Why Do Dogs Chase Their Tails?

Tail-chasing performed by our furry companions still remains an enigma for the general population.

A dog chasing its tail fervently.

Lil Shepherd, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

A dog chasing its tail fervently.

Tail-chasing is a ubiquitous behavior that is seen in dogs around the world. Although the behavior seems rather normal, tail-chasing could actually be the result of something more daunting.

“Occasional chasing could be a nervous habit or part of play,” Dr. Steve Weinberg, the founder of 911 Vets, explains. “Obsessive chasing could be due to a brain abnormality akin to seizure-like activity. Other reasons could be a painful area where a tail was docked, an infection, or even cancer.” 

For the past several years, this behavior has been scrutinized by many scientists and experimentalists in order to answer a simple yet informative question: why do dogs chase their tails?

Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are domesticated animals. Originally bred from wolves, dogs were the first animals to be domesticated around 27,000 to 40,000 years ago. They became a popular pet due to their innocence and their usual playful and lovable nature with humans. 

Professor Hannes Lohi studies the characteristics and environmental factors associated with compulsive tail-chasing at the University of Helenski. He found that tail-chasing had originated from bull terriers and German shepherds. The bull terrier was originally developed in the 19th century as a fighting dog, but now, they play the common role of the household pet. German shepherds are also known for their fierceness and their aggression when it comes to humans and other dogs.

The evolution of tail-chasing is interesting and unusual. Originating from bull terriers and German shepherds, tail-chasing is a common behavioral trait that has been proven numerous times to be a bad sign of further compulsory behaviors and mental issues in dogs. Evolving over hundreds of years ago, bull terriers were first bred in order to become fighting dogs by the will of immoral individuals.

One may question how the peculiar behavior of tail-chasing had emerged in this sort of species. Tail-chasing is comparable to other compulsive behaviors, such as pacing without stopping and chasing lights or shadows.

These behaviors were the result of the animal’s ill-feelings of independence and distrust. For dogs that were manufactured solely for the use of fighting and killing enemies, tail chasing was a fun pastime that did not involve anyone else but themselves. However, as time passed, and society began to see the world and its inhabitants in a more ethical light, dogs became animals that were commonly adopted by household families. Thus, the causes of tail-chasing began to change.  

According to “Tail chasing in dogs resembles obsessive compulsive disorders in humans,” notes a research paper published on August 20th, 2012. “Early separation from the mother has been discovered to predispose other animals to stereotypic behavior.”  The reasons that lead to tail-chasing all seem to harbor a negative trend, in which the past seems to mirror the present. 

Even  now, tail-chasing seems to be inherent in dogs that have had rough childhoods and absent parents. Although different environmental and genetic factors have been suggested to predispose dogs to compulsive behavior, one thing is clear — the evolutionary history of dogs that were raised to fight and kill plays a major part in the current common behavior that consists of chasing one’s own tail.

Due to the aggressive nature of a modern day dog’s ancestors, tail-chasing is now seen in many current dogs’ behaviors. Unfortunately, in many scientific studies and experiments, a majority of tail-chasing dogs had some sort of neurological, compulsive or other pathological conditions.

Dogs could start to demonstrate this behavior when they’re young – between 3 and 6 months old – or even before they reach puberty. Due to the trauma, the dog can begin to develop trauma and compulsive behaviors, similar to those in humans, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Tail chasing is simply one of the symptoms of their  OCD, as it is not a learned behavior but more of an innate characteristic associated with nervousness or anxiety. 

Additionally, since many scientists perceive tail chasing as a “normal” behavior, it is further implied that tail chasing is not learned. 

In one cross-sectional study conducted by Charlotte C. Burn, Burn wanted to understand how humans perceive tail-chasing behavior. She went on a long YouTube marathon in which she observed each and every tail chasing video, noting the number of views, the comments, the environment of the specific dog when they were chasing their tails, and the nature of the video overall. She found Clip ID and URL, the reported sex, age, and nationality of the uploader, the dog breed, sex, and age, the dog tail morphology, and the relevant human and dog behavior observed in the video. 

Through this tactful method, Burn was able to describe canine breed behavioral characteristics – and animal welfare implications and broad environmental contexts – associated with tail-chasing. No clinical diagnoses were made, but the results from her study corroborated that a dog’s poor environment or upbringing could be the main reason why they exhibit tail-chasing behavior. 

By comparing tail-chasing videos with 400 non-tail-chasing videos, she came to the conclusion that the frequency of tail-chasing was important as well. Of the 86 tail-chasing videos that had comments describing the frequency of tail-chasing, about 30% of dogs were stated as chasing their tails habitually (e.g. daily or ‘all the time’) rather than ‘periodically’ or ‘rarely,’ which is a clinical criterion for classifying tail-chasing as compulsive. According to her results, “the five dogs with visible hair-loss or injury to the tail or hindquarters comprised two German Shepherds, one Labrador-Staffordshire Bull Terrier cross, one Labrador and one Parsons Jack Russell Terrier,” which aligns with the evolutionary history of tail-chasing, as well as the theory that aggression and trauma in the past has led to this sort of compulsive behavior. 

Further research can be conducted in order to determine these issues in a more clinical sense. It is clear that tail-chasing is a compulsive behavior that is prevalent in many dog species, especially in bull terriers and German shepherds, due to their evolutionary history.   

Thankfully, the plethora of research that we have currently is a sure sign that further advancements can be made in order to better understand this phenomenon and, if the results are as debilitating as some scientists fear they are, steps towards eradicating and preventing this behavior in dogs can be implemented. 

Not only will dogs no longer suffer, but their owners can also prosper with their furry best friend and companion.

For the past several years, this behavior has been scrutinized by many scientists and experimentalists in order to answer a simple yet informative question: why do dogs chase their tails?