What is Fly-Snapping Syndrome?

August 27, 2014

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

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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  1. Tina says:

    Consider checking your dog for GI disease. Veterinarians in Montreal found that 5 out 7 dogs with fly biting behavior had GI disease. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3500118/

  2. Claudia says:

    Hi, my former boxer/american bulldog mix used to display similar imaginary actions as a pup, she would not only fly-bite, but would actually seem to be chasing something flying trying to catch it around the yard and similar if we distracted her from it she would go on about. When we asked the vet about it, the response was that doggies have imagination too, just like kids, some more than others. my dog did grow out of it about a year of age or so. Did your dog grow out of it, or anyone else’s?

  3. Mike says:

    Hi there, we have a toy pom and he has what many are calling a seizure or fit, the only problem is this, he is actually scared of the imaginary flies he sees and runs away from them many times, which leads me to believe these episodes are not fits?

  4. Jessica Taylor says:

    I have a min pin who also has fly biting seizures. I put him on a low protein diet and this seemed to help lower the frequency of the seizures. Distraction also helps him. I recently bought him a collar on Amazon.com made by Adaptil, this has also helped a lot.

  5. Mary says:

    My dog junior has fly biting all started when we gave him nexguard chewable for tic and flea I’m doing the same thing by young his walks and redirecting his action his dr had him on wellness brand food turkey and potatoe that’s it no treats but he also is aloud to have the can food to this brand so I make meatballs as treats he’s off all meds for licking/itching but is having a major hard time with that he licks so bad so I put baby socks on him and it stops him for a while , he was doing really well but is seeming to have a hard day today it goes off and on and it’s exhausting to me to try and have him stop this !!! He’s a chocolate lab 2 years old I’m very sad about this don’t know what else to do, I give him plain hard bone with can food inside of it frozen, I give him all kinds of toys and attention it’s sad

    1. Claudia says:

      Hi Mary sorry to hear about your baby Junior, I googled the food u mentioned to see ingredients in it, good to see it grain free, but I have recently have found a lot of different websites where they mention rosemary extract as a dog food preservative (also listed in the food you feed Junior) to induce seizures, maybe you can further look in to the ingredients in the food you are currently feeding to see if anything else may be prohibiting the seizures to go away. maybe an allergy test to narrow down to all the different things that your dog may be allergic to. here is this link about rosemary and dogs http://www.all4k9.com/articles/is-there-rosemary-in-your-dog-food/
      I’m sure you can find more information. i hope this can guide you somewhere with better or more educated solutions.

    2. Teresa says:

      Thanks for your post. Our 4 yr pudelpointer started fly snapping recently and I’m wondering if it’s from Nexgard also. She took it monthly for 4 months and starting right after her 4th dose. Has the fly snapping gone away after the Nexgard cleared from your dogs system? I’m been treating her with milk thistle to clear the toxins.

  6. Karen Hartigan says:

    Thank you for sharing your observations. I have had a full vet work up and she is in great health. She shows all the symptoms of OCD, has allergies (shots weekly) and I try to redirect her attention. Because she is deaf, verbal ques don’t work. She is only 18 mos. old and I adopted her from a rescue. My vet has put her on puppy Prozac. Any other suggestions are needed before I spend a boatload of money for a neurologist and testing. Prayers and suggestions are welcomed.

  7. Albion says:

    Anyone ever have an ocular migrane? If humans can get them, why wouldn’t other species? Anyone who”s had one knows exactly what I mean. The spells usually last for my Penny about as long a’s one of my OMs. She’s ea silly distracted from it but always goes back. If I were a dog without understanding, I might do the same. Just a thought.

  8. Julia says:

    Air biting may be a syndrome but I decided to start treating it as a habit. The nature of a habit is that it begins with “triggers”. I started with a chart to do some serious observation, noting as many of “sandy’s” movements as possible. Finally I got a glimpse into what happens just before the air biting started. The movements were very subtle but it was the beginning of what appears to be improvement. I began by changing my own habits : sitting with him in different places , I began different handling techniques, moved a few things on the sofa where he seems to regularly start the behavior. Yes very time consuming but Im look at it as another form of bonding.

    1. Shannon Ferretti says:

      Did this help you? I’m trying to find methods to addressing my dog’s fly-biting that doesn’t involve upping her dose (she’s on a generic of Keppra 3x daily).

  9. Kelly C says:

    We have a 9 year old pug who has started to do this. How did your vet rule out anything medical? What sort of tests were ran? Thank you in advance.

  10. Pam Hoskin says:

    My lil chihuahua does the same thing. I am a pediatric neuro nurse and I don’t think it’s a seizure. I can call his name and it stops. A seizure would not stop. He plays with my other dogs and gets plenty of activity. I notice it more at night. One other thing is he licks his feet after and wipes his eyes but eye doc said all is good. He sleeps under covers and that stops it. I guess neuro MD next but I don’t want him drugged out either.

  11. Glenn says:

    We’ve got a hyperactive Chihuahua named Bella. My wife just noticed her starting this out of the blue. It’s got me worried to death, but I’m hoping it will subside soon. I’ll keep you all posted on what we find out in due course.
    Thank you for this article.

  12. Racheal says:

    This article helped my daughter and I out a lot. Thank you so much for writing it. Her dog, Angel has seizures often. She is under a doctors care for a possible liver shunt. The seizures are so upsetting. Recently, however she attacks the air around her. She does not let my daughter cuddle with her any more, sort of like, maybe she is trapped. This article helped us to know that their is hope for our little Angel.

  13. Sandra says:

    I would like more info from blogger Bre, from ARIZONA. I have an epileptic dog, who not only air-bites, but chews loudly (nothing in the mouth), clearly annoying. We have her n a rx for epilepsy, very mild, but it isn’t helping the air biting. I need more specific info re: the CBD oil, brand name? I went to Amazon, couldn’t find it. Please post back here!

    1. Bre says:

      Hi Sandra! I’ve noticed that Amazon took all CBD oils off and stopped selling them about a year ago. Since I live in AZ I am still able to go to the dispensary and purchase CBD oil but I’m im not sure what state you live in. I encourage you to try the Bach Flower Rescue Remedy for Pets, that is on Amazon and in stores and helps. The fly biting has been linked to GI issues and famotidine 10mg half tab once a day for my 7 lb dog has proven to be effective as well. May want to discuss these with your vet. Good luck

  14. Lee & Carol says:

    Our dog is a cross of Golden retriever x hound (maybe whippet) 7 years old
    Her episodes of fly snapping usually are more common at night. distractions sometimes work, but it means we don’t sleep!
    We have found giving her a relaxing remedy called BACH “Rescue”, a tincture from the health food store, for animals. It contains several herbal flower extracts in a glycerine and water base. Put several drops in some yogurt or other treat. it must have an off taste, as she doesn’t take it readily, has to be encouraged. Pkg says 4 drops, we have used up to 20. We probably should administer earlier in evening before she gets started.
    Usually takes half an hour or more to take effect, then she settles down

  15. Sue "The Pet Whisperer". says:

    My ‘almost’ 3-yr-old GSD just started this behavior last week. You can tell it confuses him, frightens him, and he alternates trying to run from it, and running to me trying to be an 80-lb lap dog.

  16. Kat says:

    I have a toy rat terrier, Buddy, 6 years old now, who is a seizure dog on seizure meds. Buddy also has fly snapping syndrome linked to his seizures as well as associated with Flea and Tick meds use during March – October. Additionally, I have found that when Buddy has ear problems (infections, debris etc) he also starts to fly snap. It took me along time to figure out those triggers but once I did, I was able to get a better grip on his fly snapping. My vet keeps me with a steady supply of ear products and we are currently working on the best route for flea and tick control. Just thought I’d share these alternative causes for fly snapping to help someone else out

    1. Kelly says:

      Thanks so much for your post. My pug got a dose of Revolution today and tonight he started fly snapping which he hasn’t done for awhile! Finally figuring that it could be linked to this medication!!! He also gets ear infections so I will keep an eye on that as well!!!

    2. Jackie says:

      Interested to know what ear ‘remedies’ your Vet has prescribed and what you have found helpful. The flea-tick products are what started the whole ordeal over a year ago so we no longer use those. Have had no luck with Ranitidine or Benadryl. Bach’s or Melatonin works sometimes. Seems to have started up again last month and now a lot of ‘ear flapping’ so I started using Mometamax (Rx for ears).

  17. Jess says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article I have an English bulldog almost 2 years old and she just started doing this out of no where yesterday but it got really bad just now (after a full day of walks play and toys) so I decided to google her symptoms and this was exactly on point everything that she’s doing except for the fact that she’s looking up instead of down at her feet I think this is the first time and it’s making her scared so I’m just comforting her as much as possible but she’s been hiding in my bathroom but least I know what it is now

    1. Serena says:

      What happen after, my almost 2 year old bulldog Junior had this for the first time today… trying to find some answeres…

  18. Dawn says:

    Our labrador has this problem occasionally so we changed all his food and treats to hypo allergenic and he stopped having the episodes. Wheat seemed to be a problem, esp dog biscuits. Please try this for your lovely dogs.

  19. Beth says:

    My albino great dane who already has depth perception problems had now been snaking at imaginary flies. Like the above article mention, she seems to be starting straight at whatever it is she thinks she’s is seeing. I can be standing right in front of her face and it’s as if she doesn’t see me, but sees a fly and starts snapping at it. She’s never ever aggressive with her snapping. I’m trying to figure out a way to distract her. I can’t call her name because she’s deaf. Any advice?

    1. Tammy Beaudoin says:

      My dog is deaf too. I did change his food so we wait. He does have periodic seizures but not enough to be on meds. He just started fly snapping. Poor dogs been thru hell. He was left for dead tied to a tree. No food or water when rescuers found him.

  20. Deb says:

    My 9 yr old Shih-Pom recently started nipping at blankets, sofa, etc. as if something was there. I checked when she started and absolutely nothing could be found. Not even a loose thread. Could this be the same as fly-bighting even tho on a surface??

  21. Eboni Gonzalez says:

    My dog started this when she was a young adult. I was so confused by it that I litterally got a magnifying glass and laid next to her staring into the air she was snapping at. I only detected small particles of dust in the air and concluded that she thought they were flies? And my human eyes couldn’t see them.

  22. Katie J says:

    My dog has started exhibiting this behavior as well, well sort of. I think he would snap at the flies he thinks are there, but the only time he’s around flies is when they’re horse/deer flies. Which he HATES. instead of snapping he tucks tail and moves around and “listens” for them. Do you think this is just his version of “fly snapping”?

  23. Nancy Laster says:

    Thank you for your comment and I will show this to the vet!

  24. Nancy Laster says:

    My dog started this fly biting syndrome a couple of days ago and I kept thinking it was a nat or something. I began to question myself but when we went to my moms she did the same thing. Going to vet ASAP!

  25. Megan says:

    I have a little dog that started this as a puppy. It was a rescue dog, I got when he was about 10 weeks old , when he began to have seizures several times a day and the owner could not afford a vet. I took him to a specialist, at first they thought he had a liver shunt, but did not. We put him on Potassium salts, that I had compounded at the pharmancy into a liquid, which I gave 2 or 3 times a day. It stopped the seizures and we weaned him off of it . He still does the fly biting when he is stressed.

  26. Susan says:

    My eleven year old pug has just started this fly-biting behavior.
    He has been having problems with his eyes and you can see
    the cloudiness. He blinks often and his eyes water. I don’t notice
    the fly-biting behavior during the day time. Mostly at night when
    we are watching TV. So not sure what is going on. I have heard
    that fly-biting may be cause by eye problems.

  27. lindsay says:

    My 3 year old chihuahua does the fly biting only when I’m throwing his toy?? Its really weird

  28. Bre says:

    Ok so my dog Fozzy started fly biting 2 years ago. My vet put him on phenobarbital. My once lively, active dog was now over-medicated, lethargic and acting drunk. I was devasted. My vet reassured me that he would get used to the meds, but I also hated how I had to bring him in for regular labs to check his liver function. The fly biting stopped so I went along with it. When he began fly biting again and she wanted to increase the dose I said no way. Why give him something that’s decreasing his life span and potentially ruining organs? He had gained weight and just wasn’t the same. I did some heavy research and found they were giving CBD (cannabinoid) oil to children with epilepsy. Yes it comes from the hemp plant, no it is not marijuana and does not get your dog high, it doesn’t have THC in it. It’s completely legal, you can buy it online. I live in Arizona so sometime I go to a dispensary to get it but mostly I buy it from Amazon. I have been giving him the CBD oil with Bach flower oil pet rescue remedy (can buy at whole foods or amazon too) for about 8 months and he’s been fly biting free! It’s crazy how many benefits the CBD oil has, it helps for anxiety, arthritis, neurological issues, etc. I strongly urge you all to read up about it and even read some of the reviews on amazon. The kind I use for Fozzy is Ultra CBD cannabinoid oil 400mg. He is an 8lb yorkie/chihuahua and I give him 1/4 of the dropper 2 times a day. There’s absolutely no side effects like with the anticonvulsant meds. so I like that and I’ve had amazing results from it. I’ve seen a lot of websites that are actually selling dog treats and stuff with the cannabinoid in it too but it’s cheaper just to buy the tincture and put the drops in your dogs mouth or food yourself.

    1. Scott Gallaher says:

      Message for Courtney with the Shiba Inu: Do you have any updates? What diet was your Shiba on? Ours is a 5 year old male on Canidae Brand herring meal, split peas, mixed in with a little natural balance canned fish/sweet potato, about 6-7 hypo-allergenic treats per day. Started a couple months when we had workers outside in back – in “their” backyard – building a porch.

    2. grace says:

      Message for Bre about Fozzy. Do you have an update on his condition? My rescue dog began exhibiting similar behavior approximately 6 months after he joined our household. Our vet suggested dog therapy, which turned out to be super expensive and ineffective. We know he’s not having seizures because we can interrupt this behavior by distracting him. The dog therapist recommended a change in his diet to a “rare” type of protein, such as rabbit or duck. That didn’t work either.

    3. How do you administer the Pet Rescue & CBD OIL to Fozzy?

  29. Courtney says:

    My Shiba Inu started fly biting at the age of two, which at rare times have now turned into seizures. I work at a Veterinary Clinic and one of the Doctors had read a study about B-12, in our case we thought that he has to much acid which created stomach ulcers so we put him on Omeprazole also. Everyday for two years he takes one Omeprazole and one B-12 and his fly biting has almost completely gone away. At rare times we will still catch him starting but after we distract him he is back to his normal self. I don’t know if this would help anyone else but it is worth a try since B-12 isn’t toxic to them.

  30. Mike says:

    Our dog is 2 YO, and has been biting imaginary flies for about one and a half years. She licks her paws until they are raw, she chews herself until her hair is removed from her rear and her tail, and scratches incessantly until she leaves welts. She drinks water as if we lived in the desert (we don’t), and is just plain miserable. She is home alone for approx. 6-8 hours a day, and Elizabethan collars and muzzles did not stop her from doing this.
    We are at a loss…

  31. Katrine says:

    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.

  32. Toni says:

    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.

  33. Marla Cassi says:

    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.

  34. Kathleen says:

    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.


  35. Kristen says:

    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.