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Tail Chasing in Dogs

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Have you ever felt you were "chasing your own tail"? In other words, you're feverishly trying to accomplish something, but actually not getting anything done. The expression, of course, is derived from the seemingly pointless activity that dogs engage in every now and again.

Why do dogs do it? At first, it seemed that this behavior served little purpose and was a mindless, repetitive behavior that helped pass the time. But in the last 10 years, tail chasing has been regarded as a symptom of a compulsive disorder, much like compulsive self-licking. This implies that the dog has some genetic predisposition toward this behavior when in situations of anxiety or conflict. Being classified as a compulsive disorder also means that the activity has its roots in a natural behavior. Furthermore, its label as a compulsive disorder implies that it can be treated with anti-obsession medication, such as fluoxetine (Prozac®).

A Genetic Disposition

Tail chasing tends to be confined to certain breeds, which is evidence in support of a genetic predisposition. One study showed that the vast majority of tail-chasing dogs were of bull terrier or German shepherd lineage. A detailed study of bull terriers suggests that the disorder is transmitted via recessive genes. Although genetic in origin, environmental stress plays an important role in promoting the expression of the disorder. It is quite possible that a susceptible dog may not chase his tail at all if his environment is ideal, and that a dog without the genetic susceptibility may never chase his tail even under the most extreme environmental provocation.

Environmental Influences

Conflict underlies tail chasing in dogs. Conflict can take the form of confinement, social isolation, adversarial situations with people or other animals, and lack of opportunity to perform species-typical behavior. If a susceptible bull terrier is kept crated for many hours a day and deprived of social contact, especially when young, it is quite likely that he may erupt into tail chasing behavior of some level. Conversely, removing an affected dog from a stressful situation may reduce or eliminate the behavior.

The exact expression of tail chasing varies considerably between individuals. Some may only tail chase mildly and with little enthusiasm. Owners may accept an explanation that this is just "normal" behavior for the breed. Other dogs are affected so extremely that they chase their tails practically non-stop, running in tight circles, and snapping at the tips of their tails. Self-injury can result if the dog actually catches his tail. Bull terriers have been known to wear off their back pads by continuous tail chasing as they pivot around on their hind feet. Tail chasers of this degree pause only to grab a mouthful of food or to sleep and are clearly seriously dysfunctional. They seem to have no pleasure or interest in life other than chasing their tails and make poor pets as they display little or no wish for social interactions.

Tail chasing may begin as a "displacement behavior." The dog finds himself in some dilemma he can't resolve, and displaces his anxiety into a behavior that has nothing to do with the problem. Tail chasing is believed to derive from dogs' natural predatory instincts. They may see their tail as something that isn't part of them, and something worth chasing and catching. Chasing the tail may provide dogs some relief from their conflict because it fills a behavioral vacuum.

Tail chasing may start gradually and build up to high pitch or it may begin suddenly at an intense level. The majority of cases start when the dog is pre-pubertal (around 4 or 5 months of age) or adolescent (6 to 9 months of age). Some dogs start suddenly later in life, often as a result of some acute incident of stress. Typical precipitating factors include an incident of trauma to the tail, neuter surgery, or a geographical move. Some dogs start for no apparent reason other than the fact that their freedom is curtailed.

Dogs exhibiting compulsive tail chasing often have other compulsive behaviors. For example, bull terriers may also pace in wide circles or show compulsive behavior towards objects such as tennis balls.

Affected German shepherds often engage in compulsive pacing and circling behavior, too, including running in large figure eights. A tail chaser that is physically prevented from tail chasing is likely to displace into some other repetitive compulsive behavior.

How to Treat Tail Chasing

  • Lifestyle enrichment program, including increased exercise, a healthy diet and clear communication with owners.

  • Provide the dog increased opportunities to perform species-typical behaviors, particularly chasing and fetching. This can be achieved via various sporting exercises e.g. flyball, Frisbee, long walks through fields, and playing fetch.

  • Alleviate oppressive circumstances (e.g. excessive periods of confinement).

  • Medication. Any of the human anti-obsessional drugs will likely reduce or sometimes eliminate the tail chasing behavior in dogs. Drugs such as fluoxetine (Prozac®), paroxetine (Paxil®), sertraline (Zoloft®), and clomipramine (Clomicalm®) have all been found effective. Unfortunately, these drugs alone are not always effective in tail chasing and sometimes augmentation strategies have to be employed. In German shepherds, the addition of the anti-convulsant, phenobarbital, to an anti-obsessional drug regimen is often helpful.
  • Amputation of the tail is almost invariably ineffective in resolving this problem.

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