Compulsive Behavior in Dogs

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on September 05, 2023
4 min read

It’s not uncommon to see dogs chasing their tails. You may even see a dog doing it over and over again in a circle.

Sometimes when dogs are chasing their tails, they’re simply having fun. They’re learning about their bodies and seeing what they can do. Other times though, tail chasing may be a sign of compulsive behavior. 

A compulsive behavior is a behavior that is shown for a longer period of time than normal, repeated out of context or repeated in situations that are considered abnormal. Compulsive behaviors tend to get worse over time and often require medical or behavioral treatment.

When the tail chasing goes from a fun game your dog sometimes plays to a nonstop habit that’s concerning for you and bad for their body, you may have a compulsive behavior on your hands. In this case, it’s best to talk to your veterinarian.

Here are a few of the most common reasons why dogs chase their tails:

  • They’re having fun and being silly. This is especially common in puppies, who are just beginning to explore the world and their bodies.
  • They’re bored. Dogs need a lot of physical activity to stay in good physical and mental shape. If they’re bored, their tail may look like a good toy.
  • They have an underlying medical condition. Sometimes compulsive tail-chasing can be a sign that your dog has an underlying medical condition. In this case, your dog should be examined by a veterinarian. 

Usually, you can help your dog stop biting their tail by simply redirecting their attention. For instance, if you see your dog beginning to bite their tail, give them a simple command like “sit” or “stop.” However, if your dog is compulsively chasing their tail, their compulsion may get worse over time. In many cases, they will also start biting their tail. 

Sometimes dogs chew their tails because they’re bored or curious about their tail. Other times, a dog chewing their tail can be a sign of something more serious. Here are a few of the most common reasons why dogs chew their tails:

  • Pain. Dogs will often chew at a painful area of their tail to provide relief.
  • Allergic reaction. Sometimes dogs will chew their tail to ease itching or discomfort caused by an allergic reaction.
  • Fleas. Fleas are small bugs that can attach themselves to dogs and cause discomfort. Tail chewing may be a sign that your dog has fleas.
  • Intestinal parasites. If your dog has a worm infection, they may chew their tail to ease irritation.
  • They’re anxious. Your dog may lick or chew their tail if they’re feeling anxious. This is especially common when new guests visit or during thunderstorms.
  • Trauma to the tail or spine. Although it’s not always obvious at first, a dog who chews their tail may have internal damage in their tail or spine.

In other instances, a dog biting their tail may be a sign of compulsive behavior. 

What we might consider “normal” dog behavior becomes compulsive when it starts to interfere with the dog’s quality of life. For instance, if your dog is chasing and biting their tail so frequently that it is happening almost nonstop, it could be cause for concern.

Just like people, dogs can develop compulsive habits that are hard for them to control. A dog experiencing anxiety may chase and bite their tail in the same way as a person bites their nails. Over time the habit may get worse and happen more often.

If your dog chases their tail and they can’t be stopped with gentle redirection, or if your dog bites their tail to the point of hurting themselves, immediately contact your veterinarian.

If you suspect that your dog’s behavior is compulsive and it’s starting to interfere with their day-to-day life, your veterinarian can help in a number of ways:

  • Examining physical health. The veterinarian will start by giving your dog a physical exam. Underlying medical conditions often lead to compulsive behavior in dogs. 
  • Examining mental health. If your dog is healthy and free of pain, your veterinarian will examine your dog’s mental health and behavioral characteristics. 
  • Prescribing medication. Veterinarians often treat compulsive behaviors in dogs with medication that helps decrease anxiety and arousal. While prescriptions can help address underlying issues, medication alone will not fix a behavioral problem. It should always be paired with training focused on behavioral modifications, too.

Each dog is unique and may need a specific treatment or combination of treatments for their needs. The best thing you can do for your dog is to observe their behavior, be patient, and make an appointment with your vet when needed. Compulsive behaviors aren’t easy to deal with, but they are manageable over time.