Circling in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Walking in Circles?

How many circles does it take for a dog to settle down?

Yes, it is kind of a trick question.

Going around in circles isn’t normally an effective way of accomplishing anything. Circling, may or may not be normal–and from your dog’s point of view–useful behavior. How do you tell which is which? It is a test of your observation skills.

How many circles does your dog make? Is it your dog’s normal behavior? Does your dog look distressed or lost? What happens after?

Circling in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Walking in Circles/Circling?

Cookie, my Rottweiler girl, is one of the dogs who does make a few circles before settling down–both indoors and outside. She will also scratch at her bed in the effort to get it just right. That, of course, doesn’t do anything. But she keeps trying. I keep saying that we ought to get her a sandbox instead of a bed.

Either way, Cookie does it virtually every time. It is normal for her.

Jasmine did that sometimes. Often, though, this behavior increased when she was in pain. At those times, she would also pace around and pant. It was clear she was in distress. When you see other symptoms added into the mix, you know that something is off.

Walking around in circles before laying down

Does your dog do that? Most dogs do.

This instinctual behavior does–or at least used to have–a practical purpose. Before dogs started living indoors, this was their way of making the bed. It would not only pat down the vegetation, but it would also give them the chance of driving out snakes or large insects and so on. It could even have been their way of calling dibs on the spot.

Your dog might also walk in circles before depositing their essence, or trying to identify which way to follow a scent. An excited dog can run around in circles from sheer excitement. All of these are perfectly healthy reasons for such behavior.

When should you, then, be concerned about your dog’s circling?

When it doesn’t match any of the above reasons.

One thing I’d also like to note is the emotion the dog is expressing while circling. Are they calm, focused, excited or happy? Or does their body language express anxiety and distress?

Anxiety or pain

What if you felt like you had to run away, but there was nowhere to run? The urge is there, space is not but you need to keep moving. You’ll end up walking in circles. Interestingly, walking does help relieve both anxiety and pain. Pacing is one of the tell-signs of pain. Space constraints might turn that into walking in circles.

In some dogs, the obsessive-compulsive disorder could be the cause but that is not normal or healthy either. As well as I’d want to have any potential medical issue ruled out first. If confirmed, OCD should be addressed as well.

Neurological issues

The brain coordinates and manages all voluntary movement. When the brain is in trouble, it can present in various ways, circling being one of them. The reasons can be anything from brain inflammation, tumors, even severe liver disease.

Vestibular disease

The vestibular system includes the parts of the inner ear and brain that are in charge of balance. Vestibular disease messes with balance and the sense of spatial orientation. Head tilt, walking in circles and even falling over are some of the signs.

Causes include trauma, inner ear infections, tumors, hypothyroidism, even certain drugs. If no underlying cause can be identified, it is then diagnosed as an idiopathic vestibular disease. Maybe one day, science will figure out the reason because there ought to be one whether it has been identified or not.

What other symptoms have you observed?

For example, other symptoms of an ear infection can include:

  • excessive head shaking
  • head tilt
  • scratching or pawing at the ears
  • ear discharge
  • bad odor
  • redness, swelling or scabs

Other symptoms of hypothyroidism can include:

  • lethargy
  • intolerance to cold
  • weight gain
  • skin and coat changes
  • hair loss or dandruff
  • exercise intolerance
Cushing’s disease

While I feel that it’s a good idea to see the connection, describing Cushing’s disease as a cause of circling is not really right. Rather, [pituitary] Cushing’s AND potential neurological signs such as circling are both caused by the same thing–a tumor on the pituitary gland.

Cognitive dysfunction

In an older dog, their brain might become unable to process the world properly. Perhaps the dog doesn’t know where they are. Or maybe they find themselves in some alternate reality. Pacing and circling are one of the signs of the old brain being confused and distressed.

Other symptoms of cognitive dysfunction might include:

  • anxiety
  • restlessness
  • disorientation
  • irritability
  • loss of interest in play
  • forgetting learned behaviors
  • changes in appetite
  • changes in the sleep cycle
  • incontinence/potty accidents

Source: petMD

Can it be an emergency?

Yes. Continuous circling, particularly accompanied by other serious signs such as head pressing needs immediate medical attention.

Head pressing signals nervous system damage. Potential causes include tumors, metabolic disorders, infection of the nervous system, toxicity or head trauma. Toxicity can be from poison ingestion but also from liver failure. In such case, your dog needs immediate medical attention.

In conclusion

How the heck can you tell the difference between normal behavior and emergency? Like with most other symptoms, the big picture–circumstances, severity, duration, and accompanying signs.

Related articles:
Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: Head Tilt

Further reading:
Pacing and Circling in Dogs

Categories: CirclingSymptoms

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Jana Rade edited by Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience. Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc is our wonderful sponsor and has been kind to edit and fact-check my important articles.

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