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Do you remember when your puppy would chase its own tail, circling around itself repeatedly in an effort to catch it? That was so cute.
But when fully grown dogs decide to start circling themselves, it can be a cause for concern. While it is normal for dogs to circle once or twice before sitting or before doing their business, generally speaking, it isn’t normal for your dog to repeatedly circle itself.
Circling is often a sign that something is not quite right, usually within your dog’s brain or ears.
In today’s article, we are going to explain exactly what circling behavior looks like so you can tell the difference between dopey behavior and something more serious.
DISCLAIMER: We are not veterinarians. If you’re dog is suffering from any health issues please contact your veterinarian.
We will also go through some of the main reasons why dogs might circling. Most of these problems will be accompanied by other symptoms that can help you determine which one is most likely affecting your dog.
Treatment depends on what exactly is happening with your dog. But circling behavior almost always warrants a trip to the vet.
What Is Circling Behavior?
It’s not uncommon for dogs to circle two or three downs before sitting down to get comfortable. So, how do you tell the difference between something normal like this and “circling behavior,” which is a symptom associated with a variety of serious conditions?
There are a variety of signs to look out for.
Firstly, circling behavior will be new. It will be something they do above and beyond any normal kind of circling that you have previously noticed.
When a dog is suffering from uncontrollable circling behavior, you will notice they always circle in the same direction. If you try and distract them and get them to move in another direction while circling in this way, they will find it very hard to change direction and may crash into things.
Circling behavior tends to get progressively worse, so you will notice it happening more often as time passes. In fact, you might not notice the circling behavior at first, as your dog might simply circle more often as part of their normal walking, but always in the same direction. But as time passes, they will do less walking and more circling.
It is also often accompanied by other signs of spatial disorientation. This can include aimless wandering, staying in one place and staring into space, getting stuck in spaces they can easily back out of, and interacting abnormally with household objects.
If you notice your dog engaging in this kind of circling behavior, you should be on the lookout for other symptoms that can indicate what is going on with your dog.
Common Causes Of Circling Behavior
When your dog decides to walk in circles, it can be a symptom of a variety of problems. But this symptom will rarely appear alone, so you need to look out for other symptoms that could indicate what is happening with your dog.
Below is a list of the most common reasons a dog will start walking in circles, and the other key symptoms to watch out for.
Inner Ear Infection
Other symptoms include:
- Unpleasant smell coming from the ears
- Redness around the ears
- Shaking the head
- Difficulty focusing the eyes
One of the most common causes of a dog walking in circles is an inner ear infection. But when the infection is so serious that it starts to affect their behavior in this way, they will need immediate treatment.
You will probably notice other symptoms such as an unpleasant smell in the ear area, an inability to focus the eyes, and shaking their head regularly.
If their ear infection is severe enough to cause circling, it has probably already progressed quite far down the ear and is serious. Speak to your vet who will probably perform a deep ear clean and prescribe medication.
You can prevent your dog from developing ear infections by cleaning their ears regularly. Excessive wax can leave your dog’s ears a welcome environment for infection.
Regular cleaning is especially important for dogs with floppy ears. The way their ear flaps cover the ear canals means the space is dark and wet, and there is nothing that bacteria likes more.
Read our guide on how to clean a labrador’s ears here.
Other symptoms include:
- Falling down
- Excessive drooling
- Walking with head down
Most common in older dogs, vestibular syndrome is a disease that also affects the inner ear, and as a result, your dog’s balance. It is not clear what causes the syndrome, but it is probably damage to the ear from an injury or infection or a nutritional deficiency.
You will probably notice other severe symptoms in association with circling, such as falling down regularly, excessive drooling, and walking with their head down. It often resembles the symptoms of a stroke.
If your dog displays these symptoms, you will need to take them to the vet for diagnosis. Treatment will likely involve a suite of medications including antibiotics, corticosteroids, and antifungal or antiepileptic medications.
Two of our older dogs had canine vestibular disease in their later years. Our family dog, Maffy was undiagnosed, but showed all the symptoms including walking around in circles. In his final days, Linus became very disoriented and was later diagnosed with vestibular disease.
Other symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Strange pupil dilation
- Crying when touched on certain parts of the head
Head injuries can seriously compromise your dog’s sense of direction, and circling may be one of the outcomes.
You may also notice that your pup has strange pupil dilation, cries when touched on certain areas of the head, and has lost their appetite.
Rapid treatment is required, because while dogs can make a full recovery from a concussion, delaying treatment can lead to bleeding and swelling that permanently damage the brain.
They may need to refrain from certain activities for up to six months in order not to aggravate the problem, depending on the seriousness of the injury.
Brain injuries do not always need to be caused by a blow. For example, untreated liver damage can cause similar neurological symptoms and the blood then applies excessive pressure to the brain.
Other symptoms include:
- Increased thirst and hunger
- Reduced activity
- Excessive panting
If an older dog starts circling, they might be suffering from Cushing’s disease. This happens when a dog’s body makes too much of the hormone cortisol, causing the body to have a negative response.
This often includes excessive thirst and appetite, reduced activity, weight fluctuation, and excessive panting.
The hormone imbalance interferes with your dog’s ability to produce energy from food, which affects all parts of the body including the brain. Behavioral changes often accompany the syndrome, and circling and pacing are among the most common.
Current treatments for Cushing’s disease are largely experimental and it tends to be progressive.
Other symptoms include:
- No other medical symptoms
- Other strange, compulsive behaviors
Just like humans, dogs can develop behavioral disorders, some of which could trigger them to walk in circles. For example, it is not uncommon for dogs to develop obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and, therefore, a need to circle a spot a number of times before completing an activity.
You probably won’t notice other medical symptoms, such as drooling or unfocused eyes, but you may notice this is not the only repetitive behavior they engage in.
Anxiety can also cause circling behavior, but this can usually be linked to a trauma, such as being exposed to loud noises, such as fireworks. A lack of mental or physical stimulation may also cause a similar response or being stuck for long periods of time within a space that is too small for them.
Other symptoms include:
- Forgetfulness, including forgetting training
- Unexplained aggression
Circling can also be a sign of canine dementia and is part of a general feeling of disorientation they suffer from as part of forgetting essential things about their lives.
You may notice other changes in their behavior such as forgetting training (such as house training), forgetting where their food bowl is, and moments of aggression with you or other household members (human or animal) as they no longer always recognize them.
There is no treatment for dementia in dogs. Certain dietary supplements may help slow down the process of decay, as will mentally stimulating activities, but it is generally progressive.
This is a time to monitor your dog and ensure they are enjoying a good quality of life, and that their dementia is not, in time, robbing them of the joy that most dogs should experience day-to-day.
You can learn more about dog dementia here.
Diagnosing Your Dog
It can be difficult to tell if walking in circles is a symptom of something more serious and, therefore, beyond their control or just them being weird – because let’s admit it, sometimes they are just weird.
If you want to test whether your dog’s circling is within their control, try distracting them while they are circling and getting them to move in the other direction. If they respond with a change of direction, this suggests the problem is not neurological.
If they are unable to redirect themselves with ease, look in their eyes and see whether they are focused. If their eyes dilate randomly or seem like they are out of focus, these are clear signs of a brain injury (as opposed to an ear infection).
But if your dog is unable to control their movement and stop circling, it is time for a trip to the vet. They will conduct similar tests and ask you about other symptoms to determine what is happening with your pup.
Dog Circling FAQs
What Does It Mean When An Old Dog Walks In Circles?
There are many reasons a dog of any age might begin uncharacteristically walking in circles. It is a symptom of a variety of medical conditions. But if you have a senior pup, your most likely concerns will be Cushing’s disease and doggy dementia.
Cushing’s disease is a hormone imbalance that undermines your dog’s ability to produce energy. It will principally affect their appetite, energy levels, and weight, but it can also influence their behavior. Circling is one of the most common behavioral changes associated with the disease.
Dementia can also cause circling. It is part of general disorientation and may be accompanied by other signs of problems of spatial awareness, including getting stuck in spaces they can easily back out of. You will probably also notice your dog becomes forgetful, even forgetting their fundamental training, and can be prone to anger, brought on by fear due to disorientation.
Sadly both conditions are progressive and untreatable. But your pup can still enjoy many years of happiness with you and your family if cared for appropriately.
How Do I Stop My Dog From Walking Around In Circles?
If you want to stop your dog walking in circles, you need to determine the cause. It is often a symptom of medical conditions such as an ear infection or brain injury that require professional treatment.
However, circling can also be a sign of anxiety. This is often caused by a traumatic experience or not having appropriate outlets for their energy. If your vet thinks your dog’s circling is caused by anxiety, there are several things you can do to try and improve the situation.
This includes giving them more physical exercise – so more walks – but also more mental stimulation. Invest in puzzle toys to keep them occupied when you aren’t around. If they are confined to a small space during certain periods of the day, see if there is something you can do to move them to a bigger space or have someone come and take them for a walk to shorten their time in confinement.
Why Is My Dog Pacing And Won’t Settle?
There is a distinct difference between agitated movement and an inability to settle. Agitated movement tends to be compulsive, like circling. They will circle in the same direction and will struggle to readjust their course if you try and disrupt them. This is a symptom of a variety of medical conditions that require diagnosis and treatment.
However, if your dog is more generally unsettled, this can be due to stress. It may be that they are afraid of something. Dogs are more sensitive than humans and are more likely to pick up on when something is not right. It can also be a sign of pent-up energy as they are not getting enough physical and mental stimulation.
If you suspect the latter, the best thing you can do is change up their routine to let them get more activity. Spending more time with people and in nature will also give them the mental stimulation they need to be able to settle down at the end of the day.
What Are Common Signs Of Neurological Conditions In Dogs?
In humans, a change in speech is usually the first sign of neurological problems. In dogs, we need to rely on other signs.
There are a few behavioral symptoms that are likely to indicate there is a problem in your dog’s brain, whether it be the result of injury or developing dog dementia.
The principal symptoms include circling, generally disoriented behavior, the inability to use one or more limbs, unexplained weakness or stumbling, and head pressing (the compulsive act of pressing the head against surfaces).
Any of these symptoms is worth a trip to the vet.
Dogs can display some weird behavior. They bark at things you can’t hear and chase things you can’t see. It is often difficult to tell whether a dogs’ actions are just normal, quirky, dog stuff, or a symptom of something more serious.
Circling, or walking around in circles, is one of those behaviors that can be difficult to interpret. It is completely normal for a dog to circle a few times before getting comfortable, and who doesn’t enjoy watching a puppy chase their own tail?
So, how do you know when circling isn’t normal?
You should start worrying about circling when it seems compulsive or uncontrollable. You can easily test for this by trying to distract your dog while they are circling and seeing if they can easily adjust directions.
A dog with a circling problem will always want to walk in the same way, and will struggle to adjust.
When your dog is circling in this way, it is almost always a sign of a problem in the ears or the brain. An exact diagnosis will depend on other symptoms, but it is definitely worth a trip to the vet, as it is unlikely to be something that will get better on its own.
Have you dealt with a dog that likes to walk in circles?
What was the outcome?
Share your experiences with the community in the comments section below.
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