There are many reasons for going in circles in dogs, and identifying the roots of the behavior is key in determining the appropriate treatment, if any is needed.
This can be a long and costly process in the most complex cases, so it is always recommended to have pet insurance on hand to offset any financial burden when looking for the best care for your puppy.
Keep reading to learn more about why dogs turn in circles and when you should seek veterinary advice.
Why do dogs spin in circles?
Many dogs spin in circles when performing normal activities such as lying down, urinating, or pooping. Some experts believe that this is an instinct passed down by wolves for protection.
When this behavior becomes excessive or persistent, it can be a sign of an underlying problem:
Dogs with certain behavioral problems, such as anxiety disorders, may spin relentlessly or other repetitive behaviors such as excessive licking as a way to relieve stress.
Dogs that are bored or frustrated with a lack of mental stimulation or exercise, and dogs that get very excited when they see people, other dogs, or wild animals may also do so.
Dogs with canine compulsive disorder, which is very similar to OCD in humans, may run in circles or constantly chase the tail. Dogs with canine dysmorphia, similar to autism spectrum disorder in humans, may also perform these behaviors, such as dogs with canine cognitive dysphoria, or “canine dementia.”
Rotational behaviors can also be caused by medical conditions that affect the vestibular system.
The vestibular apparatus is responsible for balance and spatial orientation of the eyes, head, trunk and limbs in relation to the environment. The vestibular system consists of two components – central (the brain – specifically the cerebellum and brainstem) and peripheral (the inner ear and the vestibulocochlear nerve).
When dogs are affected, they show signs such as turning in one direction, tilting the head (in the same direction as the rotation), incoordination, vomiting, nausea, and uncontrolled repetitive eye movements (or nystagmus).
Medical causes of vestibular symptoms such as circular rotation include:
- Middle or inner ear infections, which can develop from an infected outer ear canal when the eardrum ruptures, among other causes
- brain tumors
- Toxicity, including chlorhexidine, aminoglycoside antibiotics, metronidazole overdose, cisplatin, some diuretics, and lead poisoning
- head trauma
- Central nervous system infections, including viral infections (eg, canine distemper virus), bacteria (eg, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Ehrlichiosis), protozoa (eg, toxoplasmosis), fungal and parasitic infections
- Encephalitis and/or meningitis (the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord)
- brain attack
- Nutritional deficiencies in thiamine (vitamin B1)
- Severe liver disease, which can cause toxins to build up in the bloodstream that affect the brain
- Congenital problems such as hydrocephalus
Vestibular disease of unknown etiology
In the absence of a specific medical or behavioral cause for vestibular symptoms, the dog will most likely be diagnosed with idiopathic vestibular disease. As its name suggests, it is not known why this condition occurs.
Dogs with idiopathic vestibular disease have a sudden disturbance of balance and often present with head tilting with rotation, confusion, and nystagmus. This disease is seen more frequently in older dogs, with an average starting age of 12 to 13 years.
Diagnosis of spinning in dogs
Finding a solution to the dog’s rotation depends on the underlying cause of the behavior. Because of the many potential causes of canine spinning, treatment and prognosis options can vary widely, and an accurate diagnosis is critical to determining an appropriate treatment plan to reduce spinning behaviors.
To reach the correct diagnosis, the vet will obtain a comprehensive clinical history, including the duration and frequency of the spinning behavior, whether it has progressed, the dog’s travel history, any coexisting diseases, and any medications or supplements they have been given (such as tramadol or gabapentin).
They will then perform a complete physical examination, including a neurological examination and visualization of the ears using an otoscope to look for any involvement of the central or peripheral vestibular system. A complete blood test and urine test will also likely be done.
If a specific cause is not identified based on these findings, your vet will recommend additional diagnostic tests such as imaging, infectious disease screening, or more blood tests.
They may also recommend a referral to a neurologist for advanced imaging such as an MRI, CT scan, and cerebrospinal fluid analysis, or to a certified veterinary behaviorist if they suspect that spinning is of a behavioral nature.
Treatment and management of spinning in dogs
Treatment or management of the rotation depends on what is determined in these examinations. For example, a dog with an inner or middle ear infection will be prescribed antibiotics, and a dog with hypothyroidism will receive thyroid hormone supplements.
Dogs with behavioral conditions should receive behavior modification training to try to minimize spinning behaviors, and some may benefit from medication (eg, Prozac for dogs with canine compulsive disorder).
No effective treatments have been found for idiopathic vestibular syndrome, but it usually clears up on its own within 3-4 weeks. Dogs with this condition may benefit from supportive care, including anti-nausea medications, intravenous fluids, and hospitalization until they can walk and eat on their own.
Some cases may also require sedatives to calm them down, as the initial disorientation can be distressing. It is important to note, however, that affected dogs may have a permanent head tilt with rotation. Fortunately, these dogs can live happy and healthy lives despite this anomaly.
Dr.. Diana Hasler BVM & S MRCVS
Dr.. Diana Hasler (Opens in a new tab) She graduated summa cum laude from Royal Edinburgh University School of Veterinary Studies (DEC) in 2018. She has work experience as a Small Animal Veterinarian in General Practice, where she has treated various dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets. She has also recently branched out into medical communications, doing freelance work as a medical editor and writer.
When should I see a vet?
As previously discussed, it is common for dogs to run in circles before lying down or going to the bathroom. However, many of the medical causes of spinning behaviors in dogs can be life-threatening, and both medical and behavioral conditions benefit from early diagnosis and treatment.
For this reason, when turning behaviors are persistent and accompanied by other symptoms, or if they interfere with a dog’s daily routine, veterinary advice should be sought as soon as possible.
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