Limber tail syndrome in dogs

Cold water tail, frozen tail, broken wag, dead tail or rudder tail are all the same condition, also known as limber tail syndrome. Limber tail syndrome usually affects working dogs, and can occur at any age, although it is most often happens when the dogs are about two.

A dog with limber tail syndrome carries it in a distinctive way. The tail hangs limply behind the dog or is carried straight out behind the dog for about two or three inches and then hangs limply. When the dog moves the tail does is not moved by the dog, but just hangs.

Some dogs carry their tails this way at rest, but when in motion the difference can be seen, a healthy tail moves with the dog. In a dog with limber tail the tail is painful when touched, and the dog may seem to be in discomfort. Sitting will often cause the dog pain. The hair around the base of the tail can be raised, probably from the swelling of the muscles in the area.

Male dogs, and dogs that carry their tails high seem to be the most prone to the condition. The most commonly affected breeds are the Labrador and Retriever, and this corresponds to the “waggiest” dog breeds. Limber tail syndrome is caused by over use or strain of the muscles that wag the tail, the side to side muscles.

Unless a vet is familiar with the condition a broken bone in the tail will often be suspected. Some form of muscle damage is definitely implicated because if the tail is examined when it is limp high levels of creatine phosphokinase are found, and this enzyme is associated with muscle damage. Many vets report that they know nothing about the condition and it is little researched. This is surprising in view of the high incidence, most owners of active out doors dogs who have owned dogs for any length of time will have come across it.

Left alone the condition usually resolves itself within a short time, from a few days to a week. Anti-inflammatory drugs can help relieve the pain, and some owners find that heat packs will offer some relief to the dog. The condition will recur in about one third of dogs once they start working again. In some dogs the tail has a permanently altered carriage on recovery, which can lead to the end of its working life in some instances.

The most common theories as to the cause are swimming in cold water and heavy hunting or work in unfit dogs. The sudden return to exciting activity leads to more tail wagging and this causes the overuse of the tail, and limber tail syndrome. Pet dogs may also get the condition, particularly after playing in water. Dogs that are crated for travel after exertion are more prone to the condition.

The best way to avoid limber tail is to slowly condition a dog before the working season starts, or keep it fit. Crating should be avoided unless the crate is roomy, and dry bedding is especially important following work in wet conditions. Healing is accelerated by the use of anti-inflammatory drugs in some dogs and the drugs will provide relief from pain for all dogs suffering from the condition.

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