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Why Do Dogs Walk In Circles Before They Die? The Truth About Agitation In Dying Dogs - PawSafe
Dog Behavior

Why Do Dogs Walk In Circles Before They Die? The Truth About Agitation In Dying Dogs

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

why do dogs walk in circles

Why do dogs walk in circles before they die? This is a common question, as many dog owners believe this is one of the symptoms of a dog preparing to pass on. The truth is that this isn’t extremely common behavior, but it does happen. 

When our dogs are in pain and nearing the end, we must make them comfortable with quiet environments and comforting dog beds. We may also wonder if dogs know when they are dying and contend with many distressing behaviors like leaking urine or restless digging in beds

The truth is that there are many reasons for dogs to walk around in circles at the time of their death. However, when a dog is walking in circles, it may be a sign of a severe problem that may mean you need to take your dog to a vet. To answer this question, we’ve consulted the work of Dr. William Thomas and other experts to understand what happens in the canine brain that may cause circling.

The video below shows a dog walking in circles from a brain tumor. We discuss how brain tumors in vestibular syndrome and forebrain dysfunction can cause dogs to circle below.

Let’s break down the various reasons that cause circling so that you know if your dog needs veterinary or medical attention.

Instinctive behavior

Instinctive behavior

One reason your dog could be circling their bed is simply that this is a lifelong habit and not a sign they are dying at all. Dogs often walk in circles to find a comfortable position to rest in. As they near the end of their life, dogs may experience pain, discomfort, and even confusion. Walking in circles may help them find a comfortable, familiar, or safe spot. This behavior is similar to how dogs circle before lying down to sleep.

Another theory is that dying dogs walk in circles instinctively to disorientate predators. But this theory has no clear foundation, as animals who circle aimlessly are not likely to throw any predators off their scent. It is more likely that a dog’s tendency to find a dark, quiet spot to die in is an instinct to hide from predators while they are vulnerable.

Confusion, Disorientation, & Anxiety

As a dog’s body begins to shut down, so do their mental faculties. Due to pain, medication, or simply as their body and brain stop functioning, they may become confused and disorientated. They may circle out of restlessness, anxiety, or distress.

Pain and Discomfort

Pain and discomfort are significant reasons a dying dog may be restless and struggle to lie down. Arthritis may make lying down painful. Heart conditions like congestive heart failure could lead to fluid in the lungs, making the dog struggle to get oxygen when they lay down. If your dog can’t lie down because of a physical ailment, you need to see your vet immediately to manage their pain or other symptoms.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

When it comes to an old dog circling (especially an old dog circling at night), we need to consider Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) or Doggy Dementia. Common symptoms of dementia in dogs include:

  • Altered sleep patterns (being awake and restless at night)
  • Behavior changes like increased anxiety or forgetting commands
  • House soiling
  • And disorientation that could lead to circling (particularly at night when they are restless).

CCD is one of a number of overlapping brain disorders that cause dogs to start circling and panting, and it gives rise to the idea that this is a behavior that happens before death. 

Strokes

Strokes are another reason a dying, old, or sick dog may start to walk in circles, particularly only walking in circles to the left or the right, depending on which part of the brain is affected. A stroke, or a cerebrovascular accident, occurs when there is an interruption in blood flow to the brain. This can cause damage to the brain cells and can result in a variety of symptoms.

Signs of a stroke include:

  • Sudden weakness or paralysis: The dog may drag their limb or have difficulty walking or standing. 
  • Loss of balance or coordination: They may have difficulty walking in a straight line, and their movements may be uncoordinated or wobbly. This is also where they may start walking in circles.
  • Head tilting: This can indicate damage to the vestibular system, which is responsible for balance and orientation.
  • Difficulty eating or drinking: They may drool, have difficulty swallowing, or appear disinterested in food or water.
  • Seizures: These can range from mild to severe and can be life-threatening if left untreated.
  • Head pressing: They may press their head against a wall or another surface.
  • Loss of consciousness: This can signify a serious stroke and requires immediate veterinary attention.
  • Blindness

If you notice any of these signs in your dog, it’s essential to seek veterinary care immediately. The earlier a stroke is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances of a successful recovery. 

Forebrain dysfunction 

Essentially, perhaps the most common reason that dogs keep circling for hours is forebrain dysfunction, according to Dr. Michael Reese, Veterinary Neurologist at Southeast Veterinary Neurology.

The symptoms of forebrain dysfunction are much like a stroke (as they can be caused by a stroke). You may see the following:

  • Head Pressing or tilting
  • Circling
  • Seizures
  • Blindness

And severe and abrupt changes in behavior. Aside from strokes, causes of forebrain dysfunction also include:

  • Brain tumors
  • Brain swelling
  • or inflammation in the brain

Vestibular syndrome

Vestibular syndrome actually refers to several disorders that affect a dog’s balance. This can include strokes and dementia. But is also includes:

  • Deep ear infections
  • Polyps or tumors in the ear
  • Injury to the ear or skull
  • Nerve or brain tumors, 
  • Inflammation in the nerves (neuritis)
  • Hypothyroidism.
  • Inflammation or infection in the brain (encephalitis), 
  • Some vitamin deficiencies (thiamine deficiency) 
  • Cysts or other abnormalities in the brain

It refers to disorders affecting the inner ear (which controls balance) and the back of the brain stem. Signs of vestibular syndrome include:

  • Head tilting 
  • Eyeballs flickering from side-to-side or up and down (nystagmus)
  • Wobbliness or falling over
  • Drifting to one side while walking
  • Walking in circles.

Now, when a dog has brainstem disease (encephalitis), you may see the same head tilting and head pressing, as well as the lack of balance that you see in dogs with a stroke. The major difference is that dogs with forebrain dysfunction tend to walk in circles around the whole room, But when it’s brainstem disease, the circling is done in one tight spot. 

Circling disease

Very rarely, dogs can get listeriosis or “circling disease.” This is far more common in sheep and other livestock, but it can affect dogs and cats. Listeriosis is caused by the germ, L. monocytogenes and essentially, it causes inflammation in the brainstem (encephalitis). Dogs with this will circle, have muscle spasms, a fever, and refuse to eat.

Terminal Agitation

Terminal agitation, also known as terminal restlessness, is a condition that can occur in the final stages of a serious illness or at the end of life. While it is commonly associated with humans who are nearing the end of their lives, it may also occur in animals, including dogs.

Symptoms may include:

  1. Restlessness: Dogs may be unable to rest or settle down, even in familiar surroundings.
  2. Agitation: Dogs may become agitated and restless, pacing or circling.
  3. Confusion: Dogs may become confused or disoriented, wandering aimlessly.
  4. Vocalization: Dogs may vocalize more than usual, whining or barking for no apparent reason.

It’s important to note that not all dogs who are nearing the end of their lives will experience terminal agitation. It’s mostly seen as a human problem, but it is very possible that some dogs may experience it.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do dogs act when they are close to death?

When dogs are close to death, you may see labored breathing, incontinence, refusing to eat or drink, unfocused eyes or gaze, lying down, and refusing to move.

Why is my senior dog going around in circles?

Older dogs may circle out of anxiety, but more commonly, it is a sign of canine dementia. It could also be forebrain dysfunction from a stroke or vestibular disease that is affecting their balance.

Why do dogs walk in circles before they poop?

Pooping is a way of marking territory, and dogs sometimes use their paws (which produce sweat) to leave as much of their smell behind as possible.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, dogs may walk in circles before they die for a variety of reasons. It could be due to a desire to find a comfortable spot to rest, neurological or physical issues, or an instinctual behavior inherited from their wild ancestors. Regardless of the reason, it’s important to provide your dog with love, comfort, and care in their final moments.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe

Author

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.