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Ask the Vet: Why is My Dog's Tail Hanging Down?

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Limber Tail Syndrome in Dogs

A dog's tail hanging down is often due to a condition that is known as limber tail syndrome. Limber tail syndrome in dogs, also known as cold water tail, dead tail, limp tail, broken wag, rudder tail, frozen tail, swimmer’s tail, sprain tail is a condition that's medically termed as acute caudal myopathy. To make things simpler and easier to understand, lets analyze the scientific name of the condition – the term acute describes the condition’s sudden onset, the term caudal (medical name for tail) describes the condition’s anatomical localization and the term myopathy indicates that the condition affects muscles.

dog limber tail

Why is Suddenly My Dog's Tail Hanging Down? 

Acute caudal myopathy can be defined as a painful medical condition that develops as a result of tail overuse. Simply put, the trigger is an acute inflammation, injury or damage due to overexertion of the tail muscles.

Using electromyography, imaging, and tissue testing, researchers have determined that the damage affects exclusively the coccygeal muscles which are located near the base of the tail. The tail’s bones, joints and ligaments are not affected by the condition.

Although it is established that the condition is triggered by damage of the coccygeal muscles, the exact cause of limber tail syndrome in dogs is not well established. However, there are several associated risk factors that can be considered:

  • Overexertion – acute caudal myopathy often develops after a vigorous physical activity that includes plenty of tail action.
  • Prolonged exposure to cold water – when dogs swim, they use their tails as rudders which makes the tail muscles sore and fatigued. The exhaustion combined with cold environment lead to acute caudal myopathy.
  • Lack of conditioning – if a dog that is not in good condition is forced into rigorous exercise it is likely to develop acute caudal myopathy.

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Although all dogs with tails are at risk of developing acute caudal myopathy, the risk is greater in active working dogs, particularly hunting dogs, sporting dogs and dogs that spend time playing in water. All in all, the condition of a dog's tail hanging low is more among the following breeds: basset hounds, beagles, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, flat-coated Retrievers, foxhounds, golden retrievers, Irish setters, Labrador Retrievers and springer Spaniels.

What are the signs and symptoms of limber tail syndrome in dogs? A dog suffering from acute caudal myopathy will have the following clinical manifestation:

  • Limp dog tail or flaccid dog tail – the tail may stick horizontally for several inches (2-3) and then drop vertically or it can be completely drooped and lifeless.
  • Difficulty standing – this is because dogs use their tails for keeping balance.
  • Inability to find a comfortable sitting position – the dog may frequently shift its weight from one side to the other.
  • Reluctance to squat while defecating – this is mainly because of the pain associated with the myopathy.
  • Raised hair near the base of the tail – as a consequence of the swelling.
  • Normal to decreased appetite – this depends on the level of pain the dog is experiencing.
  • Whimpering and vocalization or lethargy – common in dogs experiencing a great deal of pain.

At the Vet's Office

dog hemorrhoid

Why is my dog's tail hanging down?

What to do in the case of a dog's tail hanging down? As in any other case, the diagnostic process starts with questioning the owner about the dog’s history (particularly about the dog’s recent activities) and performing a thorough physical examination of the dog. The goal of the examination is to eliminate other potential causes that may lead to pain and swelling of the tail. The list of differential diagnosis includes:

  • Shy dog syndrome – it is no secret that shy dogs keep their tails between the hind legs. Nevertheless, shy dogs’ tails are not limp and flaccid. Additionally, once relaxes, shy dogs are capable of wagging.
  • Impacted anal glands – dogs with impacted anal glands often keep their tails tucked down or between the legs as a pain response. However, if encouraged they can freely move their tails. Checking the anal glands is enough to eliminate this option.
  • Fractured tail – this condition must be preceded by a traumatic event like a car accident, stepping on the tail, nasty fall or catching the tail between a closing door. Accidents like these do not happen without the owner noticing them. Therefore, if the owner does not recall recent accidents and the dog has not been left unsupervised, the chances of having a broken tail are extremely low.

In most cases, the diagnosis is based on the dog’s history and the findings of the physical examination. The physical exam includes searching for neurological signs and palpating the tail, spine and pelvic area.

Sometimes, the vet may suggest additional diagnostic procedures like: blood analysis (dogs with acute caudal myopathy have elevated levels of a muscle enzyme known as serum creatine phosphokinase), X-rays (to definitely rule out fractures and other skeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis and diseased intervertebral disks) and muscle biopsy (to rule out tumors and other abnormal cell formations).

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What's the treatment for a dog's tail hanging down? Fortunately, acute caudal myopathy is a temporary and self-limiting condition. With appropriate rest, complete recovery can be expected in about two weeks. However, some dogs may heal in few days and for some it may take as long as a couple of weeks.

To alleviate the pain and discomfort it is recommended to periodically apply warm compresses at the base of the tail. It has been shown that if administered within 24 hours of the condition’s onset, anti-inflammatory drugs tend to shorten the recovery period. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are frequently used in patients with acute caudal myopathy. These are quite efficient when it comes to reducing the pain, but unfortunately they do not reduce the swelling.

All in all, uncomplicated acute caudal myopathy can be resolved simply through rest and administration of anti-inflammatory drugs. Sadly, acute caudal myopathy, tends to have recurring episodes.

The prognosis for dogs with acute caudal myopathy is excellent. The prognosis is excellent even for dogs that have not been effectively treated. However, if the condition progresses to chronic, the prognosis is not so good.

3 Tips to Prevent Limber Tail Syndrome

To prevent acute caudal myopathy it is advisable to:

  1. Gradually condition your dog for vigorous exercise, hunting or working
  2. Make sure your dog’s bedding is dry especially during cold and wet weather
  3. Avoid confining your dog in a cramped crate.

About the Author

ivana crnec

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia. She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola and is completing her postgraduate studies in the Pathology of Domestic Carnivores at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, Croatia.

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