What is Fly-Snapping Syndrome?

Langley's dog fly snapBy Langley Cornwell

I wanted to write this article because one of our pups has developed a new tic. At first we thought it was just another oddity specific to him, but when I researched the characteristics of his new tic, I discovered it was a real syndrome: Fly-Snapping Syndrome.

There are times when we are all relaxing in the family room and suddenly Big Al will repeatedly snap at the air as if a swarm of insects are flying around his head. He seems to focus his eyes on the area right in front of his face, and move his head around as if he’s looking at flies, even though nothing is there. Then he’ll often become fixated on staring at his front legs, as if he expects to find something crawling on them. He may start licking his front legs, and then go back to staring into space and snapping at imaginary flies. Our dog’s episodes of snapping at invisible insects can be infrequent, or can occur repeatedly throughout the day.

What are Compulsive Behaviors?

Fly-Snapping (also called fly-biting) is one of many compulsive behaviors that dogs commonly display. Other compulsive behaviors include tail chasing, spinning, pacing, toy fixation, shadow or light chasing, repeated licking, chewing or scratching, flank sucking, excessive water drinking and nonstop barking. Some dogs display compulsive behaviors over and over to the point where the behaviors interfere with their normal lives.

Compulsive canine behaviors include any repetitive actions that dogs perform unprompted. Normal dogs may engage in similar activities, but they usually do so in response to specific triggers and not compulsively.

What Causes Fly-Snapping Syndrome?

Canine Fly-Snapping Syndrome can be an obsessive-compulsive behavior problem, the result of genetics or caused by an array of issues that range from eye problems to a form of epilepsy. The fact is, veterinary neurologists and other experts do not all agree on the cause(s), so the syndrome is generally labeled as an idiopathic disorder, which means the cause is unknown. The thought that fly-snapping is a kind of complex partial seizure is a theory that is gaining traction, but the evidence has not been substantiated.
Langley's dog Big Al fly snapping
The belief that Fly-Snapping Syndrome is a form of epilepsy stems from the knowledge that hallucinations can be an indicator of epilepsy in humans. Furthermore, epileptic seizures can cause isolated actions in both humans and canines.

My husband and I studied our dog the other night when he was having a fly-snapping episode. As he studiously chomped at the air, it was impossible to determine whether he was seeing imaginary insects or experiencing involuntary movements. When he starts fly-snapping, his actions are so focused and convincing that I’m leaning towards the belief that he is actually experiencing hallucinations; but of course, he can’t tell us.

How to Help a Dog with Fly-Snapping Syndrome

If your dog seems to bite at imaginary flying insects or shows any other common compulsive behaviors, the first thing to do is to rule out possible medical conditions. After we got Big Al checked out by our veterinarian, there were several things we learned to do.

As soon as our dog starts to snap at the air, we distract him. It’s usually something as simple as calling his name and inviting him up on the sofa with us. We’ve also had good success with redirecting his attention to a puzzle-type toy stuffed with CANIDAE Life Stages Bakery Snacks. Sometimes we’ll ask him to perform a previously learned trick. Anything that distracts him or redirects his attention will usually break the spell.

Since we noticed Big Al’s fly-snapping episodes, we’ve also been diligent about providing him more mental and physical stimulation. We’ve increased the duration of our walks and added more interactive games to our daily routine. All of these things seem to be working for him.

If you have any advice about managing Fly-Snapping Syndrome, please share your suggestions in the comment section below.

Photos: “Big Al” by Langley Cornwell

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5 thoughts on “What is Fly-Snapping Syndrome?

  1. My 5 year old Labrador has been doing this since he turned one. My vet struggled to decide whether it was an OCD or neurological/epileptic condition and ended up settling with the latter. At his worst he snaps on a very regular basis and I’m talking all through the day every day when it’s not being controlled and he paces, is really freaked out by it all and just wants to hide or snuggle up to us. In the early years he used to find solace by sitting outside on his own, even in the snow and he’s usually not a dog that spends time on his own outside if we’re not out there too. Previous medication includes phenobarbital medd, diazepam and now bromide meds. All of them have helped in the past but his body seems to become accustomed to them over time and they are then not so effective. My pet insurance on this condition is all used up and he is costing me a fortune each month but after a long period of stability (it virtually disappeared) his snapping is getting worse again which is why I’m back on the net to see if there has been a miracle cure since I last looked! Not only does he freak out when it’s happening, it stresses me out listening to it and seeing him freak out and the worry about the cost but it also stresses my daughter out because she can see me getting stressed! I’m struggling to see what else there is left to try without throwing more money that I can’t afford at it, but I’d never be able to re-home him and I can’t face the only other option because otherwise he is a very lovely, perfectly helpful dog.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this…yesterday my Beauty started snapping at the air and then just stand there fixated on something I could not see…Im convinced as well that she is seeing “flies”..she is doing exactly like you described above..staring at her legs and snapping at the air. She wont leave my side and she kept me up till 1 am with the snapping..her demeanor has changed as well…she is usually very happy and playful and really liked to snuggle….now she just stands there looking for stuff thats not there. I dont have the money for a vet right now so Im really concerned. Today the snapping is not as bad so far but she isnt herself either. Im trying all that you suggested and hopefully it will help until I can get her in to a vet.

  3. Our dog just started this syndrome. He doesn’t snap at the flies, though. He cries and then starts to growl. Putting him outside seems to help, but as soon as he comes back in, it starts all over. Petting him helps a little, but not much. He just started on phenobarbitol, so we’ll have to see how it goes. But you just feel so helpless.

  4. My 10 y/o dog suddenly started having fly snapping and other anxiety symptoms about 10 days ago. The vet couldn’t find anything obviously wrong with her, but prescribed pain meds because pain from an underlying illness can cause anxiety symptoms.
    I then came across this article which describes most of her symptoms to a tee. These symptoms were caused by GI tract problems in the study dogs. I am now suspicious that she has something like this going on rather than a seizure type problem.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3500118/

  5. Our dog also fly bites, it was so serve that we couldn’t redirect her attention. It was if she would go into a trance. We would have to touch her to get her to snap out of. We changed her diet to no grain and got her off chicken and went to a salmon dog food. This change seemed to help a little more but they weren’t gone.
    So we talked to our vet and he proscribed her phenobarbital anti seizure meds. That seemed to help alot. She’s gone on this med and no grain salmon food for about a year. I can differently tell a different. They aren’t as frequent and not as serve. Yes still still fly bits here and there but nothing as bad as it was.

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