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Q: My senior dog sometimes paces in a circle. Is this normal?
Dr. Chris Miller, AtlasVet DC: There’s nothing as cute as a kitten or puppy chasing their tail. When a dog spins around and gets dizzy, it’s always good for a laugh. However, if this is a new behavior in an adult or senior dog there can be medical causes that range from mild to severe. If the circling habit isn’t going away then it is a good idea to visit your veterinarian.
Common causes of spinning or circling in dogs can be problems with the vestibular system which is in charge of balance. There are several conditions that can affect the inner ear, where part of the vestibular system lives. Yeast and bacteria can grow and cause damage to the inner ear canal causing dogs to circle to the most affected side. They can also have a head tilt, fall down, or have eyes that twitch back and forth. The vestibular system is the same one that makes you sea sick when you are on a boat and that is the same way dogs with this problem feel. They can even become sick and vomit. Older dogs may develop geriatric vestibular syndrome that comes with all of the above problems, but no known cause. It is important to involve your veterinarian to help differentiate this syndrome from other, more severe problems.
Circling can also be caused by behavioral problems that may manifest with age. Older dogs can develop cognitive disorder that causes them to behave strangely, seem anxious, and have repetitive behavior. The problem with these behavior changes is that they are very difficult to rule out from other more serious problems with the brain like strokes or brain tumors. Sorting out these symptoms will at a minimum require a veterinarian, and will often require a board certified veterinary neurologist who has access to advanced imaging like a MRI or CT scan.
Most of the time, when an older dog shows symptoms like circling, the issue is mild, like geriatric vestibular syndrome that typically resolves on its own. However, differentiating from more severe diseases can be very difficult, even for your veterinarian. Increasing veterinarian exam frequency as a dog ages can help catch problems early and may lead to more treatment options.
Find Dr. Chris Miller on Twitter at @DCVet.