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Why Do Dogs Bite Themselves?

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

Last updated

sad puppy

Have you ever noticed your dog biting themself? This behavior may seem extreme and upsetting, but it’s more common than you think. Dogs can bite any part of their body they can reach, whether chewing on their paws or finally catching their tail when chasing it. They can even take to ripping out chunks of their own coat.

Some behaviors like licking their paws a lot or barking too much are signs of stress, anxiety, or boredom in dogs. But a dog that bites itself too much can have a much more severe problem called canine compulsive disorder or CD. 

However, like all things canine, there could be multiple reasons, and we should always look for medical issues first.

Medical Reasons That May Cause Dogs Bite Themselves

Yeast or Bacterial infections

One of the foremost causes of dogs biting themselves is a highly itchy and aggravating infection. Although most dogs stick to licking, the frustration of an itch could drive a dog to chew and eventually to biting to stop the irritation if it’s severe enough. Infections can take many shapes and forms, including hot spots or dermatitis.

If you’re unsure if your dog has a yeast infection, you can read our article here. If your dog has itchy skin, check out this article.

Injury or foreign objects

If a dog has cut their paw, picked up a splinter, or gotten something lodged in their skin or coat, they may bite at the area to remove it. Always check the area that they are biting for anything caught in the coat, heat, lumps, bumps, redness, or swelling. 

Matted coats can also create uncomfortable pulling on their skin. Be sure to check for any tangles in the coat that could be the cause. This includes between the paw pads.

Allergies

As with infections, a dog that has an allergy may become so irritated by the itch in their skin that they take to biting or gnawing. A food elimination trial and veterinary ELISA testing can help you identify if your dog has a food allergy. However, most allergies are environmental. So look for irritants such as pollen, dust mites, grass, or lawn fertilizers.

Parasites

Finally, one last thing to rule out is the possibility that your dog has some kind of infestation. Any parasite that causes itching, such as fleas or mites, might lead them from scratching to biting out of frustration. 

Once you’ve ruled out any underlying medical issues your dog may have, it is time to consider the genetic and psychological reasons your dog may be hurting themselves.

Canine Compulsive Disorder (CD) and dogs that bite themselves

Dogs have many behaviors that indicate stress and anxiety. Simply yawning can show stress, as can excessive barking or licking. But while actions like licking their paws are usually an attempt to self-soothe, injuring themselves through biting is a much more severe problem.  

When dogs begin to bite themselves, they leave the realm of simple stress and anxiety. They now show signs of compulsive or obsessive behavior. This can be classified as a disorder. 

Canine compulsive disorder or CD refers to dogs that do something repetitively to the point that it interferes with their quality of life. Examples include:

  • Dogs who obsessively chase their own tail or another moving object, 
  • Dogs who never stop barking
  • Dogs that bite themselves.

Compulsive disorders in dogs are incredibly similar to OCD in humans. But what are the causes?

Causes of CD and self-harm in dogs

Genetics

Studies suggest that certain breeds like German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers are more likely to bite themselves. In fact, abnormalities in their brains and genes are much like those that cause OCD in humans. This means veterinarians often prescribe human antidepressants to help dogs who are obsessive and possibly biting themselves.

Weaning and stress at a young age

Of course, genetics is never solely the problem. Puppies taken from their litter when they are younger than 6 weeks are more likely to develop issues like biting themselves. Early stress can be traumatic, such as being kept in a pet shop or shelter while still young and vulnerable. This can lead to harmful coping strategies like ripping out their own fur.

Lack of socialization

Puppies have a critical socialization window between 3 and 12 weeks of age. They must be exposed to as much of everyday life as possible during this time. This includes:

  • Dogs and other animals
  • Loud noises
  • Strangers and public areas
  • Children
  • New and strange places.

When socialized, a puppy learns critical skills for coping with stressors and strange situations. Without these skills, they are ill-equipped to deal with normal life. This can cause them to become obsessive or bite themselves to cope when they feel threatened or overwhelmed.

Frustration and pent-up energy

Dogs who are high-energy and have a strong drive to work and exercise can become bored and understimulated. Over time, if they don't get an outlet for their energy, they can develop bad habits as a way to cope. 

Sometimes, this can mean destructive behavior such as chewing, barking, or digging. Other times it manifests aggression or anxiety. In extreme cases, it can lead to biting or gnawing on their own bodies.

What to Do if Your Dog Is Biting Themselves

As a dog owner, you should intervene when your dog bites themselves, as this could be a very severe problem. If you’ve ruled out a medical reason such as injury or allergies, it's time to move to fixing the behavior. Use these tips to keep your dog from biting themself:

  • Step up your dog's exercise and training regime. A tired and mentally stimulated dog has less frustration and aggravation to take out on themselves. Try enrolling a dog in a sport that gives you plenty of time to bond with them such as agility or field trials.
  • If your dog has not been socialized, get a professional to help you start the process. Even if the socialization window has passed, learning to cope with unfamiliar situations can teach your dog new ways to handle stress and desensitize them to triggers.
  • Create a consistent daily routine where your dog always has something better to do than bite themselves. Start the day with moderate to high-intensity exercise, or as much as your dog's body safely allows. Make sure to have intervals of playtime and training throughout the day. 
  • If dogs have a strong prey drive or urge to chase something, redirect their energy into a positive activity like playing fetch or chasing a lure.
  • If it’s time to rest and your dog is alone, leave them with a frozen-filled kong, chew toy, or puzzle toy to distract them from biting themselves.
  • Remove stressors from your dog's life and be careful of overwhelming situations. Keep a calm, patient environment and beware of teasing neighborhood children, intimidating dogs, or unnecessary loud sounds.
  • Use supplements such as Harmony to help anxiety. You can also invest in pheromone dispensers to help keep your dog calm.
  • When a dog is compulsively biting themselves and hurting themselves, a veterinarian may prescribe medication such as fluoxetine. As this can have side effects, be sure to exhaust other options first. Alternatively, you can try using the medication as a supplemental tool, while your dog learns other ways to regulate their urges. When your dog is successfully rehabilitated, consider weaning them off it safely.
  • Finally, you may need to muzzle your dog for short periods to stop them biting themselves in extreme cases. For instance, if you leave them alone for a short while and can't stop them. Be extremely careful if you do this, as being muzzled is a source of stress and can make the problem worse. Always spend time exercising and relaxing your dog before putting the muzzle on them. Let them get used to it gradually and make wearing it a positive experience. Under no circumstances should a dog be muzzled for extended periods. If it causes them distress, this will be a counterproductive measure.

Tip: Regularly check your dog's anal glands for any signs of impaction. Once you see that they are starting to swell and become blocked, try to extract them if you are comfortable doing so. If not, bring them to the vet and have them extract his anal glands.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Why Do Dogs Bite Their Paws?

The paws are an easy target for dogs that bite themselves. Firstly, licking feet is a way dogs can calm themselves. It’s soothing and helps them deal with stress. So if they struggle with a compulsive disorder, licking can quickly become biting. 

Secondly, paws often have medical problems such as infections, foreign objects, matted hair, mites, injuries, or overgrown nails that cause enough frustration that a dog may start biting their feet.

Why Do Dogs Bite Their Tails?

Dogs that bite their tails usually do so because they’re chasing their tails, and they finally catch them. Some breeds, such as Shiba Inus, German Shepherds, and Bull Terriers, are particularly prone to chasing their tails. In general, it’s a puppy behavior that stems from a high prey drive or instinct to chase. They see their tails moving in the corner of their eyes and give chase. If they manage to catch their tail, they may bite themselves.

Most dogs will outgrow this behavior, but chasing and biting their tails can become a compulsive disorder for some.

Sometimes dogs also go after their tail area because of impacted anal glands. In these cases, one or both anal sacs become blocked, and infections and abscesses may occur. In addition to scooting their butts on the ground, they may try to reach the area by going after their tails or hind end. There are many reasons why dogs develop impacted anal glands, and often it's due to poor diet. 

Why Do Dogs Bite Other Dogs Necks?

Dogs usually bite each other's necks as a show of dominance. However, there are three types of neck biting:

  1. Dogs that are playing rough will pretend to bite each other's necks. This is just a normal part of play fighting.
  2. An older or more dominant dog will nip the neck of another to correct behavior they don't like, such as overexcited jumping or taking their toy. It's a way of saying, "hey! Stop that!" They may also hold the other dog down on the neck area without breaking the skin to assert their dominance. This is often not real aggression but rather establishing hierarchy and rules within the pack. However, if a dog shows signs of being too overpowering with another dog, it can mean it's time to intervene.
  3. Truly aggressive dogs will bite another dog's neck in a fight if they can. This dangerous situation goes beyond a simple display of dominance or a correction. Biting another dog's neck or facial area is an attempt to do as much damage as possible and can be fatal.

Why Do Dogs Play-Bite?

Dogs play-bite for the same reason that children play wrestle. Puppies mimic and learn the behaviors of adults through play. To a young dog, biting during play is a safe and exciting way to pretend they are an adult in a real fight or in a hunt. This is much like children playing cops and robbers. 

By play biting, dogs learn their capabilities and restrictions. Playing with other dogs teaches them not to bite too hard or to be more aware of their own size. It’s also a harmless way for them to express their urges to fight, chase, bite, and hunt, without actually doing it. Any play, including play biting, massively increases your dog's quality of life and sense of well-being. 

So while you may want to teach your dog not to bite your hands, it's great to channel that instinct into biting something appropriate like a tug toy.

Final word

A dog that’s begun to bite themself could be in a serious situation. Sometimes, it means nothing more than a surprise bee sting or a thorn in their paw. But sadly, if a dog is biting some part of themselves out of habit or obsessively, they may have a canine compulsive disorder. In these cases, they need patient and calm behavior modification to rehabilitate them.