My Dog's Tail Hurts and He Can't Wag It

Chihuahua on a stool
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It's a fairly common occurrence, especially with large-breed dogs, but it can be a little disturbing to an owner: Your otherwise healthy dog comes in from the backyard, a swim or a day hiking and you are shocked to find that he can't lift his tail or wag it. What happened? Is this an emergency? 

This condition is known by many names among veterinarians, such as limp taildead tail, limber tail, sprained tailswimmer's tail, cold tail, sprung tail, and broken tail. Commonly seen in large, active dogs, it often appears suddenly and after vigorous exercise or activity. Other cases have been reported after long periods of being in the same position, such as being confined in a crate.

  • Warning: Caution is advised whenever an animal is hurt. Even the most docile pets can be a bite risk if they are in pain or fearful. Be careful when examining your dog's tail. 

Any dog species can be affected, but it is most commonly on working breeds, including pointers, Labrador retrievers, flat-coated retrievers, golden retrievers, foxhounds, coonhounds, and beagles. It happens with young dogs more often than older dogs, and appears in males and females at the same rates.  

Symptoms

How "dead tail" manifests can vary from dog to dog. Sometimes the tail just hangs down, limp and flaccid, from its base. In other instances, part of the tail may be held horizontally while the outer end hangs limply. Some dogs will show obvious pain if you move the tail in any way. The dog may lick or chew at the tail, and it may show signs of swelling. 

The Likely Cause

The exact cause of this condition is not known, but it is thought it usually occurs because the muscles that "run" the tail have become overworked or injured, resulting in pain and an inability or reluctance on the part of the dog to move the tail. A few days of rest usually proves to be curative for this kind of strain or sprain. It is often seen after a dog has been particularly active, especially in cold, wet weather. 

Less Frequent Causes

It is important to note that there are other causes of odd tail movement, reluctance to wag the tail, or tail flaccidity. Some of them are serious and require immediate veterinary attention.

  • Your dog's tail may have an injury—it may have been caught in a door, or otherwise pulled on by a person or another animal, causing muscle separation/tearing.
  • Your dog may have bite wound or other skin-damaging wound that could become abscessed, requiring drainage and antibiotics.
  • fly strike (maggot infestation) may have occurred, due to a soiled, moist area on the tail attracting flies.
  • Anal sacs that are impacted or infected can also cause a dog to hold the tail down and be protective of the area. The dog may demonstrate a painful reaction. 
  • A dog that is scared, in estrus, or not feeling well, in general, may hold the tail down, as tail position is an important way for dogs to communicate.
  • Back problems or injury can lead to reduced motion in the tail. 
  • Generalized weakness from neuro-muscular or metabolic disease can also reduce the animal's natural inclination to wag the tail. 
  • Cancer of the tail. In rare instances, cancer can be the cause of your pet's tail discomfort. 

Any time your pet is in pain or not feeling well warrants a call to your veterinarian. Although the reasons listed here are the most common causes, there may be other reasons why a tail is limp, and they could be quite serious.

Treatment

In most cases, a week or so of rest will cure the tail ailment caused by strain or sprain, though some studies show as many as 16 percent of animals will have some lasting effect to the tail.

Your veterinarian can diagnose the precise cause and advise you if any additional treatment or pain medication is necessary. In some instances, anti-inflammatory drugs may be prescribed. Because it is not often known what the cause is, please see your veterinarian first before administering any home remedies or medications. Never give your pet human medications, unless under your veterinarian's recommendation and care.

Please note: this article has been provided for informational purposes only. If your pet is showing any signs of illness, please consult a veterinarian as quickly as possible.