Dog tails can sometimes seem to have a mind of their own. They act as extensions of canine emotions and tools for communication. Bumps and wounds are more obvious signs of injury, but if your dog has stopped wagging their tail, this is also usually a sign of an underlying problem/issue.
Here’s some information on dog tail anatomy, signs to watch for, and common tail issues.
Dog Tail Anatomy
A dog’s tail is part of the spinal column. It contains multiple vertebral segments (bones) that progress from larger to smaller from the base of the tail toward the tip. The vertebrae are surrounded by muscles that hold the tail up and allow it to move or wag. There are also multiple nerves along the tail that give it feeling.
Specialized structures called intervertebral discs act as cushioning between each vertebrae, preventing the bones from rubbing together when your dog’s tail is moving.
An injury to any part of the tail—the skin, vertebrae, muscles, nerves, or intervertebral discs—can cause a dog that usually wags their tail to stop.
Symptoms of Dog Tail Injury
Signs of dog tail injury include:
Wounds such as lacerations, degloving (when skin is stripped from the underlying muscle), or abrasions
Less or no tail wagging
Holding the tail low
Pain when touched
Kink/bump/deviation in the tail
Chewing at the tail or hind end
Types of Dog Tail Injuries
There are many types of dog tail injuries. It is important to determine the exact location and type of tail injury to develop a treatment plan, if needed. Your veterinary team can help determine the underlying cause and come up with an appropriate approach.
These are some of the more common dog tail injuries.
“Happy tail” is a condition in which dogs repeatedly hit their tails against something firm such as walls, tables, chairs, etc. This eventually causes a superficial or deep wound on the tail. These injuries are often painful, especially since it’s happening repeatedly, which may cause a chronic wound that requires medical management.
Your veterinarian will often treat a happy tail injury with bandaging to protect the wound, Elizabethan collars to avoid licking/chewing, and sometimes pain medication and antibiotics. The bandaging allows time for the wound to heal and protects your dog’s tail as they continue to wag it and bang it against objects.
Severe or chronic happy tail issues that don’t heal may require surgical amputation of the lower tail to avoid further infection, pain, and continued injury.
Limp tail (also known as swimmer’s tail or limber tail) is characterized by a suddenly flaccid tail. It’s often seen in working dogs. A limp tail may droop completely between your dog’s legs, or it may be that only the tip droops and the rest of the tail is lifted.
This condition is caused by tail muscle straining. It’s thought to be the result of overuse of the tail, whether it’s from wagging the tail in happiness, intense activity, and/or prolonged time in a small cage/crate.
Signs of a limp tail can include chewing at the tail base, swelling of the tail, pain when sitting, trouble standing, and/or pain when trying to move the tail. Limp tail is diagnosed by asking about your dog’s activities, doing a physical examination, and sometimes taking x-rays to rule out fractures.
Limp tail is usually treated with rest and anti-inflammatory medications for full healing, but relapse is possible.
Biting or Chewing the Tail
Tail biting or chewing can lead to wounds, swelling, and hair loss. A dog will usually chew their tail because of pain, stress, itchiness, and/or a “pins and needles” sensation, which can have a neurologic cause.
If you see hair loss along with itchiness, then your dog should be evaluated by your veterinarian for allergies. All types of allergies—genetic, environmental, flea-based, or food-based—can cause itchiness and bald spots along the tail.
A specific condition called “stud tail” can also cause itching and chewing. This is a condition where an oil-producing skin gland in the middle of a dog’s tail produces too much sebum. Sebum is an oily substance that naturally lubricates your dog’s skin. Overproduction of sebum causes irritation and discomfort.
This condition is often seen in male intact dogs (not neutered) since their hormones encourage more sebum production. Neutering, topical medications and shampoos, and sometimes antibiotics are used to help treat stud tail.
Hot Spots on the Tail
Hot spots, otherwise known as moist dermatitis, can also occur on your dog’s tail. Hot spots are usually caused by allergies, any area of discomfort, or insect bites.
This causes microscopic inflammation in the skin cells and leads your dog to lick and chew the affected area. The licking and chewing causes hair loss and infection. Hot spots can be small or very large if the licking goes on.
Treatment of hot spots usually includes clipping the fur around the area, cleaning with antiseptic solutions, topical medications, antibiotics, anti-itch medications, pain medications, and an Elizabethan collar. Hot spots often recur due to underlying allergies and may require more intensive testing to determine the cause.
Anal Gland Conditions
Anal gland issues in dogs and intestinal parasites such as tapeworms, whipworms, hookworms, and roundworms, can cause inflammation and irritation at the base of your dog’s tail or around their anus. Chewing at the base of their tail can also cause pain, infection, and hair loss.
Take your dog to the vet if you see:
Your vet will assess and possibly express your dog’s anal glands and/or they may send out a fecal sample for parasitic testing.
Growths, Masses, and Swelling on the Tail
Masses and growths may be small or large, and they may be firm or soft and filled with fluid, depending on the underlying cause. Some masses are painful while others are not.
Cysts—These benign masses are often soft and move under the skin when you push on them. Cysts are usually not painful unless they are inflamed or infected.
Trauma—If your dog hits their tail on something, it may swell up (similar to bruising in humans).
Abscess—A pocket of infection in your dog’s tail may swell with fluid.
Tumors—Both benign and malignant tumors can cause masses on your dog’s tail.
Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for evaluation and possible testing, such as a needle sample to assess cells, if you see any of the following:
Does not go away on its own within 5-7 days
Signs that your dog is in pain (licking tail excessively, howling if you touch it, not moving the tail the same, etc.)
Mass becomes larger
Swelling gets worse
Bleeding or oozing
Abrasions, lacerations, and degloving are all common tail injuries.
Abrasions are superficial wounds that usually result in hair loss, reddened skin, and sometimes scabbing or mild bleeding. These are often caused by trauma or rubbing the tail against a rough surface.
Treatment usually includes cleaning the area with gentle soap and water and keeping your dog from licking it with an Elizabethan collar.
If an abrasion starts to bleed excessively, becomes swollen, or leaks, take your dog to see the vet.
Lacerations usually go deeper through the skin, and they can even affect the muscle, nerves, and sometimes bone. Bleeding is often severe. Your dog may continue wagging their tail while bleeding, which can create a messy scene.
If your dog has an actively bleeding laceration, place a towel around their tail and/or hind end and get your dog to a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Degloving injuries are also very common. This type of injury occurs when the skin of the tail is fileted back to expose the underlying tissue, nerves, and muscle. These injuries often require tail amputation unless they are minor.
Minor degloving injuries are treated by cleaning and bandaging the wound, plus an Elizabethan collar to avoid chewing and licking off the bandage during healing.
Degloving injuries should always be treated by a vet.
Your dog may also break, or fracture, their tail. Common causes of tail fractures include falling or having their tail closed in a door. You may see an obvious kink or displacement, swelling, signs of pain when you try to touch the tail, or even open wounds.
Knowing the location of the fracture helps determine treatment and healing. If the fracture is at the base of the tail, or if there’s nerve damage from a crushing injury to the vertebrae (such as from slamming the tail in a door), tail amputation may be required. Fractures located at the tail tip usually heal on their own, although though they can leave a permanent bump.
Injuries from Pulling (Avulsion)
An avulsion injury occurs when a dog’s tail is pulled and causes breakage or severe stretching of the nerves.
In severe cases, dogs can become incontinent, as many of the nerves in the tail also control urination and defecation.
Some types of fractures can also cause nerve damage, which can be detrimental if this occurs at the base of the tail. Nerve function may return with time, but more often, the damage is irreversible and may require further therapy or even tail amputation.
Some dogs have neurologic degenerative diseases (such as degenerative myelopathy) that cause nerves to malfunction, and this affects the tail and the hind end. The most common breed affected by this disorder is the German Shepherd, although other large breeds such as the Great Dane are also commonly affected.
When to Call Your Vet for a Dog Tail Injury
If you see any of the following, take your dog to the vet immediately, as these can all be signs of medical emergencies:
Active bleeding from a laceration/abrasion
Signs of severe pain (panting, pacing, whining or crying, excessively chewing the tail)
Obvious deviation of the tail with a concern for fracture
Any of the above paired with: severe itching, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, incontinence, or trouble walking
If your dog is suddenly doing or has any of the following, make an appointment to see the vet within a few days:
Holding their tail limp
Will not wag their tail
Showing signs of pain when their tail is touched (panting, whining or crying, biting/growling/snapping)
Swelling, growth, or lump that doesn’t go away within 5 days or seems painful
Lump or mass that starts to drain fluid, changes color, and/or gets bigger
Featured Image: iStock.com/comptine