Limp Tail in Dogs

This sometimes painful condition is usually easy to treat

Chihuahua on a stool

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Limp tail is known by many names among veterinarians: dead tail, limber tail, sprained tail, swimmer's tail, cold tail, sprung tail, and broken tail. Although limp tail is a fairly common occurrence, especially in large-breed dogs, it can be more than a little disturbing to an owner.

Limp tail manifests differently in different dogs, but it's usually easily treated and may cause the dog little or no pain.

Why Do Dogs Have Limp Tail?

The exact cause of limp tail isn't known, but it's thought that it usually occurs because the muscles that control the tail have been overworked or injured, resulting in an inability or reluctance on the part of the dog to move it.

Sometimes the tail just hangs down, limp and flaccid, from its base. Other times, part of the tail may be held horizontally while the far end hangs limply. The dog may lick or chew at its tail as well, and it may be swollen.

Before you try to touch your dog's limp tail, remember that it may be painful to the animal. Even the most docile pet can be a bite risk if it's afraid or in pain, so be extremely careful when you examine your dog's tail. 

Following Vigorous Exercise

Limp tail typically appears suddenly after vigorous exercise or activity, especially in cold, wet weather. Some cases have been reported after dogs were forced to stay in the same position for long periods, such as being confined to crates.

Breed and Age Factors

Any dog species can be affected by limp tail, but it's most commonly seen in working breeds, such as pointers, Labrador retrievers, flat-coated retrievers, golden retrievers, foxhounds, coonhounds, and beagles. It also happens among young dogs more often than older dogs, but it appears in males and females at about the same rate.

Less-Frequent Causes

It's important to note that there are other more-serious causes of odd tail movement, reluctance to wag the tail, or tail flaccidity:

  • Your dog's tail may have been injured; for example, it may have been caught in a door or pulled by a person or another animal, causing muscle separation/tearing.
  • The tail may have a bite wound or another type of laceration that could become abscessed, requiring drainage and antibiotics.
  • fly strike (maggot infestation) may have occurred because of a soiled, moist area on the tail that attracts flies.
  • Anal sacs that are impacted or infected can also cause a dog to hold its tail down and be protective of the area. In this case, the dog may show signs of being in pain.
  • A dog that's scared, in estrus, or not feeling well, in general, may hold its 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 neuromuscular or metabolic disease can also reduce the animal's natural inclination to wag its tail.
  • In rare instances, cancer may be the cause of your pet's tail discomfort.

Treatment

Although the most common cause of limp tail is easy to treat, remember that anytime your pet is in pain, not feeling well, or behaving differently warrants a call or visit to your vet.

  • A week or so of rest usually cures cases of limp tail that are caused by a strain or sprain, although some research shows that as many as 16 percent of animals have some type of lasting effect.
  • If your dog's limp tail is caused by something other than fatigued muscles, your veterinarian should be able to pinpoint the cause and let you know if additional treatment or pain medication is necessary. In some instances, she may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs.
  • Because you likely won't know what the cause of your dog's limp tail is till it's been examined, don't try to administer any home remedies, and never give your pet any human medications, including aspirin, unless you're directed to do so by your veterinarian.

How to Prevent Limp Tail

Once your dog has had one instance of limp tail, chances are good it will have another one. Increasing the amount of exercise your dog gets can help prevent limp tail in the first place; dogs that are not in good physical condition or that are overweight are most likely to get limp tail.

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.