Features January 2005 Issue

Limber Tail Syndrome

Suspect “limber tail syndrome” if your whippy-tailed dog stops wagging.

by C.C. Holland

One day last summer, Lucky, my normally exuberant mixed-breed dog, returned with my husband from an off-leash hike exhibiting little of her boundless energy. She made a beeline for her bed, so we joked that she was out of condition; she’d had knee surgery six months earlier and we assumed she hadn’t fully regained her stamina.

This is the normal tailset of Jackol, a three-year-old Rottweiler/Shepherd-mix. Last April, he suffered “limber tail” (right) after a four-hour car ride and a half-day romp on a beach. Photos courtesy Dr. Elaine Coleman and Jeremy Collins, Auburn University.

But as the hours ticked by and she continued to show little interest in moving, we got concerned. She changed positions very gingerly and seemed to have a hard time sitting and lying down. Worse, we couldn’t even coax a single happy tail thump from a dog who usually wielded that appendage with abandon. She looked at us with sad eyes and drooping ears, telegraphing that something wasn’t right.

I started worrying about all the possible things that could have happened. Did she eat something foul on the trail? Had she re-injured her knee? She was eating and drinking, and her temperature was normal, but clearly this was not a healthy animal. An emergency examination was in order.

Our veterinarian examined her from stem to stern, and it was in that latter area she spotted the problem. “I think she has a sprained tail,” she opined. “It should heal on its own within a week, but if she seems really tender, you can give her an anti-inflammatory.”

Sure enough, within four days Lucky’s drooping and strangely silent tail regained both its loft and its wag. Still, I was surprised that in the years I’ve written about dogs I’d never heard of a sprained tail. It turns out that the malady is well known among trainers and handlers of certain dog breeds, and while “sprain” is something of a misnomer, the affliction has a formal name: limber tail syndrome.

A tail without a wag
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 coauthor 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.

The muscle injury of limber tail is characterized by a markedly limp tail, which can manifest in several different ways.

“You can see varying degrees of severity,” says Dr. Steiss. “The tail can be mildly affected, with the dog holding the tail below horizontal, or severely affected, hanging straight down and looking like a wet noodle, or anything in between.”

In some dogs, the tail may stick out a couple of inches before drooping; others may exhibit raised hair near the base of the tail as a result of swelling. Depending on the severity of the injury and the dog’s tolerance to pain, some animals – like Lucky – may have difficulty sitting or lying down. And many dogs reduce or eliminate wagging entirely, probably due to soreness.

Limber tail can occur in any dog with an undocked tail, but certain breeds, especially pointing and retrieving dogs, seem particularly susceptible to it. Among these breeds are Labrador, Golden, and Flat-Coated Retrievers; English Pointers and Setters; Beagles; and Foxhounds. Both sexes and all ages can be affected. Other common names for the condition are “cold tail” (especially among Retrievers, who often exhibit symptoms after swimming in frigid water), “limp tail,” “rudder tail,” “broken tail,” or even “dead tail.”

The condition resolves over the course of a few days or a week and usually leaves no aftereffects. According to Dr. Steiss, there is anecdotal evidence that administering anti-inflammatory drugs early in the onset can help shorten the duration of the episode, but no veterinary studies have yet confirmed this.

The exact cause is unknown, but according to Dr. Steiss, there are a few different factors that seem to be linked to limber tail. Overexertion seems to be a common precursor, especially if an animal is thrown into excessive exercise when he or she is not in good condition (as in Lucky’s case).

“For example, if hunting dogs have been sitting around all summer and then in the fall, the owner takes them out for a full (weekend of hunting), by Sunday night suddenly a dog may show signs of limber tail,” she says. “The dog otherwise is healthy but has been exercising to the point where those tail muscles get overworked.”

Another risk factor is prolonged confinement, such as dogs being transported in crates over long distances. If competition dogs are driven overnight to a field trial and don’t have a few breaks outside the crate while they’re on the road, says Dr. Steiss, they may arrive at their destination with limber tail.

Uncomfortable climate, such as cold and wet weather, or exposure to cold water may also trigger limber tail. Retrievers seem particularly prone to exhibiting symptoms after a swimming workout, and some, says Dr. Steiss, are so sensitive to temperature that they show signs of limber tail after being bathed in cold water.

A tricky diagnosis
For an owner, the sight of a normally active tail hanging lifelessly can be alarming. After all, dogs’ tails are barometers of both mood and health, and a tail carried low and motionless could indicate anything from nervousness to serious illness. Limber tail syndrome has been around for a long time, but it isn’t very common and many veterinarians – especially those who don’t work regularly with hunting or retrieving dogs – aren’t familiar with it. Consequently, a variety of diagnoses can be given.

Limber tail can be mistaken for an indication of a disorder of the prostate gland or anal glands; a caudal spine injury; a broken tail; or even spinal cord disease. The all-purpose phrase “sprained tail” might also be used.

Ben Character, DVM, a consulting veterinarian in Eutaw, Alabama, and a member of the American Canine Sports Medicine Association, specializes in sporting dogs. He’s seen plenty of cases of limber tail but doesn’t call it a sprain.

“Sprain is a bad word for it because a sprain indicates a joint and problems with the ligaments surrounding a joint,” Dr. Character explains. “As far as we know, this is all muscular.”

“ ‘Sprained tail’ is kind of a catchall, non-specific phrase that simply means something’s wrong with the tail,” agrees Dr. Steiss. “The tail has all kinds of joints because it has many tiny vertebrae, but sprain isn’t the correct term here.”

How can an owner tell if limber tail is the cause of a dog’s discomfort? Look to the circumstances surrounding the onset of the droopy tail, suggests Dr. Steiss, especially if any of the risk factors were present.

“Limber tail has an acute onset. It is not a condition where the tail gets progressively weaker,” she says. “Instead, it is an acute inflammation. Typically, the tail is suddenly limp and the dog may seem to have pain near the base of the tail. Over the next three to four days, the dog slowly recovers to the point where by four to seven days he’s usually back to normal.”

Dr. Character says it’s a tough clinical call to make. “In order to really diagnose limber tail, you’d have to do electromy-opathy (of the tissue) or do radiography to examine the inflammation, and a general practitioner just won’t be able to do that.”

Effects of limber tail
While an episode of limber tail can be unsettling for an owner, it doesn’t hamper most dogs’ ability to function normally.

“For your average hunting dog, it probably won’t make a difference,” says Dr. Character. “The tail is involved in balance when they run, but how much that’s going to knock them off their game . . . it may not be enough to notice.”

However, competition dogs can be sidelined: “Athletic dogs competing in field trials will not be able to compete when the tail doesn’t have its normal motion, since the condition will be obvious to the judges,” says Dr. Steiss.

Limber tail doesn’t recur with any regularity among dogs that have already experienced one episode, according to Dr. Steiss: “In the majority of cases it happens once and doesn’t happen again,” she says. “But there are a few dogs where, if put into the same situation, it happens more than once.”

That was the case with Hannah, a Lab/Pit Bull mix owned by Miriam Carr, a dog care specialist in Richmond, California. Carr operates a dog-exercise business, PawTreks, specializing in off-leash outings. Often, Carr’s trips include swimming opportunities for her clients’ dogs. Her own dogs, of course, get to participate in every outing. “Hannah was very active – she went to the park every single day – so she was in great condition,” says Carr.

After Hannah suffered several incidents of limber tail, however, Carr had to limit the dog’s participation in the activities that seemed to trigger the limber tail incidents. “When Hannah swam with other dogs she was more competitive and would swim harder to get to the ball first, and that sort of set off the problem with her tail,” says Carr. “When we finally realized that was the problem, we wouldn’t let her swim with groups of dogs.”

It was smart management on Carr’s part. In rare cases, a dog’s tail can be permanently affected by recurrent episodes, says Dr. Steiss. “A few can injure the muscle so severely that the tail may not be straight again. Probably, there’s been a significant loss of muscle fibers plus scar tissue build-up in the tails in those dogs,” she explains.

More dogs being affected?
Before 1990, limber tail wasn’t often recognized outside hunting- and sporting-dog circles. But in 1994, Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine launched a canine sports-medicine program and researchers (including Dr. Steiss) decided to take a closer look at the tail disorder after talking to owners and trainers in the region.

“These trainers were saying, ‘Hey, this is a problem. We see it frequently, and nobody really knows what it is,’” says Dr. Steiss, who had a special interest in muscle disease and was intrigued by the strange injury. Although it seemed uncommon in the dog population as a whole, it sprang up with regularity among Pointers in the area. In one instance, an Alabama kennel discovered that 10 of its 120 adult English Pointers had been affected with limber tail in one morning.

In 1997, Steiss and her colleagues began an epidemiological study (believed to be the first) of sporting dogs in the southeastern United States. A total of 3,066 dogs were included in the study, two-thirds of which were used for hunting. The survey yielded information about the characteristics of limber tail in 83 dogs. The publication of the study results made more vets aware of the syndrome, so it’s not clear whether the perceived rise in the number of limber-tail cases is due to improved diagnosis or an actual increase in occurrence.

“It’s definitely being recognized more often, (but) we hope it is happening less frequently in sporting dogs as trainers become aware of the specific risk factors,” says Dr. Steiss, who is also entertaining another explanation for the increased frequency. “One thought I had is that in recent years more people are being becoming physically active and they may want to include their dogs in jogging, hiking, and other strenuous activities. It is possible that we may see more dogs coming down with this disorder, or other athletic-related disorders, simply because they’re participating in more physical activities with their owners.”

Life after limber tail
According to Dr. Steiss, researchers don’t believe there’s any underlying pathology to the muscles in afflicted dogs, nor is there any suggestion that a propensity for limber tail is genetic. As noted, while some breeds may be more prone to it – most likely due to their higher activity levels – any dog with a full tail is susceptible.

If your dog develops limber tail, treatment should include at least a few days of rest. Depending on the advice of your veterinarian, you may also administer an anti-inflammatory in the first 24 hours, under the direction of a vet. There is no evidence that anti-inflammatories speed healing, but some owners say they’ve noticed faster improvement when the medications are part of the mix.

Owners should also consider what activities their dogs were engaged in prior to the onset of the condition. Limber tail will show up quite soon after the triggering event, usually within hours or overnight. If you can isolate what it was that brought on the condition, whether it was a over-long off-leash hike or a swim in cold water, you can avoid repeating the situation.

Finally, ease your dog into any intense activity to slowly improve his condition. Many cases occur when a dog is a couch potato in the off-season and then plunges back into hunting or training full time.

As for Lucky, we haven’t seen a recurrence, but we also committed ourselves to gradually increasing her activity until her physical strength matched the demands of her workouts. Her tail is once again thumping away at full speed – and we aim to keep it that way.

 

Also With This Article
"What You Can Do"
"Limber Tail Checklist"
"What to Do If Your Dog Has Limber Tail"

-Freelance writer C.C. Holland, of Oakland, CA, is a frequent contributor to WDJ.

Comments (11)

Thankfully I read another article yesterday (after my year old lab bitch suddenly developed a droopy tail and was very 'down' in herself). That article listed many things which could cause this 'Limber Tail Syndrome' - ALL of which were part of our previous day (lot of exercise; in and out of stream; jumped on by large over-amourous male lab-doodle/mongrel; bathed dogs; more exercise and in and out of stream!!!!!!!!!!!! Some fellow dog walkers suggested she had broken her tail, but I just did not think so - so went looking on line (don't have money for excessive vet bills, no doubt looking for money for x-rays for broken tails, anal problems, etc. Anything but Limber tail - I doubt the vets in the North of England, UK have even heard of it. I've had labs for over 55 years (10 labs) and I never encountered it or had dogs with this problem. To see a vet would mean consultation costs, plus other investigative things, plus the meds Metacam (NSAID anti-inflammatory pain killer). Reading more I found that whereas paracetamol is deadly to dogs, aspirin (NSAID) can be used safely at the correct dosage. The dosage is 5-10 mg per pound of body weight, every 12 hours. I played safe and gave my 20 kg lab bitch 300 mg every 12 hours and she was a lot brighter next day - even beginning to raise her tail and play a bit. (I did restrict her exercise, and no bathing/swimming till she was better). Anyway - all these type articles are so useful to us; we are mostly far from rich, and just cannot afford these large pet bills (cheaper meds on line, but then you have to have the prescription, which means the consultation etc., so keep these articles for self-diagnosis/help coming all! Regards, Alison, Wallsend, Tyne & Wear, England, United Kingdom.

Posted by: Luna and Genna Labradors | July 5, 2014 6:02 PM    Report this comment

This is a great article...very helpful...thank you :)

Posted by: Jenn I Fer | May 21, 2014 8:23 AM    Report this comment

My Plott mix developed what I think is this syndrome while on vacation. A 5 hour car ride one day, and a bit too much zoomies the next day, which I stopped after a bit. That night, noticed her tail was down, and thought perhaps frightened of something? We were in a new place. But her tail didn't come up, and that night she became EXTREMELY restless, and it seemed she could not settle to sleep, she was in such pain, for the WHOLE night. She had trouble sitting as her tail would get in way & hurt. She finally figured out how to flop on her side and bypass tail issue yet could not rest. I felt terrible and neither of us got any sleep. I was so worried she had a spinal injury. But like others here, she could relieve herself fine and appetite good. I put her on Robaxin (mild muscle relaxer) I had from a prior injury and decided to wait & see before a trip to emergency vet while on vacation. (I didn't have internet access during this time-- nervewracking!) So far it has been 4 days. Her tail has come up a lot, but I am keeping her on a quiet routine for a couple weeks longer. This thing was a nightmare when it came on!! Thanks so much for this article. I am still not certain whether she injured herself in any other way than this syndrome, but it helps to hear of other dog's "tails".

Posted by: Sarah J | September 7, 2013 7:05 PM    Report this comment

I just returned from a visit with my vet for my Lab, Charlie. When he got up this morning he was NOT his usual year and a half old boy dog excited self! I could hardly get him to go outside and when he did he hid in the bushes. I examined him to see what was wrong. He seemed scared (he was shaking) and had his tail between his legs. He wouldn't eat, drink or do his business. Understandably, I was worried about my buddy.

After taking advantage of being able to work from home today I scheduled a vet appointment and took him in. As soon as my vet saw him he said "oh, he's got the heartbreak of broken tail syndrome". I thought he was kidding me. So, after a $75.00 office visit and some anti-inflammatory meds, I came home and Google'd it. Turns out that our day at the beach yesterday swimming, frolicking, and having a good time took a toll on Charlie as well as myself. We both seem to be sore today. Who knew.

So, if you're ever told your dog has broken tail, downward tail, sprained tail, etc, reflect on what you did "yesterday". Maybe you over did it a bit. You might save yourself a visit to the vet and a few bucks. Provided to you at no charge, Bob! 8-}

Thank you Whole Dog Journal and fellow commenters. I'll spread the word about this syndrome to friends and family. They will think I'm crazy but I am hopeful they don't have to experience it for themselves. Even though it's harmless.

Posted by: navybawb | July 8, 2013 7:17 PM    Report this comment

Thank you so much for this post. My 3 year old yellow lab Bella now has "cold tail". Yesterday morning on our walk, it was an extremely high tide. Miss Bella decided to plunge into the water and go for a swim. Jumping in and out and running all around having fun. She even decided to jump into a neighbors pond to chase a blue heron. It was only 40 degrees outside, and has been in the 30's at night for weeks on end. I did not think anything of it, because she used to live where it snowed, and she loved being out and playing in it all the time. Last night, she was acting strange, and wanting to lay down in my bedroom, alone. This is not my Bella. She is a Mama's girl. This morning her tail was limp from the base down. So sad to see her this way! I immediately went online to research info and found your site. I cannot thank you enough! She is eating, drinking, and moving her bowels fine, so we will rest, and i will give her extra TLC. Hopefully, she will be tail/but wagging again real soon.

Posted by: JMHastey | March 11, 2013 10:09 AM    Report this comment

At nearly (7) years after it was originally published, this article was exactly what I needed to read. We've had a BAD bout of snow lately and my dog loves it. She's a rescue terrier mix who I've only had since July and think is about 1.5 years old. She's from this city, in the cold NE, but I wasn't sure how familiar or comfortable she was w/the cold and snow.

Suffice it to say she LOVES it. She eats snow (clean snow - lol) and loves romping in it. This little 20 lb. dog's been hopping all over in DEEP snow (8-12") for (2) days. She clearly overexerted herself AND had a reaction to the cold, despite wearing a parka I was lucky enough to find in the fall and buy. THIS MORNING: Her tail was SO limp and she yelped lightly when I went to loop her sweater through her tail.

It broke my heart. As we walked, I noticed she could lift it a bit to pee and poop - which made me feel better. In my head, I kept thinking "Sprained? Broken? How did this happen?" C.C.'s article made complete sense of the whole thing. Ava's lying down right now (not typical, since she's an active little girl) and I'm infinitely less worried.

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

Posted by: WriteReviseEdit | December 28, 2012 6:49 AM    Report this comment

Thank heavens I found this site! I have a Red Bone Coon Hound/Rottweiller mixed male. I was fostering him all last summer for the State Police as a rescue but when it came time to give him up, I realized how much a part of my life he had become & I decided to keep him. His biggest thrill in life is hide & seek (it's a nose thing) and 2 days ago we both played in a huge pile of leaves with a big rubber frisbee for quiet a while. I noticed next a.m. there was a decided droop to his tail, demeanor, & he was restless in his bed. He had all the classic symptoms of limber tail syndrome so he is on restricted activity for next few days. So relieved to know this is not a permanent issue since it really affected his confidence & overall big dog attitude! Thank you so much...

Posted by: Big red dog mom | December 10, 2012 1:51 PM    Report this comment

This was a terrific article that explained the symptoms my dog was experiencing exactly! Thanks for posting this, we were concerned about the loss of wag our Catahoula Leopard Mix was experiencing after a rambuncous off-leash field visit and bath at home afterward. Yes, you explained it completely.

Posted by: deesy | November 18, 2012 8:21 PM    Report this comment

It's such a relief to read this info. My English bull terrier suffered from this a year ago but he was being looked after by a family member at the time and had no idea what caused it. This week he started suffering from it again after a swim in the cold water at the beach. Hopefully it'll get better on it's own like last time but this info has been really helpful

Posted by: Unknown | November 18, 2012 4:45 PM    Report this comment

Thanks so much for this information! Our male Labradoodle started acting funny yesterday...doing a weird nesting thing and just generally having lower energy than normal. We suspected some kind of intestinal problem at first, but, like the dog owner above, I started checking him out and noticed that it was his TAIL that seemed sensitive. My husband and I thought we were going to have to take him to the vet (NOT exactly in the budget this month...), but when my husband did a little looking online, he found your article! The pictures of Lucky's tail look EXACTLY like Otto's...so we're quite sure that this is what it is and we're very glad to know that it should remedy itself in a few days. We think that Otto's condition developed simply from getting a haircut! He didn't want to get his tail cut and fought it a bit...and we think that that is probably what strained the muscles. He did have a bath too...but it was in warm water, so I don't think that would've done it. Anyway, thanks so much for saving us a ton of money - what a blessing!! And I can't wait to have my insanely happy dog back!

Posted by: Ottos momma | October 22, 2012 4:18 PM    Report this comment

Thank you so much for this article. I have a 4 year old Australian Blue Heeler and we spent all day at the lake on Saturday and he was in the water swimming the entire time. Well come Sunday morning he couldn't sit or lay down right. I went to lift his tail thinking it was a behind issue but the moment I touched his tail he yelped. I freaked out! Took him to the Animal Emergency Center on Sunday night. Needless to say 4 hours, full body exam, anal gland check, 3 X-Rays and $499 later. We were sent home with a clean bill of health, pain meds and anti-inflammatories. The vet still couldn't tell us what was wrong but just to keep an eye on him. When we got home it was sad since they drained him down on doggy morphine (scary zombie-dog stuff) and this morning same achy tail issue. I looked up on the internet and came across several articles explaining this syndrome to me. Needless to say I am now certain...this IS what our Dodger Blue is suffering from. The vet visit and bill were extreme, but at least now we have a no doubt it isn't a more physical or gastrointestinal issue. He just has a sore tail from excessive extreme, and unusual, day of swimming. Thanks for the info.

Posted by: LoveMyFourLeggedSons | July 30, 2012 2:05 PM    Report this comment

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