Compulsive tail chasing, or ‘spinning’ as it is commonly known in Bull Terriers, is a canine compulsive disorder that is seen most often in Bull Terriers, and to a lesser extent, in German Shepherd Dogs. In Bull Terriers it is definitely considered to have a hereditary factor. There is a lot of confusing information circulated about spinning; some people claim it is not a true neurological disorder but rather a behavior problem caused by poor training, lack of exercise, or confinement. To say that the disorder does not exist is is a dangerous falsehood, however there is some truth that these things can worsen the behavior. Because this disorder is anxiety-related, a spinner exposed to circumstances that cause conflict or stress of some sort will be more likely to manifest symptoms than one that isn’t. Dr. Nicholas Dodman explains in his article “Tail Chasing in Dogs” (see link below) that “It is quite possible that a susceptible dog may not chase his tail at all if his environment is ideal, and that a dog without the genetic susceptibility may never chase his tail even under the most extreme environmental provocation.”
The severity and age of onset vary, and environmental factors play a part; the hormonal changes of puberty or heat cycles, certain types of anesthesia, and the stress of undergoing a surgical procedure such as neutering have all been implicated as triggers, as have numerous other things — pretty much anything that causes any sort of stress can be a trigger if the potential is there. The spinning can begin gradually or very suddenly, and while in some cases there is a clearly identifiable trigger, in others there may not be. A fairly common scenario is for a previously ‘normal’ puppy to suddenly begin spinning between five to twelve months of age.
Treatment of the condition involves identifying (and eliminating wherever possible) things that seem to act as triggers, and embarking on a program of behavior modification targeted towards reducing the dog’s anxiety, redirecting towards more appropriate behavior using a program that involves positive training methods, and making sure the dog is getting the appropriate amount of exercise and mental stimulation — Dr. Moon-Fanelli’s article (see links below) explains this more thoroughly. Sometimes medication is needed to help bring the behavior under control but it is important to realize that the medication is only an aid and will not work without behavior modification. There is no ‘magic pill’ to control spinning.
In some cases, spinning is thought to be caused by partial complex seizure activity and anticonvulsant drugs may be of benefit. A veterinary behaviorist or veterinary neurologist would be best able to help in these situations.
The following are some of the pages on this site that deal with spinning; please see also the General Info section of the Other Disorders page for more articles that, while not exclusively devoted to tail chasing, include some information on the disorder.
A Few Spinning Facts – that Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli posted to one of the Bull Terrier Groups a few years back.
Compulsive Behavior in Dogs – Article from Dr. Moon-Fanelli’s presentation at the Tufts Expo.
Examples – Bull Terrier Neurological Disorders group members have contributed photos and video of their dogs spinning to help provide better understanding of what this behavior looks like.
Tail-Chasing Resources on the Internet
Canine Compulsive Behavior: An Overview and Phenotypic Description of Tail Chasing in Bull Terriers – Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli’s article on Tail Chasing from the AKC National Parent Club 1999 Canine Health Conference.
Circling and Tail Chasing – Article on the subject at online site for Balgownie Veterinary Hospital in Australia.
Tail Chasing in Dogs – Petplace.com article on tail chasing by Dr. Nicholas Dodman.
Tail Chasing in Dogs -Article from University of Saskatchewan’s Applied Ethology web site.
Also see Dr. Nicholas Dodman’s two books on our Recommended Reading page; both discuss spinning and other compulsive disorders.
Serum lipid concentrations in dogs with tail chasing – Link to abstract of article that appeared in Journal of Small Animal Practice Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 133–135, March 2009, discussing a study which indicates that tail chasing may be associated with serum cholesterol elevations in dogs.
Use of memantine in treatment of canine compulsive disorders – link to abstract of article published in Volume 4, Issue 3, Pages 118-126 (May 2009) of Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research