Dog chasing tail
Many people enjoy watching YouTube videos of dogs and cats chasing their tails and laughing at how silly they look. However, what many people may not realize is that sometimes those silly videos are actually showing pets with potential behavioral disorders. The pets in the videos may be engaging in compulsive (repetitive) behavior without what appears to be a specific goal or purpose. However, while to the untrained eye the animal may appear to have a lack of purpose, there may be one in that animal’s mind.

This is a type of behavior that can affect both humans and pets. Humans diagnosed with obsessive compulsive behavior may wash their hands so often that their hands are chapped or bleeding or check all the locks on their doors and windows repeatedly. They appear to be unable to stop their own behaviors and report that they constantly think about performing these activities. In veterinary medicine, we have no way of knowing if an animal is actually thinking about doing those repetitive behaviors so we do not call it an obsessive compulsive disorder but rather a compulsive disorder.

First, Rule Out Medical Problems

Why do animals engage in this behavior?  First and foremost, you need to consult your veterinarian to rule out medical causes of any sudden, unusual or repetitive behavior. For example, neurological problems can cause circling and what appears to be tail chasing, while flea infestations or skin or inhalant allergies can cause excessive itching, licking or other problems. Dogs that chase lights, shadows or imaginary objects may need to have their vision evaluated by a veterinary ophthalmologist and to be checked by a veterinary neurologist for possible seizure disorders. Other types of diagnostic testing may be required.

Sometimes, the Cause Is Genetic

Once medical causes have been ruled out however, owners, in consult with their veterinarian or with a veterinary behaviorist, can look to other causes. In some breeds, we have found a genetic component to compulsive behaviors. Some Doberman Pinschers are more prone to flank suck (which is repetitive sucking, licking or chewing of the flanks), while German Shepherds, Bull Terriers, Anatolian Sheepdogs and Australian Cattle Dogs are more likely to spin and/or chase their tails. Siamese and Burmese cats are more likely to suck and knead on blankets or any soft material. Sometimes when the cat places the material in its mouth and suckles, he may also chew on and ingest the material. This behavior is known as pica, which can occur in both cats and dogs. In this situation, the animal ingests materials that do not provide any nutrients.

Also, just because some animals have the genetic potential to display these types of behaviors does not necessarily mean that they will manifest them 100 percent of the time. Sometimes the behavior begins at a very young age. In other cases, the animal may exhibit this behavior only when exposed to the right conditions or not at all. It has been theorized that our pets engage in these behaviors when they are frustrated or conflicted.

Siamese cat with blanket

What Causes Conflict?

This behavior pattern may be the animal’s way of coping with the stress of not knowing what to do and/or picking between two different behaviors. For example, a dog may be stressed by a situation in which he might want to chase after a favorite ball, but it has rolled next to, say, the lawnmower, which he is afraid of. The dog really wants to get his favorite toy, but is reluctant to do so. You may notice your dog exhibiting signs of this conflict if he goes toward the ball but then backs away. He may also whine and pant in addition to this pacing and may start chasing his tail instead of going after the ball. Why? Because chasing his tail may be an “easier” behavior for your dog. It is less frightening than going after the ball that is located next to the big, scary machine. The next time your dog experiences this conflict, he may go straight to chasing his tail and so, over time, this may become a behavior that he automatically engages in. This kind of abnormal behavior tends to manifest (in both dogs and cats) around social maturity between 1 to 3 years of age or during periods of stress or change. 

Determining a Problem 

How would a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist determine if your pet is exhibiting a compulsive behavior? Compulsive behaviors are repetitive and the animal appears fixated on a goal. They typically are variations or intensifications of normal behavior, such as:

Normal grooming      →      Excessive grooming resulting in loss of fur or open wounds

Predation                  →      Tail chasing; pouncing on shadows or light or imaginary objects

Ingestion                   →      Eating non-food items, such as rocks, dirt, cloth, etc.

Locomotion              →      Running in large circles; pacing in a specific pattern

The behavior may have initially started due to a situation of conflict or frustration but now the behavior manifests at any time. The behavior may continue for a long time if the owners do not interrupt it and, even when interrupted, the animal may resume the behavior. Sometimes the pet cannot be interrupted. If the repetitive behavior does not help the pet to calm down and cope with the situation or interferes with daily life, then it is considered a compulsive behavior. I have some canine patients that become so fixated on chasing shadows or lights or running in circles that they may not stop to eat. Or they grab a bite of food but keep on chasing. Sometimes these animals cause injuries to themselves due to the repetitive nature of the behavior. I have some dogs who chase their tails and bite them hard enough to cause wounds or to pull off the fur. Other dogs may lick an area of their legs, paws or flank repeatedly to the point where they cause fur loss and abrade their skin to the point where there is an open wound and infection.

Next Steps

The most important thing to do (again, after ruling out medical causes) is to keep a diary of the events for as long as your veterinarian directs. In the diary, you should record if there are triggers for the behavior, does it occur around a certain person, where does it occur, can you disrupt the behavior and how often and how long does it occur?

Generally, once medical causes are ruled out and you have recorded your observations, a consultation with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist can help determine the appropriate treatment plan for the pet, which might include a combination of behavior-modification exercises and medical options. Also keep in mind that, except in a very few situations, owners don’t cause or contribute to the development of these behaviors, as many are already genetically programed.

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