Tail-chasing, humping, licking: When your dog needs a vet

Dogs do a lot of odd things, but compulsive, repetitive behaviour may be a sign of skin irritation or pain.

Robin Roberts 7 minute read April 13, 2022
Dalmatian spinning

Spinning, tail-chasing or hind-checking could be caused by anal gland problems. GETTY

When Jack and Patty rescued a scruffy little puppy from the streets of a small Mexican town, they had no idea how grateful he’d be. In fact, the mixed mutt, whom they named Chico, often showed his pleasure physically — several times a day, every day.

“It started from the time he joined our family, at about one or two years old,” says Patty. “It’s hard to predict under what circumstances he’ll do it, but our other dog Lucky always excites him, and he jumps up on her when they’re playing. But it goes nowhere, if you know what I mean.”

“Jumping up on,” or humping another dog is common. Also called “mounting behaviour” by vets, both male and female dogs, spayed, neutered or not, do it, dogs of the same sex do it to one another, and they’ll even show their affection to pillows, curtains, shoes, toys, even people’s legs. It’s natural and instinctive, and often starts when the pups are very young, around six weeks old, and often during play time. When it occurs later in life, it’s often hormonally driven or stress-related.

Sometimes humping helps relieve stress

Dr. Karen Machin, DVM, PhD and associate professor, Department of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine and a specialist in animal behaviour, advises against intervening every time.

“If the dog is stressed and then after mounting a pillow he can relax, it’s actually beneficial for the dog to release its stress in that manner,” she says. (Although if your pooch is doing it to, or around, other people it’s a good idea to cool his passion.) “You can redirect, but sometimes that creates more anxiety because the dog needs to release this stress. It may release endorphins that makes it feel better in the moment, [and] it may become pleasurable but it probably didn’t start that way. So usually I try to figure out what is leading to that behaviour and work on that.”

Machin says that, although she has never seen a case like Chico’s, his behaviour is “generally not normal.” She says that his libidinous liveliness could have stemmed from his stressful life on the street and he’s using it as a form of self-soothing. In that case, it may be better to ignore it, as scolding him may increase his anxiety.

But if done too often “it could become harmful because he could irritate the penis, [cause] abrasions and infection,” she says. “So ideally it’s best to deal with the underlying cause” either with a thorough check-up with a vet and/or work with a trainer specializing in behavioural issues.

Dogs with compulsive behaviour disorder

Other oddball activities are harmless, especially if the dog engages in them infrequently, such as spinning with excitement only when his owner comes home. If, however, the behaviour is out of control and doesn’t serve any purpose — such as excessive licking, chewing, spinning, fly-snapping (biting at the air), tail-, light- or shadow-chasing, trance-like staring — it becomes an abnormal repetitive behaviour, also called compulsive behaviour disorder, and you have a problem.

Some of these acts could stem from a medical issue. Spinning, tail-chasing or hind-checking, for example, could be caused by anal gland problems; compulsive licking and chewing of a specific area could indicate an allergy, skin infection or orthopedic pain; fly-snapping can be the result of a brain tumour or seizure — all of which should to be checked out by a vet.

Machin says some of these behaviours can also be caused by a neurological disease, while others could stem from anxiety or stress and may need to be treated with medication, such as anti-depressants, and often in conjunction with a professional trainer.

“[Often] a combination of medication and interrupting the behaviour and getting the dog to do something else [will work],” she says. “When they stop, using positive reinforcement as a reward also helps change their emotions. And you want to catch them before they start; don’t wait for it to happen and then try to interrupt them because they’ve already started the process in their mind.”

Barbara Walmer, owner of Calgary’s Good As Gold training, which helps dogs with serious behaviour issues, says she would usually start with an evaluation of the dog’s daily schedule to get at the root of the problem.

“How many physical and mental outlets are they getting? Are there other signs that anxiety could be part of? Have they had any type of aggression or fear previously? And then we’d go from there,” she says.

With a behaviour like tail-chasing, she’ll substitute a similar activity, such as chasing after a toy. “A lot of times they want movement as a way of being able to cope with what’s going on,” says Walmer. “Tail-chasing typically doesn’t happen to a dog that’s calm and relaxed.”

Walmer, who for 15 years was the Department Head of Behaviour for the Calgary Humane Society, advises against directing a dog in a high state of excitement to lie down, because that would not be fulfilling the same function, or draining excess energy.

She says if the behaviour is a one-off, a result of play, it’s not a concern, although she says she would not encourage it because if it becomes habit-forming, it can be harder to undo and you’ll likely need the help of a professional.

A tired dog is usually a good dog

Before it comes to that, she says there are a few things owners can do to limit or eliminate the unwanted behaviour. First, ensure your dog has physical outlets to burn that energy, such as a couple of walks a day. Second, provide mentally stimulating games or tricks to perform, such as scattering kibble in the yard to sniff out. Third, a Kong or bully stick can be an effective distraction with the added benefit of keeping teeth clean.

If the compulsive behaviour persists and only professional intervention will do, Walmer says breaking bad habits can take as little as a week or two, but longer if the behaviour is chronic. She recommends working first with a vet to determine if there is any physical or medical condition that’s causing the behaviour, such as skin irritation or nerve pain.

Machin says other repetitive behaviours, such as flank-sucking — sucking on their underbelly — can be the result of a need that wasn’t met during a life stage, possibly during weaning. She says it’s more common in Doberman pinschers, possibly genetic, and can also be caused by gastrointestinal or other pain.

Dogs often suck their flanks because the area is uncomfortable, and sucking releases endorphins, which makes them feel better, she says. It can also be a coping mechanism, or relaxation technique. A problem can arise when the release of endorphins becomes habit-forming, or if the constant sucking causes lesions or infection.

It can also be an indication of chronic pain, such as osteoarthritis, which is characterized by a diffused, dull, low-grade pain, where the animal knows it is in pain but doesn’t know the source.

“Chronic pain is a huge problem and very overlooked because dogs often choose not to show it,” says Machin. “About 70 per cent of my patients have a pain component that the owner didn’t necessarily know about.” A good reason why any kind of abnormal, repetitive behaviour should always be assessed first by a vet to determine if the cause is physical.

As for Chico, he’s feeling no pain at all. In fact, he’s otherwise healthy and happy. Just ask him. He’ll show you.

Robin Roberts is a Vancouver-based writer.

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