Tail Chasing Can Be a Behavioural or Medical Problem

October 23, 2012

Tail chasing is actually normal behaviour among dogs. In fact, behaviourists feel it is an integral part of a dog's play "repertoire". It only becomes a problem when the tail chasing becomes excessive.

There are several reasons why dogs chase their tails:

  • There could be a medical problem involving the central nervous system. Tail chasing can be a form of psychomotor epilepsy, resulting in "sub-epileptic" behaviour from time to time (i.e. not a full-blown seizure, but only a partial one, affecting primarily behaviour). This type of problem often responds well to drug therapy.
  • Tail chasing can also be caused by a medical problem that is localized to the tail region. For example, a lesion causing pain, itching or other irritating sensation of the tail or the hindquarters could lead to tail chasing. Diseases resulting from injury, nerve damage or skin problems are common causes. Impacted anal glands can also lead to tail chasing.
  • Tail chasing can be a type of abnormal behaviour, a form of "stereotypic" behaviour or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD results in compulsively repetitive behaviour that is due to extreme boredom and lack of stimulation.

Typically, however, it is a form of attention-getting behaviour that is constantly reinforced every time the owner draws attention to it. Even aversive stimulation, such as scolding or punishment, can serve as a positive reinforcer for this type of behaviour since it serves to draw attention to the pet.

How can you tell if tail chasing is a medical or a learned problem? First, have your dog checked by your veterinarian to ensure that there are no medical problems. A dog that cannot be easily distracted from its tail chasing, that chases its tail persistently under various unrelated circumstances and mutilates itself, likely has a medical problem.

On the other hand, a dog that can be easily distracted from tail-chasing, that only chases its tail under certain well-recognized circumstances, and also engages in other types of behaviour (e.g. groin licking) while tail-chasing, is likely to have a behavioural problem.

Treatment of behavioural tail chasing involves a process called "extinction." Put simply, bad behaviour is ignored while good behaviour is rewarded. Where once the owner would draw attention to the unwanted behaviour, the owner must now ignore that behaviour completely. All members of the family must be involved, since non-compliance by even one family member can frustrate all attempts at success.

At first, as less attention is paid to the unwanted behaviour and there is the absence of the expected reward (i.e. attention), the tail chasing may actually increase dramatically. Eventually, however, the tail chasing should stop. Concurrently, positive reinforcement should also be provided for alternative acceptable behaviour, such as obeying commands or behaving properly. Increased attention when tail chasing does not occur should be the rule. If these methods fail, behaviour modification drugs for obsessive-compulsive may be necessary.