Pacing & Circling in Dogs

It's distressing to watch your dog pace and circle relentlessly.
i with dog image by Westa Zikas from

Your dog is one of your best buddies, so it can be incredibly disturbing to see him restlessly pacing and circling. And indeed this behavior does suggest something is very wrong. Your furry friend desperately needs your help right now, so carefully consider the conditions that can cause these actions.

Anxiety or Anxiety Disorder

Dogs, like humans, can experience anxiety, and one of its symptoms is repetitive behavior such as pacing and circling. If your dog's current environment is stressful, if he has little room to move and lacks mental or physical stimulation -- or if fireworks or thunderstorms are in the area -- your dog could be feeling anxious. Or he could be distressed by pain from a condition or injury. He might even be experiencing the remnants of anxiety from a trauma in his past, such as a disaster or abuse.

On the other hand, his pacing and circling could be the symptoms of canine compulsive disorder. This anxiety disorder is very similar to obsessive-compulsive disorders some people have and affects about 2 percent of dogs, according to Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine. A dog with this disorder will show abnormal repetitive behavior that can include pacing, circling, incessant tail chasing or excessive licking at himself or objects.

Liver Disease or Abnormality

A diseased or damaged liver or the presence of a liver shunt can cause strange neurological symptoms that often include pacing, circling, head pressing and behavioral changes. Hepatitis and certain parasites are some examples of issues that can cause liver damage. A liver shunt, on the other hand, occurs when a blood vessel shunts blood around the liver rather than through it. When the liver is unable to do its job fully, toxins can accumulate in the bloodstream or kidneys and cause severe neurological symptoms.

Cushing's Disease

Cushing's disease is a common endocrine disorder in older dogs caused by an excess of the hormone cortisol. There are three forms of the disease; all are chronic and slowly progressive. The symptoms of Cushing's often include pacing, circling and aimless wandering. The condition can be managed with medication that eliminates or greatly reduces its effects. Keep in mind, however, that the pituitary-dependent form of the disease is often the result of a pituitary tumor. Although pituitary tumors are typically extremely slow growing, they can eventually enlarge enough to press on the brain, causing increasingly severe neurological symptoms such as pacing and circling.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Often referred to as "doggy senility" or "doggy Alzheimer's," canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome can occur in older dogs. Deposits in the brain, similar to those in people with Alzheimer's disease, and low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine are often associated with this condition. Symptoms are gradual, usually consisting of confusion or disorientation, pacing and circling, and changes in sleep habits and behavior.

Brain Tumor

Although it's a terrifying thought, your dog's pacing and circling could be caused by a brain tumor. If a tumor has formed in or is pressing on a particular area of his brain, it could cause unusual pacing and circling, among other symptoms. The symptoms of a brain tumor can appear suddenly or very gradually, and their severity may increase and diminish.

Getting Help

If your dog shows any sign of pacing or circling, take videos and keep records of the behavior, noting how often and when it normally takes place. Make an appointment with your veterinarian and show her the videos and notes. These can prove extremely helpful in helping her make a diagnosis. Many of the conditions that might cause pacing and circling can be helped or eliminated with treatment, medication or a special diet. Ask your vet about the diagnostic tests available and what your options are, and get your furry buddy back to his happy and healthy self as quickly as possible.

Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.

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