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Why Do Dogs Bite Their Tails? Expert Answers - PawSafe
Dog Behavior

Why Do Dogs Bite Their Tails? Expert Answers

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Tamsin De La Harpe

why dogs bite their tails

Dogs chasing and biting their own tail is a typical behavior among dogs, especially puppies, and is usually harmless. However, in some cases, tail biting can become a problem and may indicate an underlying issue. That’s why it’s essential to understand why dogs bite their tails and how to address the behavior.

As a dog trainer, I have had several Bull Terriers over the decades, and all of them went through a tail chasing phase and sometimes, they would catch it and bite it. However, I never thought this behavior was as cute as it can be in other puppies, because this breed has a genetic predisposition to obsessing over their tail. So how do you know if a dog chewing on their tail is normal, or a potential behavioral problem?

Bonnie V. Beaver BS DVM MS DACVB categorizes dogs chasing and chewing on their tails as Locomotor Stereotypies. These are repetitive actions in dogs that appear to serve no purpose and are typically motivated by some kind of stress. You’ll uncover this and more in this scientifically backed article.

Dogs lack the ability to verbally communicate their feelings and emotions in the way humans do, relying instead on a rich repertoire of body language and actions. However, they may sometimes resort to self-grooming, even self-mutilation, as a response to discomfort, allergies, or pain.

Overall, it is crucial to understand that tail biting is a natural behavior for dogs, but it can become a problem if it is excessive or leads to injury. Some dogs can even give themselves happy tail syndrome when they constantly hit their tail on stuff when chasing it, which we’ve covered in the linked article.

Check out this helicopter dog diligently chasing her tail:

Tail Biting and Locomotor Stereotypes In Dogs

The behavior is known as tail biting, and it falls under the category of locomotor stereotypies in dogs. Locomotor stereotypies are repetitive movements that dogs perform consistently, such as pacing back and forth or walking in circles.

Although this behavior is defined as not serving an obvious purpose, it may serve a function for the dog on a psychological level. Engaging in this repetitive motion might help reduce stress, provide stimulation, or alleviate boredom. 

So, tail biting can be a source of amusement for owners but can also be a sign of stress or frustration in dogs. A 2011 PubMed study of 400 dogs found a huge disparity between public and scientific information on tail-chasing. 

What this means is the general dog owner public doesn’t take this behavior as seriously as they should. On the one hand, most dogs in previous studies with spinning exhibited other pathological traits that ultimately led to euthanization. Still, more than half of the study participants were recorded laughing at the behavior. 

This doesn’t mean you can never have a good laugh when your dog starts chasing their tail to bite it. But, it does tell you to seek medical attention if the behavior becomes excessive and disruptive.

Spinning behavior can develop over time and become more fixed and consistent as it is repeated. Tail biting is considered to be internally motivated, meaning it comes from within the dog rather than being a response to external cues.

Addressing chasing and gnawing on the tail often requires a multifaceted approach, including environmental enrichment to reduce boredom and stress and behavioral modification.

Common Reasons Dogs Bite Their Tails

It is essential to identify the underlying cause of tail chasing and biting to address the issue effectively. Note that tail-biting behavior is not always a cause for concern. Some dogs may simply enjoy chasing their tails or biting them as a form of play.  Here are some of the most common reasons for this behavior:

1. They’re Just Being Dogs

This behavior often stems from a dog’s innate instincts, a playful expression deeply rooted in their canine nature. In the canine world, chasing tails is a form of self-amusement, much like rolling in the grass and digging holes. Most puppies go through a period of chasing their own tails and sometimes catching it as a normal part of their development. It’s one way they learn about their own bodies.

Dogs also have a prey drive, which means they instinctively chase anything that moves. When they catch a glimpse of their tail moving in the corner of their eye, they may instinctively chase it. This behavior is typically just part of normal puppy development and is not a cause for concern.

However, if an older dog seems to be chasing their tail excessively, it may be a sign of an underlying issue. It’s important to monitor your dog’s behavior and consult with a veterinarian if you have any concerns.

2. Boredom and Anxiety

When a dog is bored or anxious, they may start nibbling on their tail as a way to cope. This behavior can become a habit if not addressed early on. If your dog is showing signs of anxiety, such as excessive barking or destructive behavior, it is crucial to address the root cause of the stress. 

This may involve working with a professional dog trainer or behaviorist to develop a training plan that helps your dog feel more comfortable and secure. In some cases, medication may also be necessary to help manage extreme anxiety in dogs. However, this should always be done under the guidance of a veterinarian.

3. Genetic Predisposition

Some breeds are more prone to tail-biting behavior than others. In fact, my own Bull Terrier, Arthur, has a strong genetic predisposition to biting his own tail. This is not uncommon among Bull Terriers and other breeds with similar genetic backgrounds.

Canine Behavior Insights notes that German Shepherds and Bull Terriers are particularly susceptible to this behavior. It also suggests a possible link to the white coloring in Bull Terriers. ScienceDirect and PMC add Dachshunds, Shiba Inus, Anatolian Shepherds, and possibly Jack Russells and West Highland White Terriers as breeds most likely to obsess over their tails.

Because I knew that my puppy was genetically inclined to develop an obsessive compulsive disorder involving chasing or biting his own tail, I never encouraged it. I also did not punish it. Whenever I noticed him doing it I would ignore it until he stopped and then redirect him to playing tug with a toy or doing a little obedience training with positive reinforcement.

I did this to channel Arthur’s energy away from fixating on his tail and giving him a better outlet for any feelings of boredom, frustration, or simply having too much energy. By doing this, we successfully avoided any tail chasing becoming a compulsive habit.

While genetics can play a role in this behavior, it is important to note that not all dogs of a particular breed will exhibit this behavior. 

4. Displacement Behavior

Displacement behavior is when the dog performs a behavior that is not directly related to the situation at hand. One example of displacement behavior is a dog chasing and gnawing on their tail when they see a strange dog approaching. Their inner sense of uncertainty over their situation can often send them into a literal tail spin.

So, dogs may chase and nibble on their tails to relieve insecurity and uncertainty over a situation. It can be a self-soothing behavior that helps the dog cope with their emotions. Think of it like biting your nails before you have a big test.  However, if the behavior becomes excessive, it can lead to injury.

Dog owners should be aware of other signs of displacement behavior. These include licking or chewing on paws, excessive grooming, scratching, licking lips, pacing, and even sniffing the ground as though they are completely uninterested in something. 

Another reason a dog may take to tail chasing or biting is because another behavior has been suppressed. Let’s say you punished a dog for growling when they are uncomfortable about something. They may start growling, (the growling is suppressed), but they still don’t have a way to express their big emotions. So they start spinning in circles after their tail instead to try to cope with their uncomfortable feelings.

This is why Dr. Andrew U. Luescher expressly says that it is important not to punish dogs for signs of aggression or fear, but rather to get to the root of the problems.

5. Hyperactivity and High Energy Levels

Some dogs are naturally more hyperactive than others. These dogs are always on the go, running around and playing, and never seem to tire out. They may also have a high energy level, which can lead to them spinning as they run after their tails.

When a dog has excess energy, they may turn to their tail to release that energy. This behavior can become a habit, and the dog may continue to bite their tail even when they are not feeling particularly hyper or energetic; it’s a vicious cycle.

6. Behavioral Compulsions (Canine Compulsive Disorder–CCD)

Compulsive behaviors in dogs are repetitive actions that serve no purpose and are often performed out of anxiety, stress, or boredom. Tail chasing or biting is one such behavior that can be a sign of compulsive tendencies. Dogs with this condition often also chase shadows or lights, freeze, and stare. 

Researchers led by Hannes Lohi of the University of Helsinki in Finland studied nearly 400 Bull Terriers and found that canine-compulsive disorder is similar to human OCD. It also linked genetics and environmental factors like micronutrients, maternal care, and neutering.

Compulsive behaviors occur so frequently that they affect the dog’s quality of life. Some dogs may develop this behavior due to a lack of mental or physical stimulation. They may be bored or anxious, leading them to chase their tail to release their pent-up energy. 

7. Neurological Issues

It is important to note that tail biting can also have a neurological basis, as it is linked to the way nerve signals are sent and received in the brain. For example, certain conditions such as seizures, spinal cord injuries, and nerve damage can cause dogs to display abnormal repetitive behaviors.

One particular neurological issue is psychomotor seizures in dogs. This condition can cause dogs to chase and gnaw their tails. These seizures are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain and can be triggered by stress, excitement, or anxiety.

8. Anal Gland Issues

Anal glands are small sacs located on either side of a dog’s anus. They produce a smelly, oily substance that helps dogs mark their territory and communicate with other dogs. Sometimes, these glands can become impacted or infected, causing discomfort and pain for your dog. Check out our article on inflamed anus in dogs if you suspect this condition for tail chewing.

Dogs may chew on their back ends or scoot their bottoms on the ground to relieve discomfort. If you suspect that your dog is experiencing anal gland issues, it’s important to take them to the vet as soon as possible. Your vet can manually express the glands to relieve the impaction or prescribe medication to clear up an infection.

Prevention is key when it comes to anal gland issues. Feeding your dog a high-fiber diet can help promote regular bowel movements, which can help prevent impaction. Regular grooming and hygiene practices can also help keep your dog’s anal area clean and healthy.

9. Fleas and Parasites

Not only do they cause itching and irritation, but they can also lead to various health problems. One of the ways that dogs may try to alleviate the itching caused by fleas and parasites is by chewing on their tails.

Fleas and other parasites can cause a condition called flea allergy dermatitis, which is an allergic reaction to flea saliva. This can cause intense itching and irritation, and dogs may nibble their tails to relieve the discomfort.

Ticks can also cause irritation and itching, and dogs may bite their tails to remove the tick. However, removing ticks improperly using your fingers can cause your dog more harm. Mites can also cause itching and irritation. Mange is a skin condition caused by mites, and dogs with mange may chew on their tails and other body parts.

10. Allergies & Infections

Just like humans, dogs can have allergic reactions to certain things. Some common allergens for dogs include pollen, dust mites, and certain types of food. When a dog has an allergic reaction, it can cause them to become itchy all over, including their tail. They may chew at their tail to alleviate the itching. In some cases, nibbling may even cause a secondary infection, like a hot spot.

Signs of Tail Biting in Dogs

It’s important to be aware of the signs that your dog may be chewing on their rear. Here are some common signs to look out for:

  • Obsessive Licking or Chewing: If your dog is constantly licking or chewing their tail, it may be a sign that they are nibbling on it. Biting or licking the end of the tail can also be a sign of happy tail syndrome.
  • Redness or Swelling: Check your dog’s tail for any signs of redness, swelling, or inflammation.
  • Hair Loss: If you notice that your dog’s tail has bald patches or is losing hair, it may be due to excessive biting.
  • Behavioral Changes: Dogs chewing on their tails may exhibit other behavioral changes, such as restlessness, anxiety, or aggression.

If you notice any of these signs, it’s important to take your dog to the vet to rule out any underlying medical conditions. 

When to Seek Veterinary Help

If your dog is biting their tail excessively or aggressively, it’s essential to seek veterinary help as soon as possible. This behavior could be a sign of an underlying medical condition or injury that requires treatment.

Here are some signs that indicate it’s time to seek veterinary help:

  • There is bleeding or an open wound;
  • Biting to the point of causing hair loss or skin damage;
  • Pain or discomfort; and
  • There are other concerning behaviors, such as lethargy or loss of appetite.

A veterinarian can help identify the underlying cause of your dog’s tail-chewing behavior and recommend appropriate treatment. This may include medication, behavior modification techniques, or surgery in severe cases.

In addition, it’s important to regularly schedule check-ups with your veterinarian to ensure your dog’s overall health and well-being. This can help catch any potential issues early on and prevent them from becoming more serious.

Prevention and Treatment of Tail Biting

Preventing and treating tail biting is essential to ensure your dog’s health and happiness. Here are some ways to prevent and treat the condition:

Regular Grooming

Regular grooming is necessary to prevent your dog from biting their tail. This includes brushing and combing their fur to prevent mats and tangles. Mats and tangles can cause discomfort and itching, leading to this behavior.

Providing Enough Exercise and Stimulation

Dogs need plenty of exercise and mental stimulation to prevent boredom and anxiety, which can lead to tail chasing. Ensure your dog gets enough exercise and playtime, and provide them with plenty of toys and puzzles to keep their minds active.

Proper Nutrition

Proper nutrition is essential for your dog’s overall health and can help prevent this behavior. Ensure your dog’s diet is high in protein (30%) and has all the necessary vitamins and nutrients, and avoid feeding them table scraps or unhealthy treats. 

Behavioral Training

Behavioral training can help prevent this issue. Positive reinforcement training can help your dog learn good behavior and reduce anxiety and stress. If your dog is already biting their back end, a professional trainer can help you address the underlying cause and develop a treatment plan.

Calming Techniques

Consider using calming products such as pheromone diffusers, calming collars, or calming sprays to create a soothing environment, especially if stress or anxiety is suspected.

Medical Intervention

In some cases, medical intervention may be necessary to treat the behavior. If your dog is chasing and biting due to a medical condition, such as allergies or a skin infection, your veterinarian can provide treatment to alleviate the underlying issue. 

By following these tips, you can help prevent and treat tail biting in your dog, ensuring their health and happiness.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can tail biting be a sign of anxiety in dogs?

Yes, tail-biting can be a sign of anxiety in dogs. Dogs may chew their tails when feeling stressed, anxious, or bored. If you notice your dog biting on his tail excessively, it’s essential to speak with your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical conditions and discuss possible treatment options.

What are some reasons why dogs may bite their tails?

There are several reasons why dogs may bite their rear ends. Some dogs may do this due to boredom, anxiety, or stress, others due to allergies, skin irritation, or parasites. Determining the underlying cause of this behavior in your dog is important so you can address the problem effectively.

Is Tail Biting Harmful to Dogs?

Chewing on the tail can be harmful to dogs if it’s left untreated. Done excessively, it can lead to skin irritation, infections, and even self-mutilation. If you notice your dog biting his tail excessively, it’s essential to seek veterinary care to address the underlying cause of the behavior.

How can I stop my dog from biting his tail?

There are several ways to stop your dog from biting his tail. First, it’s crucial to determine the underlying cause of the behavior and to address any medical issues. You can also give your dog plenty of exercise, mental stimulation, and attention to help reduce stress and anxiety. Additionally, you can use positive reinforcement training techniques to redirect your dog’s behavior and discourage this behavior.

What are some common triggers for tail biting in dogs?

Some common triggers include stress, anxiety, boredom, allergies, skin irritation, and parasites. Determining the underlying cause of the behavior is essential to address the problem effectively.

Why do some dogs chase their tails and bite them?

Some dogs may chase their tails and bite them due to boredom, anxiety, or stress. Other dogs may do it simply because they find it entertaining. If you notice your dog chasing his tail excessively, it’s essential to seek veterinary care to rule out any underlying medical conditions and to discuss possible treatment options.

Final Thoughts

Various reasons can cause tail-biting behavior in dogs. It is essential to understand that this behavior may signify underlying medical issues such as allergies, infections, or skin irritations. Therefore, it is recommended to consult with a veterinarian if you notice your dog biting their tail excessively.

On the other hand, tail-biting can also be a result of anxiety, boredom, or stress. Providing your dog with enough exercise, mental stimulation, and socialization can help reduce this behavior. Additionally, using positive reinforcement training techniques can also be effective in modifying this behavior.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe

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Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.