Pacing and Circling in Dogs

Written By hannah hollinger
Published: 06/11/2017Updated: 04/21/2021
Veterinary reviewed by Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS
Pacing and Circling in Dogs - Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, Recovery, Management, Cost

What is Pacing and Circling?

As previously stated, pacing and circling by your family pet can be quite normal - for certain reasons.  However, if your canine family member is pacing and circling and it isn’t for one of the normal “doggy” reasons, then the behavior could signal some deeper problem which could be serious for your family pet.  A trip to your veterinary professional is definitely something you should consider in the near future.

Pacing and circling in dogs can be activities in which dogs engage in order to perform some normal activities like urinating, defecating, sniffing and investigating, or they can be compulsive behaviors which are not normal. They may also be indicative of underlying pain or a neurological disease or canine dementia.

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Symptoms of Pacing and Circling in Dogs

The symptoms of potential canine compulsive behaviors are varied and not every individual will display the same symptoms.  Here are some things you might notice in your pet to some degree:

  • Your pet keeps circling, even if you offer an alternative activity such as a game or walk
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Aimless wandering
  • Changes in sleeping habits and behaviors
  • Changes in gait
  • Changes in house training habits
  • Appetite changes - both increased as well as decreased
  • Other compulsive behaviors likes spinning, tail chasing, fly snapping, excessive licking, toy fixation, barking etc


There are various types of behaviors which could present in pacing and circling activities:

  • Environmental or external contributors
  • Systemic disease
  • Neurological or neoplastic disease

While, it may seem “cute” or “funny” when your dog does the tail chasing thing, or when they’re pacing or circling sometimes for hours on end, it is important to note that it may not be an intentional way to get your attention but instead could be a signal of a deeper, more serious problem which needs to be evaluated and treated, sooner rather than later.

Causes of Pacing and Circling in Dogs

Some level of pacing and circling can be 'normal' doggy behavior. This is true if your dog can be easily distracted from them and does not do them excessively. This should not raise any alarms in pet parents.  It is, however, not true of those pacing and circling behaviors which are being done without the normal triggers and for those compulsive behaviors which are increasing and seem almost constant.  Here is a list of some of the things which could be at the root of these compulsive behaviors:

Anxiety or Anxiety Disorder 

  • This would include the fear generated by loud noises such as fireworks
  • Too-little room for your pet to move around
  • Lack of mental or physical stimulation / challenge
  • A genetic predisposition to being anxious (more common in certain breeds)
  • Pain from an injury or other condition
  • Past traumatic event which is being remembered
  • Canine compulsive disorder - similar to human obsessive compulsive disorder in which canine exhibits repetitive behavior

Liver Disease or Abnormality

  • Diseased or damaged liver could cause neurological issues resulting in pacing, circling, head pressing and behavioral changes 
  • Hepatitis and some parasitic infections can also cause neurological issues 
  • Liver shunt - happens when a blood vessel shunts blood around the liver instead of blood processing through the liver to clean out the toxins
  • Neurological damage occurs when the blood is shunted around the liver, allowing the toxins to build up in the bloodstream and kidneys

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

  • Doggy Dementia causes deposits in the brain similar to those found in humans. Symptoms vary and can include pacing, restlessness and increased vocalisation.

Brain Tumor

  • The pacing, circling and other repetitive behaviors are caused by neurologic changes from the pressure being exerted on the brain by the tumor as it grows

Ear Infections

  • Bacterial, fungal or parasitic ear disorders can affect the balance centre and lead to behaviours such as circling, head tilting and restlessness.

Idiopathic Vestibular Disease

  • A condition generally seen in older dogs, most will improve within a few days. Some, however, may have long lasting effects such as a mild head tilt that remains.

Diagnosis of Pacing and Circling in Dogs

As one might expect from the list of potential causes of pacing and circling in dogs, diagnosis is not easy nor will it likely be achieved with a quick blood test.  Your veterinarian, or other attending veterinary professional, will need a complete history from you which includes dietary regimen, living and housing arrangements, exercise regimen which includes where that exercise takes place, any injuries or health conditions which have befallen your pet over his life and the details of the symptoms you’ve noticed along with their duration, noting whether they came on gradually or suddenly and their severity.  

Your vet will do a physical examination and will likely need to order blood testing, urine and fecal testing, radiography (x-rays) and perhaps CT or MRI imaging to ascertain if there are any masses present which could be factors for the symptoms and clinical signs being displayed by your family pet.  Once the testing results from the various testing modalities being utilized by your vet are received and evaluated, an appropriate treatment plan will be developed and initiated for your canine family member.

Treatment of Pacing and Circling in Dogs

Of course, it goes without saying that the treatment options presented to you by your vet will be dependent upon the cause he has found for the pacing, circling and other compulsive behaviors of which your pet is suffering.  

  • If a systemic condition is found, treatments will include those options which are consistent with the disease condition found, for example oral medication administration, medications to treat the infectious component, if any, or potential surgical options in the case of tumor growth being the causative affliction 
  • If your vet determines that the problems stems from dietary issues, then he will make recommendations for dietary changes to help remedy the problem
  • When the condition is behavioural, we would implement behavioral training and changes in your pet’s home environment and routine to reduce stress and anxiety
  • In the event that your vet finds everything in his testing of your family pet to be normal and diagnoses your pet with a behavioral issue only (which doesn’t have a systemic component) and if the behavior continues beyond a few days, he may refer you to an animal behaviorist for appropriate treatment
  • Canine dementia cannot be cured but can be managed with environmental changes, prescription diet and supplements.
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Recovery of Pacing and Circling in Dogs

The prognosis for your family pet who suffers from pacing and circling will be dependent upon the ultimate cause as determined by your veterinary professional.  For some of the causes, the treatments may be ongoing for the life of your pet, or they may be intermittent as the disease process waxes and wanes in its development.  For other causes, it may be that a simpler solution will fit the bill, like giving your canine family member more exercise, more play time or training which keeps his mind active and learning, or it might be simply changing his diet.  In any event, dispensing copious amounts of the three A’s: affection, affirmation, and attention will always be part of the treatment plan.

Pacing and Circling Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals







17 found this helpful


17 found this helpful

My pet has the following symptoms:
Spinning In Circles Counter Clockwise,
I can tell something is wrong with her and i dont know what to do

Jan. 11, 2021

Answered by Dr. Michele K. DVM

17 Recommendations

Thank you for your question, I'm sorry your puppy is not feeling well. Chihuahuas can have problems where they build up fluid on their brain, and she may have a neurological problem that needs attention. It would be best to have her seen by a veterinarian, as they can assess her health, and let you know what sort of treatment she may need.

Jan. 11, 2021

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Three Years


4 found this helpful


4 found this helpful

My pet has the following symptoms:
Circling, Anxiety
Fast, clockwise circling has been present in my boyfriend’s pup since he got her (about 2 years ago). She does this when she appears anxious (e.g. leaving the house; anytime we aren’t sitting or laying down), and when she appears excited (e.g. going outside, playing with toys, other dogs, and people). When we leave the house, we now have to keep her in the basement to prevent her from chewing on furniture or rolling on her own feces or urine in a kennel. She was on a anti anxiety med at one point but did not seek to help and gave her terrible diarrhea.

Dec. 31, 2020

Answered by Dr. Sara O. DVM

4 Recommendations

Hello anxiety can be very hard to deal with some days. There are many different medication and supplements you can try. I like calming bites. If this continues try looking for a trainer to help.

Jan. 1, 2021

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