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When A Dog's Tail Gets Limp

It's Tuesday Trivia and today we will be talking about limp tails in dogs. So you take your happy-go-lucky Labrador retriever to swim in a pond, your dog has loads of fun retrieving a ball, then you light up a fire and you both spend the night sleeping in a tent. It's a bit chilly in the early morning once the fire is off, but nothing major. When you wake up, you notice your dog is no longer able to wag his tail as happily as he usually does. His tail is indeed kept low, limp and flaccid, something highly unusual for your dog. What happened to the dog's tail? Why has the dog's tail gone totally limp? Of course, only a vet can diagnose health problems in dogs, but there is a particular condition that's likely to occur under these exact circumstances, can you name the condition?

A: Shy dog syndrome

B: An anal gland problem

C: Acute caudal myopathy

D: A fractured tail

The answer is:


If you answered, A, shy dog syndrome, the answer is incorrect. Sure, dogs who are shy tend to keep their tails between their legs, but in this scenario the tail is limp and flaccid and the Labrador is not able to wag the tail as he normally does. Also, the outgoing Labrador described above wasn't showing any reason for exhibiting shy behavior.

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If you answered B, anal gland problem, this is a possibility, however, according to Dr. Gary, a veterinarian graduate of Michigan State University, a dog with anal gland problems may keep the tail tucked as a pain/stress response, but when a dog is also unable to move the tail or the tail is hanging limp, it's likely something else is going on.

If you answered D, a fractured tail, that's also a possibility, but in the above circumstance there were no accidents to make you believe he could have fractured it. To fracture a tail, there's often some form of traumatic injury taking place. Most commonly, this can occur when a dog is hit by a car, the tail is stepped on, the tail is caught between a closing door or the dog falls of a sofa or bed and the tail hits the floor wrong, explains veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker. 

If you answered C: Acute caudal myopathy, congratulations, the answer is correct!

limp tail

Acute Caudal Myopathy in Dogs

What is acute caudal myopathy? Also more formally known as dog swimmer's tail, cold water tail, dead tail, rudder tail, frozen tail, sprain tail, broken tail, limber tail, limp tail or broken wag, acute caudal myopathy is a condition affecting the muscles of the dog's tail.

The term "acute" is used to depict the sudden onset of this condition, the term caudal, is the medical term for tail, while the term myopathy is simply a term used to depict a disease of the muscle. This condition often alarms dog owners who can't figure out what is wrong with the dog'a tail and assume the dog's tail must be broken.

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What are the symptoms of limp tail? Typically, affected dogs present with a flaccid tail or they may hold several inches of the tail horizontally and the rest then drops down vertically. The tail will be painful near the base causing the dog to have trouble finding a comfortable position when sitting down, lying down and/or squatting to defecate.

These dogs may also eliminate wagging from their behavior repertoire. If the pain is very intense, the dog may even become lethargic and lose its appetite. Dog owners sometimes notice visible swelling around the tail area and raised hair by the base of the tail.

Everything in Moderation

limber tail

How does a dog get a limp tail? Well, first of all a limp tail is a matter of loss of muscle tone. Generally, the acute onset takes place after the dog has overused its tail. When dogs swim, they tend to use their tail as a rudder, so if a dog isn't used to this kind of movement, the muscles may become sore especially after a day of swimming in cold water, hence the name cold water tail, swimming tail or rudder tail.

It can also be seen in dogs who are exposed to wet, cold weather (eg romping in the snow) or in under-conditioned dogs who haven't been exercised for some time and then are sent hunting or are engaged in other forms of exercise involving lots of tail action.

Sometimes, limp tail may also occur when dogs are crated for a long period of time. Even though any dog with a tail can be affected, limp tail seems to most commonly affect pointers, setters, beagles and retrievers.

"We usually see it in dogs who have had a recent bath, exposure to cold water or rain, or have had recent physical exertion or excitement." ~ Dr. Laura Devlin, DVM, DABVP

dog face markings

A Quick Recovery

How is limber tail diagnosed? As mentioned, swimmer's tail typically occurs after a dog goes swimming, after being exercises a lot or after prolonged crating.

Veterinarians typically diagnose limp tail based on the dog's history and physical exam. During the physical exam, the vet may look for any neurological signs, problems to the dog's anal glands and any other conditions known for causing pain and swelling of the tail. The vet will palpate the tail, spine and pelvic area to pinpoint the problem area and may ask if the dog has sustained any tail injuries.

Based on a study conducted by Janet E. Steiss, DVM, Ph.D. et al, affected dogs are found to have an increase in their levels of serum creatine phosphokinase, a muscle enzyme.

How is a limp tail treated? Fortunately, acute caudal myopathy is a temporary condition that gets better with rest and medication. Veterinarians may prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug to speed up recovery times. Generally, dogs suffering from limber tail spontaneously recover within a few days to a couple of weeks. Soon, the dog is back to wagging his tail proudly as before.

"Complete recovery generally occurs within 2 weeks with some dogs recovering within a few days. About one third of dogs can experience a recurrence. " ~Dr. Debra Primovic

Please note: If you dog has symptoms of limber tail but doesn't have a history of swimming, being crated, exposed to cold weather or overexerting himself, see your vet immediately. There may be something serious going on such as nerve damage or loss of blood supply to the area.


  • Coccygeal muscle injury in English pointers (Limber tail). Steiss, J. et al. J Vet Intern Med1999;13:540-548
  • Pet Place, Limber Tail Syndrome, by Dr. Debra Primovic, retrieved from the web on March 22nd, 2016
  • Four Injuries that can take the wag out of your pet's tail, by Dr. Marty Becker, retrieved from the web on March 22nd, 2016

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