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Could Compulsive Dog Behaviour Be Linked to a Digestive Disorder?

by Helen Anslow BSc (Hons)

Jan 28 2015

Does your dog suffer with compulsive dog behaviour such as fly snapping syndrome or tail chasing? Much of the time, strange quirks in your dogs behaviour are linked to them being unwell. Read on to discover the health problems behind compulsive dog behaviour and what can be done to solve it.

What is a compulsive behaviour?

Compulsive behaviour, also known as stereotypical behaviour in dogs can be defined as having the urge to perform behaviour repetitively even though there is no reward given from performing this behaviour. These behaviours, although not necessarily harming the dog themselves can cause stress to both the dogs and the owners. These behaviours are also seen as dog behaviours that are performed when the dog is unwell, however this isn’t always the case. There are many different types of stereotypical behaviours in dogs, but we will discuss fly snapping, and tail chasing in this blog.

Fly snapping syndrome in dogs

What is fly snapping? We hear you ask. Fly snapping is a disorder where the dog will snap at the air as if trying to catch something that isn’t visible in the air around them. What are the causes of fly snapping syndrome in dogs?

  • hallucinations
  • problems with eyesight
  • neurological disorders
  • partial seizures
  • genetics

Not all vets agree on the causes of this symptom so the condition is often labelled as an idiopathic disorder. Which means that the cause of the condition is unknown.

However, newer research [1] has been looking into the incidence of fly-catching and gastrointestinal disorder. The researchers have suggested that the fly-catching (which is often accompanied with extension of the neck) is an attempt by the dog trying to stretch and gulp air to alleviate oesophageal or gastric discomfort.

Tail chasing in dogs

Tail chasing is seen as a normal behaviour in dogs, usually seen when they are playing. However a problem can arise both for the owner and the dog when this behaviour becomes excessive.

What are the causes of excessive spinning in dogs?

  • boredom
  • genetics
  • worms
  • neurological disorders
  • physical irritation/ injury

Licking inanimate objects in dogs

Some dogs suffer from a condition called ELS (excessive licking of surfaces) where they continuously lick objects and surfaces.

What are the causes of ELS in dogs?

  • digestive/ Gastro intestinal problems
  • behavioural issues
  • seizures

Research[2] by the same group of people that studied fly-catching found that in a study of 19 dogs with ELS, 14 of them were suffering from an undiagnosed gastrointestinal condition. Conditions included irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pancreatitis and delayed gastric emptying. After a combination of treatments involving dietary changes and medications such as antacids, resolution of ELS was seen in 53% of the dogs.

It has been theorised that the excessive licking could be due to the feeling of nausea these dogs have.

What can cause compulsive behaviours in dogs?

There are many different possible causes for stereotypical or compulsive behaviour and unfortunately not all of these causes can be treated. Some examples of causes of these behaviours include:

  • physical irritation/ injury/ pain
  • stress
  • habit
  • boredom/ lack of mental stimulation
  • genetics
  • behavioural issues
  • attention


If a dog is displaying any of the conditions talked about in this blog or any other compulsive behaviour it is recommended that you go to see your vet. If after you have visited the vet and there is no underlying cause you could visit a behaviourist to try and help train the dog out of displaying these behaviours or look at if this is a coping mechanism for the dog. If doing this behaviour is not causing your dog distress then it may be OK for your dog to continue with this as long as you have ruled out all possible causes and related health problems.

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[1] Frank, D., Bélanger, M.C., Bécuwe-Bonnet, V., Parent, J. (2012) ‘Prospective medical evaluation of 7 dogs presented with fly biting’, The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 53(12), pp. 1279-1284.

[2] Bécuwe-Bonnet, V., Bélanger, M.C., Frank, D., Parent, J., Hélie, P. (2012) ‘Gastrointestinal disorders in dogs with excessive licking of surfaces’, Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 7(4), pp. 194-204.

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by Helen Anslow BSc (Hons)