunderstorm, they might be experiencing anxious feelings. You might also notice that they’re whining, chewing on things or going to the bathroom inside.

Aging

It’s possible for all older pups to develop dementia or cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). Issues with sight, hearing and smell may contribute to bizarre behaviors like walking in circles and snapping at the tail, too.

RELATED: Understanding your dog’s body language

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Happy tail syndrome

A dog with a long tail and an overly excited wag is at risk for happy tail syndrome. As cute as it sounds, this happens when an excited pup whacks their tail on objects, sometimes splitting the skin, bleeding and repeating while wagging throughout your house. If they're in pain, you may notice them chasing their tail.

Your dog’s tail must be bandaged, stitched or undergo surgery to heal and prevent further damage.

How to stop dogs from chasing their tails

You can’t always prevent your dog from getting so excited that they chase their tail or exuberantly wag it. But knowing how to handle your excited pup will reduce the chances of injury to themselves or others.

To help curve overzealous behavior like tail chasing and zoomies, give your dog plenty of opportunities to play and socialize throughout the day. “More toys and enrichment are good for pretty much every dog,” Dr. Todd adds.

When your dog is chasing their tail or wagging it uncontrollably, they’re typically unaware of their surroundings. Keep your home free from breakables and obstructions, including older pets or children. But unleash your pup while they’re in their safe space to prevent them from being tangled in the leash.

Avoid chasing your dog or raising your voice while they’re chasing their tail. This might encourage an excited dog to become more frantic, especially if the behavior is due to an underlying medical condition. Instead, redirect your dog’s energy to a favorite toy and speak in a soothing, calm tone.

If the behavior is new, compulsive or is causing injury to your pet, it’s essential to seek veterinary care. A follow-up with a canine behavioral specialist might be recommended, too.

The Dig, Fetch by The Dodo’s expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too. Fetch provides the most comprehensive pet insurance and is the only provider recommended by the #1 animal brand in the world, The Dodo. 

Photo by Chris Andrawes on Unsplash

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