One of the most pleasant things about dogs is their wagging tails. But what do you do when your dog has lost their wag? Sometimes a dog’s tail can hang limp or droop down lifelessly. Does tail trouble mean your dog is feeling blue? Or is something physically wrong with your pet? Although a tucked tail can indicate anxiety or fear, if your dog’s tail is limp when it would normally be perky, you may be looking at swimmer’s tail.
What Is Swimmer’s Tail?
Swimmer’s tail comes on quickly and affects the muscles in your dog’s tail. According to Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the AKC, it’s basically a tail sprain. “The term swimmer’s tail is the most common name for a condition technically called acute caudal myopathy.” He notes that acute refers to the condition coming on quickly, while caudal refers to areas of the body located further from the head, such as a dog’s rear or tail. Myopathy, meanwhile, refers to a disease in the muscle.
Acute caudal myopathy goes by many names besides swimmer’s tail. You might also hear it referred to by one of the following alternate names:
- Limber tail
- Limp tail
- Dead tail
- Flaccid tail syndrome
- Cold-water tail
- Broken wag
- Sprained tail
What Causes Swimmer’s Tail?
Although the name “swimmer’s tail” implies the condition only occurs in dogs that swim, that’s not always the case. Of course, dogs use their tails a lot when swimming. But the condition is usually caused by overuse of the tail within the previous 24 hours, resulting in a sprain or strain of the muscle groups that move and wag the tail.
“Swimming, especially early in the season when water is cold and a dog is not fully conditioned, is the more common cause,” Dr. Klein explains. “But other strenuous activities, such as hunting or vigorous play, can cause this condition as well. Occasionally, this condition can occur if a dog is kept in too small a crate for a prolonged period of time and the tail cannot comfortably position itself.”
Because it’s caused by overuse, swimmer’s tail can happen in any breed of dog. However, it’s usually seen in members of the Sporting Group or Hound Group who do a lot of physical activity, like swimming and hunting. A recent study on limber tail in Labrador Retrievers suggests that swimmer’s tail may be more common at higher latitudes due to colder temperatures.
What Are the Signs of Swimmer’s Tail in Dogs?
Besides not wagging their tails, dogs with this condition have a limp tail. The tail droops down between their hind legs, straight from the base, or sticks out horizontally for a short distance, then hangs down and droops for the rest of its length. Because swimmer’s tail is painful, your dog might be lethargic. Alternatively, your dog could be restless or unable to get settled or comfortable. They might lose their appetite or hesitate to squat to go to the bathroom. The signs of swimmer’s tail may be obvious immediately after injury, or your dog might wake up with problems the next day.
Symptoms usually resolve within two to 10 days. However, you shouldn’t assume that your dog has this condition. Other conditions mimic symptoms of swimmer’s tail, so you need your veterinarian to rule those out. “Never try to self-diagnose or treat your dog’s condition without a veterinarian,” Dr. Klein advises. “Occasionally, other conditions such as a tail fracture or dislocation, lower back and spinal cord issues, anal sac impaction, skin infections, and prostate disease in male dogs could be missed.”
How Is Swimmer’s Tail Treated?
Before treatment for swimmer’s tail begins, your vet will want to rule out other conditions. They will take a complete history of the onset of signs, observe the tail, and examine and palpate the entire tail and surrounding region, including the pelvic area, rectal area, and anal sacs. Rectal exams are commonly performed as well. Finally, your vet may use radiographs (X-rays) to rule out any fractures in the tail’s vertebrae.
Swimmer’s tail requires lots of rest for your dog. Try your best to keep your dog calm and neutral so they’ll avoid efforts to wag. Your vet might also prescribe anti-inflammatory medication to ease the inflammation in the muscles and provide pain control. Dr. Klein warns owners to never treat or medicate their dogs on their own, especially since human anti-inflammatory medications are toxic to dogs.
How Can You Prevent Swimmer’s Tail in Dogs?
Luckily, Dr. Klein reassures that there are no long-term consequences for swimmer’s tail. After your dog fully recovers, which can take a few days to a few weeks, they can go back to their usual activities. However, the problem could return. So how can you protect your dog against the condition coming back?
First, when crating your dog, make sure your dog crate is sized appropriately, even if it’s simply for transporting your dog. They should be able to position themselves comfortably and have enough room to turn around and lie down. Also, let them out for a stretch every four hours or so.
Make sure than when your dog is doing physical activity, they are not overexerting themselves. Doing something like swimming in very cold water is a condition that can prompt swimmer’s tail in dogs sooner, so make sure your dog is in good shape and not in any extreme conditions for too long. Though there is no way to guarantee that your dog doesn’t get swimmer’s tail, Dr. Klein says that owners and trainers can try to prevent it by gradually exercising and conditioning their dogs.