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Limber Tail Syndrome: Why is My Dog's Tail Limp?

Posted December 14, 2014 in Dog Diseases & Conditions A-Z

Limp tail

"Cold water tail," "limber tail syndrome," "broken tail," "dead tail," "broken wag," and “sprung tail” are all euphemisms for a relatively common occurrence in sporting dogs like Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Setters, Pointers, Flatcoats, and Foxhounds. In this painful syndrome, the tail of the dog hangs down from the tail base or is held horizontal for three or four inches and then drops down.

This sudden-onset condition appears to be very painful, but is a relatively benign affliction that can occur after swimming, after a heavy hunting day or even after a bath with cold water or water that is too warm. It is not always associated with swimming or water, but it can happen after a heavy day of work that involves a lot of tail action. Almost all affected dogs will return to normal within a few days.

Causes of limber tail syndrome
Most veterinarians are aware of the condition but it is unclear what causes the condition. It can look like the tail is indeed broken. However, the damage is not to the tail bone, but the tail muscles. The syndrome seems to be caused by muscle injury possibly brought on by overexertion, says Janet Steiss, DVM, PhD, PT. Steiss is an associate professor at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the 1999 study on limber tail that pinpointed the nature of the muscle damage. Researchers used electromyography (EMG) imaging and tissue testing on dogs affected with limber tail and concluded that the coccygeal muscles near the base of the tail had sustained damage -- it's the equivalent of a sprain. Although the cause may not always be clear, overexertion is often the culprit. Just as with their guardians, sometimes dogs pay for their weekend fun in strains and sprains.

Diagnosis of limber tail syndrome
Unfortunately some veterinarians and many guardians are not familiar with the condition and it may be mistaken for something far more serious. While a limp tail can indicate an actual broken bone or spinal injury or other problem, the clinical presentation of the syndrome has a rather typical sudden presentation: the affected dog's tail was fine, and then it wasn't. This information might help your veterinarian in making a diagnosis. Careful palpation and radiographs will rule out a fracture.

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Mike has more than 35 years of experience in companion animal veterinary practice and is a valued member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team since 2013.