Dogs are weird. It’s why we love them. They like to sniff butts, chase sticks, and boop our legs. Some dogs also like to chase their tails.
But is tail chasing in dogs cute, or is it a sign of something wrong? We spoke with veterinary behaviorists to get the facts about why dogs chase their tails and what you might need to keep an eye out for.
Is It Normal for Dogs to Chase Their Tails?
So, is tail chasing something dogs just do? The short answer is yes, but with a big caveat. Dr. Leanne Lilly, a veterinary behaviorist at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, says tail chasing in dogs can just be a form of play—but only if it’s brief and intermittent and, generally, if your pup is still young.
“Silly play tends to happen in younger animals,” adds Dr. Julia Albright, a veterinary behaviorist at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. “Puppies, up to 18 months.”
Playful tail chasing in dogs is fairly easy to recognize, Dr. Lilly says. “If they take one or two jumps, catch it, then let it go,” she says, then it’s probably play. “But if you see a dog who chases his tail obsessively, to the exclusion of everything else, it’s time to get him to a vet.”
Some breeds are more inclined than others to chase their tails, Dr. Lilly adds. Bull Terriers and German Shepherds, in particular, are known tail chasers.
But again, normal, harmless, playful tail chasing in dogs is a brief catch-and-release. Frequent, obsessive, or even aggressive tail chasing and chewing is likely a sign of something more concerning.
Why Do Dogs Chase Their Tails?
If your dog is whirling around in circles chasing his tail, this puzzling behavior likely raises a few questions, like: Why is my dog chasing his tail and biting it? Does he think it’s a toy? What could possibly be so interesting back there?
Let’s look at a couple possible emotional reasons and then some physical ones for dogs chasing their tails.
Wild dogs and wolves don’t typically chase their tails, Dr. Lilly says, but captive wolves (and some captive big cats, FYI) sometimes do. This points to one of the non-play reasons dogs might chase their tails: stress.
“Dogs might do it as a coping mechanism,” Dr. Lilly says—something to fixate on when they are feeling anxious or frustrated.
Dr. Albright says that one of her three dogs loves to go for walks and gets frustrated when he can’t go out. Sometimes he goes after his tail. But his frustrated tail chasing looks different than a dog who might have a medical issue around back. “It’s not frantic,” she says, but it is clearly her dog working off some of his stress.
Just as some humans have OCD tics, Dr. Albright says, so do dogs, and tail chasing might be one of them. She says the behavior might start because of some kind of stressor, but continues when there isn’t anything presently stressing the dog out. This is where the tendencies of Bull Terriers and German Shepherds to chase might come into play. But it’s not wise to assume your dog is chasing his tail just because his breed is more prone to do that.
Pain, Discomfort, and Medical Issues
Dog tails are lively, complicated structures. They are, in fact, limbs made up of vertebrae, muscles, cartilage, and nerves, and that means dogs’ tails are as prone to injury, nerve damage, infection, and disease as any other part of their bodies. “Tail pain is a main cause of tail chasing,” Dr. Lilly says.
And if there is any kind of medical problem happening in your dog’s tail, he might try to catch and chew on it as a way of treating the issue. “A ton of medical issues can lead to tail chasing,” Dr. Albright says.
Some tail troubles in dogs can be fairly easy to address, such as:
Other reasons for tail chasing in dogs can be more serious, such as:
- Skin injury
- Bone fractures or bone infections
- Spinal cord injury
And because dogs can’t just tell us what they’re feeling, some signs of tail trouble to watch out for include:
- Limp tail
- Pain when touched
- Kinks/bumps/bends in the tail
Dr. Lilly says that dogs obsessively chasing their tails or excessively spinning in one direction could be a sign of pain or discomfort on one side of the body, near the dog’s hind end.
Excessive tail spinning also (though less frequently) could be a symptom of a deeper issue. “There’s always a small chance that a repetitive behavior is part of a seizure or other psychomotor disorder,” Dr. Lilly says. It’s why she says pet parents should default to going to a vet and not make assumptions.
How to Stop a Dog From Chasing Their Tail
The best way to stop dogs from chasing their tails is to find out why they’re chasing them in the first place.
Our experts stress that tail chasing lasting more than 10 seconds, or in dogs older than a year or two, should be addressed medically. “For any behavior that’s not normal, the vet is the best place to start,” Dr. Lilly says. “Always go to a vet first.”
In other words, don’t assume your pup is just acting up. Let your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist rule out more serious issues first. Once you do rule out medical trouble, there are steps pet parents can take to curb tail chasing in dogs:
Don’t: Encourage. There’s a chance your pup’s habitual tail chasing might actually be a way of seeking attention. If you laugh or in some other way reward your pup with attention when he whirls around chasing his backside, says Dr. Lilly, “it’s like yelling ‘ice cream’ at a kids’ party.”
Do: Redirect. “Whenever we need a dog to be in a different place,” says Dr. Albright, “we redirect.” In the moment, mid-spin, she says, “call him away, calmly. Ask him to do other things.” If he does tricks, now would be a good time to break a few out. Or maybe take a walk, or play with a toy. And if he doesn’t know any tricks, well…maybe now you have a reason to teach him a couple.
Don’t: Redirect with food. Food rewards are a training tool for dogs. If you offer him treats in exchange for not spinning, he’ll probably figure out how to game you for post-spinny treats very quickly.
Definitely Don’t: Restrain. Dr. Albright says never try to physically stop or restrain your dog while he’s in the middle of chasing. It will just add to his stress and could make things worse.
Tail Chasing in Dogs: Other Advice
Tail chasing doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But it could happen because of the vacuum! In other words, stress reactions have precursors—something that signals that a behavior is about to start.
Dr. Albright says the best thing pet parents can do is learn to recognize what triggers behaviors like spinning and tail chasing in dogs. And it could be anything—the vacuum cleaner, the mailman, loud garbage trucks, kids playing close by. Does your dog start chasing or spinning when these things show up in his space? Especially if he is blocked from seeing what’s causing him stress, or, conversely, feels he can’t get away from it?
Dr. Lilly says pet parents can work around these patterns once they recognize what triggers a bout of stressful tail chasing in dogs. If you know when the garbage truck shows up, for example, maybe leave on some music or another sound your pup likes as a way to drown out the noise of the truck. If you know what time a repeating stressor occurs, a food bowl with a timer could train your dog to think of the garbage truck or afternoon siren or mailman visit as time for a snack, Dr. Lilly says. Reassociation and avoidance, she says, go a long way.
The bottom line for dog parents is to pay attention to your pooch; to never assume behaviors like tail chasing are just your dog being weird; and to see a veterinary behaviorist or vet if your dog is chasing his tail a lot.
That whole butt-sniffing thing, though—you’re just gonna have to live with that one.