How to Treat Limp Tail in Dogs

Chihuahua tail up close tucked between legs
Limp tail occurs when a dog can't hold its tail up in a normal position.

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Limp tail is a condition that affects primarily working and athletic dogs but can occur in any type or breed of dog. As the name implies, limp tail results in a dog unable to move his tail, instead having it hang limp. By knowing how to recognize this condition and what type of treatment to expect, a dog owner will be better prepared to keep their pet comfortable.

What Is Limp Tail in Dogs?

There are several common names for limp tail, including limber tail, swimmer’s tail, cold water tail, dead tail, broken tail, rudder tail, and broken wag. Technically, this medical condition is called acute caudal myopathy. This issue occurs after a large amount of high activity and it's thought that transient damage occurs to the muscles, ligaments, and tendons at the base of the tail. It may even be possible that some mild damage to spinal vertebral occurs. This results in a tail that is painful to raise and wag, so it will instead hang low.

Signs of Limp Tail in Dogs

Signs of Limp Tail in Dogs

  • Lack of tail wagging
  • Limp, hanging tail between the legs
  • Painful tail
  • Unable to get comfortable when lying down
  • Crying or whining
  • Biting or licking at the tail
  • Difficulty standing up after lying down
  • Difficulty squatting to urinate or defecate
  • Reluctance to eat

If a dog has limp tail, the most obvious sign will be its hanging, limp tail between the hind legs. Pain is usually associated with limp tail so it will droop and a dog won't wag it. If the tail is touched a dog with limp tail might cry or whine in pain but some dogs will also show they are painful by whining even when the tail isn't being handled. Since the tail is also used for balance, a dog with limp tail may have difficulty getting up after lying down and with squatting to urinate or defecate outside. Sometimes dogs will also be unable to get comfortable when lying down and may even lose their appetite due to the pain in the tail. It is most common for these signs to occur about 24 hours after excessive physical activity.

Causes of Limp Tail in Dogs

Any type of strenuous activity that causes a dog to use its tail can cause limp tail. Some common reasons include:

  • Swimming in cold water
  • Active hunting
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Hard play sessions

These physical activities can result in excessive use of the tail. When the tail is used for balance, wags out of excitement, or the blood vessels constrict when swimming in cold water, limp tail may result. Other dog sports and activities can of course also contribute to this problem and can include agility, fly ball, and dock diving practice.

Diagnosing Limp Tail in Dogs

A history of recent excessive activity or swimming in cold water is key to diagnosing limp tail in dogs. A veterinarian will question a dog's activity history and perform a physical examination in order to diagnose limp tail. Radiographs may be taken to rule out a broken bone in the tail but a history and physical exam are typically all that are needed to make the diagnosis. If a dog suddenly cannot use its tail and a day or two ago it was swimming in a cold lake or out hunting, limp tail is a likely diagnosis.

Treatment of Limp Tail in Dogs

Treating a dog with limp tail is very simple but this doesn't mean treatment isn't necessary. Resting the dog and anti-inflammatory medications will allow the tail to heal and return to normal in usually a few days to a week. Sometimes rest and medications for up to a week may be needed but regardless, treatment is short and simple when compared to many other problems.

Do not give your dog any human anti-inflammatory medications for this condition. Only offer medications that your veterinarian has provided.

How to Prevent Limp Tail in Dogs

Prevention of this condition is likely impractical, since play and work are common activities for many dogs. Common sense during physical activity should be used. For example, dogs should be allowed to rest regularly during excessive activity. This may mean shortening the length of the activity if stopping to rest isn't possible but there is no reason to avoid things a dog enjoys doing.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.