By Kim Everson, DVM
It is known by a number of names: the descriptive “limber tail,” “swimmer’s tail,” “cold water tail,” “dead tail,” or the more nerdy but precise “acute caudal myopathy.” What is it? By any name, it is a limp, dangling tail with varying degrees of noticeable pain experienced by the dog.
It is a common complaint, especially amongst active hunting dogs. In my veterinary practice, most calls concern Labrador Retrievers although it can happen to any dog, most recently Springer Spaniel Trixie of thorn-in-foot fame.
Here is the most common scenario. A typically happy pet dog suddenly won’t wag his tail. It dangles limply between his legs almost as if he is ashamed of some “bad dog” act. He may not eat (an über-odd change in most of these dogs), and he might be hesitant about defecating or urinating. He may be unwilling to jump onto the bed or couch, yet wants nothing more than to sleep all day. The hair on his lower back–his hackles–may be raised. And if you touch or lift his tail…? Whoa boy! Ouch! The stoic dog who never complains about anything often reacts dramatically to manipulation of a “limber tail.”
An investigative probe into the mystery surrounding a dog’s sore tail usually reveals the dog was extremely active within the previous 24 hours. Swimming (especially in cold water), hunting or hard playing are usually reported prior to onset of symptoms. The dog may act completely fine following the activity and then wake up the next day feeling miserable. I liken it to feeling stiff in muscles you never knew you had in the days following a new exercise regimen.
Medically speaking “limber tail” results from damage to the coccygeal, or tail, muscle fibers due to overuse. Rest and anti-inflammatory therapy may speed recovery (NEVER give your dog pain medication without first consulting your veterinarian), but most dogs improve on their own anyway within a few days to a week. Future recurrence of the injury is not a foregone conclusion even though most of these dogs happily resume the types of hyperactive exercise that caused the problem in the first place.
There are other potential causes of back-end misery and dangling tail including tail fracture, lower back pain from disc herniation or arthritis, impacted anal glands or prostate disease. If your dog suddenly shows symptoms of decreased appetite, reluctance to move and a dangling tail, it is wise to check with your veterinarian to be sure something more serious is not afoot before chalking it up to an athlete’s sprain.