- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
This time of year, with gorgeous hikes, long days, and warm lakes that are perfect for swimming, no one could blame you for wanting to let your dog splash around whenever there’s water. But there’s a potential dog health issue you should keep in mind before you let your dog expend all their energy: swimmer’s tail.
The condition, known clinically as acute caudal myopathy and informally as limber tail or dead tail (among other names), is a serious but temporary condition that affects your dog’s ability to use their tail.
This condition should not be confused with kennel tail or happy tail syndrome, a different ailment that comes from forceful impact on the end of the tail and can result in bleeding or “splitting” of the end of the tail.
Instead, swimmer’s tail is characterized by pain that isn’t as visible. Without any traumatic event or large impact, dogs can lose their ability to wag or move their tail—to communicate happiness or fear, to stabilize their movements and help with balance, and to use in outdoor and aerobic activities like swimming. They can also have their activities and daily life interrupted by symptoms of pain, which can in some cases be so intense that dogs refuse to eat or use the bathroom. Thankfully the condition is treatable and goes away with time.
Symptoms of Swimmer’s Tail
Signs of swimmer’s tail include loss of function in tail, such as a tail that appears to droop, hang limp, or otherwise be unresponsive/unable to communicate or provide physical stability, and symptoms of pain like panting, restlessness, and loss of appetite, trouble pooping or squatting, and/or poor balance.
The symptoms don’t always appear instantly and can take hours or days after unusual exertion to appear.
What Causes Swimmer’s Tail?
Although some aspects of swimmer’s tail are still mysterious, and treatment options are fairly limited, a few studies have been conducted on the syndrome. A 1999 study from the University of Auburn attributes the condition to damaged coccygeal muscles, and included scans that clearly show muscle damage causing the limited movement and unusual pain.
Working dogs and hunting dogs are especially likely to be affected by swimmer’s tail, although any breed or type of dog can develop it. PetMD mentions an increased risk for pointers, Labrador retrievers, flat-coated retrievers, golden retrievers, foxhounds, coonhounds, and beagles, and they add that young dogs and working dogs are especially likely to develop the syndrome.
Other contributing factors include overuse of the tail through exercise, swimming, or tail wagging, as well as exposure to cold water and/or cold weather. As reported by a 2016 Telegraph article, an Edinburgh University study suggest a dog’s chance of developing the condition increased by 50 percent “for each additional degree of latitude [the dog was located] further north.”
I went to the beach for the first time today! I LOVED it!! Thanks uncle spencer! @spencervb256 . . . . . . . . #rescuedog #adoptdontshop #explorewithdogs #adventuredog #dogsonadventures #campingwithdogs #hiking #inthewild #rottweiller #labrador #labrottie #dogsofinstagram #happydog #adogslife #mydogismy #explorer #nikon #nikonphotography #petphotography #dogphotography #waterdog #beach #owensound #greybruce #greycounty #sunset
How to Prevent Swimmer’s Tail
Be especially careful if your dog is one of the higher-risk working breeds and has developed a case of swimmer’s tail in the past. Introduce swimming and hunting to your dog gradually—one of the biggest risk factors is a sudden change in energy level from sedentary to very active. Taking those activities more slowly and increasing the intensity based on ability can help prevent overuse or fatigue of the tail.
Additionally, consider the temperature where your dog will be active and make sure your dog is warm enough. Cold can make swimmer’s tail worse and can make your dog more likely to develop it for the first time. Try giving your dog a jacket or another layer if they must spend time outside in unusually cold weather.
Treatment Options for Swimmer’s Tail
According to VCA, a veterinary examination will include a “careful palpation of the tail starting at the base (up by the pelvis) and proceeding down the entire length. The goal is to locate the discomfort and rule out any other problems that might explain the symptoms.”
Make a vet appointment as soon as you can if your dog seems to be in pain. Swimmer’s tail is not a condition that will worsen dramatically without emergency treatment, but your dog could be experiencing serious pain due to the condition—and only your vet can prescribe the proper medication that is safe for your pet and can reduce swelling in an injured tail.
Dogs often have a hard time communicating pain, so if you’re unsure whether your dog is uncomfortable, the safest route would be to schedule an appointment with your vet. It’s also important to rule out common conditions that swimmer’s tail can be mistaken for, including tail fracture or prostate disease.
The good news is that swimmers tail usually improves or resolves within a week or two. Give your pup lots of rest and the appropriate pain meds from your vet. And your pet doesn’t have to give up swimming (or hunting, or happy greetings) forever—your pup is free to do their favorite activities, and will be especially likely to avoid future episodes if you keep an eye on the risk factors above.
Featured image: Flickr/greg