Most dog owners have watched as their dog suddenly and for no apparent reason, notices the long appendage attached to that canine rear end. The dog glares at the offending tail for a moment and then goes after it in a great whirling production that often ends up with the dog in a pile on the floor with the tail in his mouth. Mission accomplished. But what exactly was the mission in the first place?
Dogs chase their tails for a number of reasons, some physical and some behavioral. A dog may chase his tail if he is itchy, has fleas, or is having anal gland problems. Basically anything causing distress in the rear half of the hound can instigate a tail chasing moment.
Some dogs receive positive reinforcement for tail chasing from their humans and may repeat the process to get attention. I mean, let’s face it, tail chasing can be quite a hilarious performance and most dogs love to make people laugh.
Unfortunately, this seemingly harmless activity can have a darker side as well. In extreme cases, a dog may chase his tail so frequently that it’s considered a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. One theory is that tail chasing is a way to alleviate stress if the dog is feeling unsure about a situation. As with many stress-induced disorders, the dog may be displacing his anxiety about something in his life into a different activity. Big events such as a move or a new addition to the family could stimulate an increase in tail chasing, for example. If stress is at the root of the behavior, it may occur in conjunction with other obsessive-compulsive disorders, such as flank or paw licking, pacing, or circling.
Tail chasing behavior is more common in certain breeds than others. Some dogs can go their entire lives without chasing their tails, and some do it occasionally seemingly just to amuse themselves. Many times tail chasing begins in adolescent dogs and subsides as they get older, as if they’ve "grown out of it."
Unfortunately, dogs that bite and snap at their tails can actually injure themselves. Most behaviorists recommend spending more time with the dog and increasing the amount of exercise the dog gets (after all a tired dog will be sleeping, not chasing his tail). You might take your dog for long walks, play fetch, or get involved in "dog sports" like flyball or agility.
In severe cases, anti-anxiety medications are used to treat problem tail-chasing behaviors. So if your dog’s interest in his tail has gone a little too far lately, it’s probably time to take him to the vet for a check up.