Why does my dog chase its tail?

By Dr Megan Kelly

Why does my dog chase its tail?

We see it often, a dog thats chasing its tail incessantly never quite catching it, and hour after hour he just keeps trying. We joke saying ” he’s not the brightest” but more than likely there is a reason for this behaviour.

We call this compulsive behaviour and it’s similar to obsessive compulsive disorder in people. It is a behaviour that is performed repeatedly over and over again to the extent, if it is severe, it actually starts to interfere with your pets normal life.

Here are a few examples of compulsive disorders:

Circling, tail chasing, pacing, chewing feet, licking, biting at flies, self directed aggression e.g. Attacking one’s tail, persistent barking and staring at shadows.

If you compare these behaviours in pets to the stereotypic behaviour of zoo animals there is most likely an environmental cause to this behaviour. So we find these pets are often confined to small areas, lack stimulation and the ability to socialise with other dogs and people, and they may also have been physically abused, or had a fearful experience.

We believe these compulsive behaviours are brought upon by stress, fear and frustration. Some breeds are more predisposed to compulsive disorders e.g. German shepherds and tail chasing.

Incidentally most pets exhibiting compulsive behaviours also appear to be highly strung in nature, which is very common in the German shepherd breed.

So how do we treat this condition?

1. The most important consideration is to rule out any medical cause for the behaviour. E.g compulsive licking can be a result of joint\ pain, tail chasing in a dog with an anal gland abscess.

2. Try to identify the cause of the problem and remove it. Once you know what the problem is you can also use desensitising techniques to help the dog become more comfortable with the situation, object or place that stresses him. Consult an animal behaviouralist to assist you with desensitising techniques.

3. Eliminate stress. Animals get stressed when they cannot predict what is going to happen next. Be consistent and structured with the interactions between you and your pet thereby increasing the level of predictability and control in your pet’s environment. Never punish your pet when displaying this behaviour as this can cause more stress and can worsen the behaviour. Your pet is not being disobedient. Praising your pet is also discouraged as this may be a sign of reinforcement to your pet once again worsening the behaviour. I would recommend distracting your pet with a more favourable behaviour. For example ask him to sit if he chases his tail and then reward him for sitting. This results in positive reinforcement for a behaviour which prevents him from performing the compulsive behaviour.

4. Provide a safe area in the home for your pet and make sure your pet has adequate water and food.

5. Ensure adequate daily exercise. Many behavioural problems are as a result of too little exercise.

6. Rule out boredom. Provide stimulation and rotate toys. There are many toys which can offer stimulation e.g. Puzzles and treat release toys, hooves.

7. Give a natural calming supplement. Natural products often do not have the sedatory effects that some behavioural drugs have. Herbs like valerian are often used to treat behavioural disorders.

8. Pheromone therapy : pheromones are the natural scent or hormone that animals release. Collars made of synthetic canine appeasing pheromone provide your pet with a sense of well being and reassurance.

9. In severe cases consult a behaviouralist and eventually your veterinary surgeon for drug therapy.

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