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Help! Dog Walks in Circles and is Disoriented – 9 Reasons

Veterinary reviewed by Dr. Linda Simon.

Seeing Fido wander around in strange circling patterns or just seeing him plain disjointed from the real world can make you go crazy.

It might not feel like a medical emergency but it’s a scary sight for sure if the behavior is excessive and prolonged.

Sure, mild cases of dogs circling can mean they chase their tail, have something sticking to their rear end, or just aren’t able to find the perfect spot before plopping down.

However, if the behavior is excessive, you definitely want to look into it to rule out major issues.

No worries, we’ll go over each reason and make sure you know exactly why your dog is circling and seems disoriented.

At the very least you know what to expect and might be able to get a sense of what could be causing your dog’s distress.

9 Reasons Why Your Dog Walks in Circles and is Disoriented

Dogs walk in circles and are disoriented due to an ear infection, injury to the head or inner ear, or serious issues affecting the brain such as inflammation, a tumor, canine dementia, and rarely strokes or Cushing’s disease. External factors such as poisonings are also possible.

Is your dog’s disoriented circling not explained by the causes above?

You may have to look into the various forms of ataxia such as cerebellar, sensory, and vestibular syndrome, the latter occurring due to abnormal functions of the inner ear or brainstem.

Let’s jump right into each cause. No worries, some of it sounds pretty complex but I’ll try to give you the gist.

Your vet should be able to rule out these causes with the appropriate examination and perhaps accompanying tests.

Ear Infection

Pesky ear infections are relatively easy to catch when your dog is showing accompanying symptoms.

But sometimes, the symptoms might not be so clear cut and you have a hard time figuring out whether or not your dog’s outer, middle, or inner is potentially infected.

Ear infections or injuries can cause dogs to walk in circles and be disoriented.
Photo by Natali _ Mis on Shutterstock

Symptoms include:

  • Excessive shaking, rubbing, or scratching around the ear region
  • Swollen or red ear
  • Strong smell, often accompanied by discharge

Dogs walking in circles or losing their balance usually only happens in more severe ear infection cases.

While natural ear infection remedies often help, you should consult your vet asap if you think that an ear infection might cause your dog’s disorientation and circling behavior.

What might cause your dog’s ear infection?

Generally speaking, allergies, hypothyroidism, or immune system issues can cause recurring ear infections.

Other than that, swimming can potentially cause your dog’s ear infection as well as suboptimal ear care or mites.

Injury & Pain

A popped eardrum is a common cause of why dogs are disoriented and some of them walk around in circles.

Head trauma in general can contribute to a loss of balance.

While dogs are masters at hiding pain, you should evaluate whether or not external factors may have caused an injury.

If you’re unsure, look out for signs such as heavy breathing, restless pacing, reluctance to lie down or interact with you, loss of appetite, as well as whimpering in sleep as a sign of pain.

Brain Inflammation

Brain inflammation might also be known to you as “inflammatory brain disease” or “meningoencephalitis” or “meningitis”.

One of the types of brain inflammation, necrotizing meningoencephalitis (NME) has circling behavior as one of the top symptoms next to seizures and behavioral changes.

Usually, your vet should have this cause in the back of his head, but it’s not that common and harder to diagnose (brain tissue sample or MRI)

But you should keep it in mind if other symptoms are matching and all options are exhausted.

How is it caused? Fungal infections, parasites, and diseases transmitted by ticks are three common causes to give you a quick overview.

Your vet should be able to advise on the possibility of brain inflammation.

Brain Tumor

There are many types of brain tumors and seizures are often mentioned as the main indication to check for a brain tumor.

However, other symptoms include a loss of balance and confusion, both potentially leading to your dog walking in circles in a disoriented way.

Canine Dementia

Strictly speaking, it’s called canine cognitive dysfunction.

Seeing dogs with cognitive dysfunction walking in circles and being disoriented is quite common.

Senior dogs often struggle with canine dementia causing them to spin in circles and lose their orientation.
Photo by Potae Thanachai on Shutterstock

General signs are confusion, decreased alertness, aimlessness, and perhaps not being able to recognize you after the circling behavior.

How this disease is caused and which dogs are affected the most is not entirely clear yet.

However, a healthy diet and lifestyle where dogs are mentally stimulated might help with avoiding these signs in their senior years.

You can learn more about CCD here.


Strokes are not as explored in the canine science world as they are for humans, so the causes are not entirely clear.

What is clear is the fact that underlying diseases can cause this to happen.

Symptoms can include sudden behavioral changes, dragging legs or limping, rapid eye movement, head tilt, accidents inside the home, seizures, and more.

If you suspect your dog is walking in circles due to a stroke, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Ataxia (vestibular, cerebellar, sensory)

There’s a wide variety of ataxia conditions and the symptoms differ with each of them.

Vestibular ataxia is categorized as affecting either the inner ear or the brainstem.

Underlying issues can once again include inner or middle ear infection as well as tumors or trauma to the skull or ear.

The brainstem might be affected due to infections or inflammations, but also less frequently due to a thiamine deficiency or Metronidazole toxicity (antibiotic).

Furthermore, cerebellar or spinal cord issues are possible too and some of the reasons above may cause these conditions.

Consult your vet if you suspect ataxia in any way and they should be able to give you all the essential information.

Dog Spinning in Circles and Panting

If your dog is spinning in circles and panting, severe cases of pain, ear infections, brain inflammations, or tumors might cause these stronger developed episodes.

While all of the above-mentioned issues are possibilities, it’s rare for senior dogs with canine dementia to really spin for a prolonged time. That condition is often accompanied by weakness.

However, if your dog is excessively panting and summoning all his strength, it may very well be one of these causes.

Make sure you rule out stereotypes where that behavior has manifested or just plain playful behavior which should never reach excessive levels though.

Dog Walking in Circles and Standing in Corners

If your dog is a senior and walks around in circles with periods of standing in the corner, canine dementia can potentially be the cause.

A loss of orientation is not uncommon for canine cognitive dysfunction and should be ruled out.

If you have a younger dog, any of the other reasons above can be causes.

Stereotypes should once again be ruled out.

My Old Dog Walks in Circles for Hours

Older dogs can experience pain and circle for hours which is sometimes benign but can also hint at more serious medical conditions.

If the behavior persists for more than a couple of minutes, you should intervene and visit your vet asap since prolonged circling isn’t normal at all.

It’s not unusual for dogs to circle before finding a pooping spot or before lying down and sometimes that can take a couple of minutes but this search rarely looks as if your canine is disoriented.

Why Do Dogs Walk in Circles Before They Die

Dogs often try to find a comfortable spot to pass on alone. Even though it may seem hurtful for dog parents, this is completely normal behavior.

If you’ve talked to your vet and the end of your dog’s senior life is near, you may find your dog circling a lot.

However, just to make sure it’s not any of the other causes, keep an eye out for your dog and try to identify if something else could be causing that behavior.

You just want to learn the signs of a dying dog and what to do?

Make sure to read this article and you’ll be well prepared.

Disclaimer: This blog post does not substitute veterinary attention and does not intend to do so. I am not a veterinarian or pet nutritionist. If your dog shows any sign of illness, call your vet.

About Danielle

Equipped with 5+ years of expertise as a Rottweiler owner, I partner with licensed veterinarians and trainers to share research-backed and actionable advice for you and your furry friend.

Rick smith

Sunday 4th of June 2023

Came home this morning and my dog was on the porch going side to side looking in a direction like something spooked her then all of a sudden started running in a circle to the left hand side for hours and she's just now slowing down but it's very off balance and she's paranoid she's barking at certain things it's like she seeing stuff can you explain to me what causes that


Tuesday 6th of June 2023

Hi, I'd really recommend a vet visit if the behavior is this pronounced and prolonged (i.e. multiple hours of running in a circle). Maybe it's just the zoomies or something that excited your dog but veterinary attention is necessary just to rule out anything worse. That's what I'd do with my dog just to make sure she's okay.


Saturday 18th of February 2023

My dog just started this circling and she isn’t affectionate she Won’t look into my eyes when I look at her otherwise she is very heathy My dog is a 8year old Boxer


Sunday 26th of February 2023

Hi Sharon, I recommend consulting your vet on this if you can't explain the circling behavior, especially considering the age.

All the best to you and your Boxer, Danielle


Wednesday 4th of January 2023

My dog (maltese) is approx. 14 yrs old and has all the symptoms of canine dementia. Is there anything to do to help the situation? We take him to the vet regularly but they don't give me any advice as what to do!


Wednesday 4th of January 2023

Hi Jim, what does your vet say if you ask him about your dog's symptoms? If your vet has no knowledge about this specific issue or isn't communicative, I suggest finding one who specializes in cognitive issues with seniors. It's good to have a rock-solid diagnosis and rule out other potential issues.

Nicole Pollard

Thursday 23rd of June 2022

My 6 yr . Old Cockapoo has had this spinning in circles and panting... episode before. Her muscles seem tight and she has trouble focusing. She only circles to the left btw. It's been almost 8 hours this time. She hasn't eaten or drank in 8 Hours . I have been giving her 2ml of water and Pedialyte every few min for hours . I even tried half a Benadryl.... I'm scared for my girl !


Saturday 2nd of July 2022

Hi Nicole, hope you had your dog checked by a vet and that she got better.

If your dog behaves like that for a prolonged time, I'd definitely suggest consulting your vet immediately. 6y/o isn't exactly the oldest senior either. Dogs can go without eating (or even drinking) for that time but it's not advisable, and possibly an emergency if it goes on for longer.

I wouldn't advise you to mediacte your dog either, it could cause other health issues. Always consult your vet first.

Gerry fessler

Monday 18th of April 2022

Dog is not very old maybe 6. Disoriented and walking in circles and pacing.


Tuesday 19th of April 2022

Hi Gerry, as mentioned it could be any one of the conditions listed in the article (or even a completely different one) that cause your dog to walk in circles and pace. Without more information and a couple of tests your vet should perform it's hard to guess. To be sure, I'd always suggest presenting the dog to your vet, especially if it's a very unusual behavior for your dog, same if there are any other symtpoms.