by Jennifer Coates, DVM
Dogs use their tails all the time. They use them to express emotions. Think of the rapid wag of a dog looking for attention, the slow wag of wariness, and the rigid tail of aggression. They use them for balance when they’re moving quickly on land and as a rudder when they’re swimming. So what does it mean when a dog’s tail suddenly goes limp?
The condition goes by many names—dead tail, limber tail, swimmer’s tail, cold tail, frozen tail, sprained tail, limp tail, sprung tail, broken tail, and more.
Any dog can be affected but Pointers, Labrador retrievers, Flat-coated retrievers, Golden retrievers, Foxhounds, Coonhounds, and Beagles seem to be at highest risk, particularly if they are working dogs. Young dogs are diagnosed with dead tail more often than are older individuals; females and males at approximately equal rates.
The symptoms of dead tail can vary a little bit between individuals. Sometimes the tail is completely flaccid, hanging down limply from its base. In other cases, the first part of the dog’s tail may be held horizontally with the rest hanging more vertically. Some dogs are obviously uncomfortable, particularly if you push on or try to move the tail. Dogs may be lethargic, whimper, whine, or lick and chew at the tail. The fur over the top of the tail may also be raised, which can be a sign of tissue swelling underneath.
What Causes Dead Tail in Dogs?
Veterinarians think that the underlying cause of this condition is a sprain or strain of the muscles used to wag and support the tail. Scientific studies have supported this assumption. The authors of one paper report:
We examined 4 affected Pointers and found evidence of coccygeal muscle damage, which included mild elevation of creatine kinase early after onset of clinical signs, needle electromyographic examination showing abnormal spontaneous discharges restricted to the coccygeal muscles several days after onset, and histopathologic evidence of muscle fiber damage. Specific muscle groups, namely the laterally positioned intertransversarius ventralis caudalis muscles, were affected most severely. Abnormal findings on thermography and scintigraphy further supported the diagnosis.
Muscle sprains and strains are often associated with overuse injuries and that also appears to be true in cases of dead tail. Dogs who develop dead tail usually have a recent history of relatively intense physical exertion involving the tail. Other risk factors include underconditioning, prolonged cage transport, and exposure to cold, wet weather.
Anecdotally, swimming appears to be one of the biggest risk factors for dead tail, probably because dogs use their tail more than they are used to when they are in the water and most bodies of water that dogs swim in are quite cold.
Treating Dead Tail in Dogs
Most of the time, dogs with dead tail recover on their own within a few days to a week or so. Rest is the most important aspect of treatment. Giving dogs with dead tail anti-inflammatory medications soon after the condition develops may speed their recovery and does help ease discomfort while they are healing. One study did report that approximately 16% of dogs with dead tail do have some permanent changes to their tail anatomy.
Some dogs who have recovered from one bout of dead tail will go on to experience another in the future. The best way to prevent this from happening (or to prevent a first occurrence) is to gradually increase the amount of exercise your dog gets. Dogs who are in good overall shape are less likely to experience muscle strains and sprains when they are asked to exert themselves. Canine “weekend warriors” are at increased risk of injury, just like their human counterparts.
If you think your dog has dead tail, try to get a feel for how much pain he might be in. If he seems relatively comfortable, it should be okay to give him a few days of rest to see if he will recover on his own. If, on the other hand, your dog appears to be in a lot of pain, an anti-inflammatory medication is probably called for. Talk to your veterinarian to determine which drug would be most appropriate for your dog.
Conditions that Can be Confused with Dead Tail
It is possible that you might think that your dog has dead tail when in fact something else is going on. Conditions that can be confused with dead tail include:
- Trauma to the tail
- Tail fracture
- Cancer of the tail
- Diseases of the lower back, like diskospondylitis, cauda equina syndrome, and intervertebral disk disease
- Impacted anal glands
- Prostatic disease
If at any point you become concerned that your dog might be suffering from something more serious than dead tail, make an appointment with your veterinarian. He or she will probably be able to rule out these other conditions with a complete history, physical exam, and possibly some x-rays.
Coccygeal muscle injury in English Pointers (limber tail). Steiss J, Braund K, Wright J, Lenz S, Hudson J, Brawner W, Hathcock J, Purohit R, Bell L, Horne R. J Vet Intern Med. 1999 Nov-Dec;13(6):540-8.