Understanding Canine Circling Behavior: Why Do Dogs Walk in Circles Before They Die?

The behavior of our beloved pets can sometimes be mysterious and puzzling, especially when it comes to their final moments.
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One such behavior that has puzzled pet owners is the tendency for some dogs to walk in circles before they pass away.

In this blog post, we will explore the reasons behind this circling behavior, its potential causes, and how to offer support and comfort to your dog during its final moments.

Understanding Circling Behavior in Dogs

Circling is a common behavior in dogs and can be observed in various situations. Dogs may circle before lying down while playing or when disoriented or experiencing discomfort.

When a dog is nearing the end of its life, the circling behavior may become more pronounced, causing concern for pet owners.

There are several reasons why a dog might walk in circles before passing away:

Disorientation and Cognitive Decline

As dog’s age, their cognitive function may decline, leading to various behavioral changes, including disorientation and confusion.

Cognitive decline can manifest in several ways, and circling behavior is one such manifestation, particularly in the final stages of a dog’s life.

The decline in cognitive function could result from several factors:

a)       Age-related changes in the brain: As dogs age, their brain experiences physiological changes, such as a decrease in neurotransmitter production and the accumulation of harmful proteins. These changes can affect cognitive function and lead to disorientation and confusion, causing the dog to pace or circle.

b)      Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS): Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome is a condition in dogs similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. It is characterized by the progressive deterioration of cognitive function, affecting memory, learning, perception, and spatial awareness. Dogs with CDS may exhibit various behavioral changes, including circling, disorientation, restlessness, and sleep patterns.

c)       Reduced sensory perception: Age-related decline in sensory perception, such as vision and hearing, may contribute to disorientation and circling behavior in dogs. As their ability to perceive their environment decreases, dogs may become more disoriented and confused, leading to increased pacing or circling.

d)      Anxiety and stress: Cognitive decline and disorientation can cause increased anxiety and stress in aging dogs. This anxiety may exacerbate circling behavior as the dog attempts to cope with its changing cognitive abilities and the uncertainties that come with it.

To support a dog experiencing cognitive decline and disorientation, pet owners should consult their veterinarian to determine the most appropriate course of action.

Potential treatment options include cognitive-enhancing medications, dietary modifications, and brain-stimulating activities that can help slow the progression of cognitive decline and improve the dog’s quality of life.

Additionally, providing a consistent and predictable routine and a calm, comforting environment can help reduce anxiety and stress associated with cognitive decline and disorientation.

Pain and Discomfort

As a dog nears the end of its life, it may experience various forms of pain and discomfort due to age-related health issues, chronic conditions, or terminal illnesses.

The circling behavior observed in some dogs may be an attempt to find relief from the physical distress they are experiencing.

Here are some potential sources of pain and discomfort that could contribute to circling behavior in dogs:

a)       Arthritis and joint pain: Aging dogs often suffer from arthritis, a degenerative joint condition that causes inflammation, stiffness, and pain. The discomfort associated with arthritis may prompt dogs to pace or circle to alleviate the pain or find a comfortable position.

b)      Organ failure: Organ failures, such as kidney or liver failure, can be common in older dogs or those suffering from chronic diseases. The pain and discomfort resulting from these conditions may lead to circling behavior as the dog tries to cope with its physical distress.

c)       Cancer: Cancer is a prevalent health concern in dogs, and some forms of cancer can cause significant pain and discomfort, particularly in the advanced stages. As the disease progresses, the dog may circle due to the discomfort caused by tumor growth or metastasis.

d)      Gastrointestinal issues: Dogs nearing the end of their life may experience gastrointestinal problems, such as constipation, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. This discomfort can lead to pacing or circling as the dog attempts to find relief.

e)      Neuropathic pain: Some dogs may experience neuropathic pain caused by nerve damage or dysfunction. This pain can be challenging to manage and may lead to pacing or circling behavior as the dog tries to cope.

Working closely with your veterinarian is essential to help alleviate your dog’s pain and discomfort during its final moments.

They can recommend appropriate pain management options, such as medications, supplements, or alternative therapies, to help your dog feel more comfortable.

Additionally, providing a calm, quiet, and soothing environment can help ease anxiety and stress related to pain and discomfort.

Maintaining a gentle, compassionate presence and offering physical touches, such as petting or gentle massage, can also provide your dog comfort and reassurance during this difficult time.

Neurological Disorders

Neurological disorders can significantly impact a dog’s behavior, including the tendency to walk in circles.

When a dog is nearing the end of its life and suffering from a neurological condition, the circling behavior may become more pronounced.

Some common neurological disorders that can cause circling behavior in dogs are:

a)       Brain tumors: Brain tumors can cause various neurological symptoms, including circling behavior, depending on their size and location within the brain. Tumors can cause inflammation, increased intracranial pressure, and disruption of normal brain function, leading to disorientation, loss of balance, and other behavioral changes.

b)      Vestibular disease: Vestibular disease affects a dog’s balance system, resulting in dizziness, unsteadiness, and head tilting. One common sign of vestibular disease is circling behavior, which may become more evident as the dog’s condition worsens or as they approach the end of their life.

c)       Canine epilepsy: Canine epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by recurrent seizures. While the seizures themselves may not cause circling, the post-ictal phase (the period immediately following a seizure) can result in disorientation, confusion, and pacing or circling behavior.

d)      Encephalitis: Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain, which infections, immune-mediated processes, or toxins can cause. Dogs suffering from encephalitis may exhibit neurological symptoms such as circling, seizures, or changes in consciousness.

e)      Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD): IVDD is a degenerative spinal condition that can cause compression or damage to the spinal cord, resulting in pain, weakness, and altered gait. In severe cases, IVDD can lead to neurological deficits, including circling behavior, as the dog struggles to maintain balance and coordination.

If your dog exhibits circling behavior and you suspect a neurological disorder may be the cause, consult your veterinarian to discuss diagnostic testing and potential treatment options.

In cases where the dog is nearing the end of its life, your veterinarian can help guide you through palliative care options, focusing on managing symptoms and providing comfort to your dog during its final moments.

It may include medication to control pain, inflammation, or seizures, as well as physical therapy, acupuncture, or other supportive therapies to help maintain your dog’s mobility and quality of life.

Anxiety and Stress

Dogs may walk in circles when anxious or stressed, particularly in uncertain or challenging situations, such as the end of their life.

Several factors can contribute to anxiety and stress in dogs nearing their final moments, which in turn may lead to circling behavior:

a)       Environmental changes: If a dog’s environment has changed, either due to a recent move, rearranging furniture, or the introduction of new people or pets, this can cause anxiety and stress, leading to pacing or circling.

b)      Discomfort and pain: As discussed earlier, pain and discomfort from various health issues can cause anxiety and stress in dogs. The circling behavior may be both an attempt to find relief from the pain and a manifestation of their anxiety.

c)       Sensory decline: As dog’s age, their senses, such as vision and hearing, may decline, making it more challenging to navigate their environment and causing anxiety and stress. This sensory decline may exacerbate pacing or circling behavior.

d)      Cognitive decline: The cognitive decline associated with aging or conditions like Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS) can lead to increased anxiety and stress in dogs as they struggle to cope with their changing cognitive abilities. This anxiety may manifest as circling behavior.

Observations and Reports: Insights from Dog Owners and Caregivers

Many dog owners and caregivers have observed and reported the peculiar behavior of dogs walking in circles before their passing. While not every dog exhibits this behavior, its occurrence has caught the attention of those who have witnessed it.

Anecdotal evidence from dog owners and caregivers

Dog owners and caregivers have shared their personal experiences, recounting instances where their dogs walked in circles before their eventual passing. These accounts often describe the dog repeatedly walking in a circular pattern, seemingly aimless and disconnected from its surroundings. Such firsthand observations have sparked curiosity and raised questions about the underlying reasons for this behavior.

Historical Accounts and cultural beliefs

Interestingly, historical records and cultural beliefs also shed light on this phenomenon. Historically, accounts of dogs exhibiting circling behavior before death have been documented. In some cultures, this circling motion is believed to represent a spiritual journey or the dog’s attempt to find a peaceful resting place. While these accounts cannot provide scientific explanations, they highlight the longstanding fascination with this behavior.

The commonality of the behavior

The walking-in-circles behavior before death appears relatively common among dogs, as reported by numerous individuals. While it is difficult to determine the exact prevalence, the recurrence of such accounts suggests that it is not an isolated phenomenon. The behavior has been observed in dogs of different breeds, sizes, and ages, adding to the intrigue surrounding it.

Environmental and Instinctual Factors: Influences on Circling Behavior

The behavior of dogs walking in circles before their passing may be influenced by environmental and instinctual factors.

Dogs have an inherent navigational instinct, and circles can be linked to their territorial nature. By walking in circles, dogs may instinctively mark their territory or establish a familiar space before the end of their journey. This behavior might stem from a deeply rooted instinct to create a secure and protected area.

Influence of changes in surroundings or unfamiliar environments

Dogs are sensitive to changes in their environment. If a dog is in an unfamiliar, such as a veterinary clinic or a new home, the circling behavior may attempt to find familiarity or create a sense of security. The dog’s instinct might be to walk in circles, surveying its surroundings and seeking comfort in the familiar.

Possible correlation with the dying process and instinctual nesting behaviors

Circling behavior before death could be linked to instinctual nesting behaviors. In the wild, dogs and their ancestors would create nests or dens to prepare for the arrival of new life or to seek refuge during times of vulnerability. The circling motion observed in dogs may reflect this innate nesting instinct as they seek comfort and safety during the final stages of their lives.

Supporting Your Dog During Their Final Moments

Providing a calm, comforting, and supportive environment is essential to help alleviate anxiety and stress in your dog during its final moments.

Here are some ways you can help your dog feel more at ease:

         i.            Maintain a predictable routine: Dogs find comfort in routine, so keeping a consistent schedule for feeding, walks, and sleep can help reduce anxiety and stress.

    ii.            Create a safe space: Designate a quiet, comfortable, and familiar area in your home where your dog can retreat if they feel anxious or overwhelmed. This space should include their bed, favorite toys, and a blanket or clothing item with your scent to provide comfort.

  iii.            Provide gentle reassurance: Offer physical touches, such as petting or gentle massage, and speak to your dog in soothing tones to help them feel comforted and secure.

  iv.            Use calming aids: Some dogs may benefit from calming aids, such as pheromone diffusers or collars, pressure wraps (like the Thundershirt), or calming supplements to help reduce anxiety and stress.

    v.            Consult with your veterinarian: If your dog’s anxiety and stress are severe or affecting their quality of life, speak with your veterinarian about potential medical interventions, such as anti-anxiety medications, to help manage their symptoms.

By understanding the causes of anxiety and stress in your dog and offering a supportive and nurturing environment, you can help ease their emotional distress and provide a sense of security and comfort during their final moments.


The circling behavior observed in some dogs nearing the end of their life can be attributed to various factors, including disorientation due to cognitive decline, pain and discomfort from health issues, neurological disorders, and anxiety and stress.

Pet owners must consult with their veterinarian to determine the cause of their dog’s circling behavior and to discuss appropriate interventions or palliative care options.

Providing love, support, and comfort to your dog during their final moments is essential.

Understanding the reasons behind their circling behavior and creating a calm, soothing environment can help ease their transition and offer them a sense of security and peace.

Maintain a gentle and compassionate presence, and work closely with your veterinarian to ensure your dog’s physical and emotional well-being is addressed during this difficult time.

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