What is Limber Tail Syndrome?
I recently learned about the condition known as “swimmer’s tail” in dogs, technically called “limber tail syndrome”, or even "happy tail syndrome" in dogs, is a condition that commonly affects Labrador Retrievers.
I took my Lab Callie, to the beach this weekend. She spent most of the day in a life jacket and out of the water. She had a great time, but I noticed something wasn’t right that night. Her tail was completely limp.
When I touched it, she yelped in pain. It was so unnerving to see her so uncomfortable so we wound up at the local emergency vet's office, where I learned about “swimmers tail/limber tail syndrome”.
Excessive playing causes the condition while in the water or overuse while playing and usually affects large breed dogs. When the muscles supporting the tail and the tail are overworked, the result may be straining.
Besides limping, the base of the tail is often stiff, and the dog may feel pain. Limber tail syndrome will resolve on its own without veterinary help, but our vet did give us some antibiotics and pain meds to help her out.
What Kind of Dogs Get Swimmers Tail?
As well as limber tail syndrome and swimmer’s tail, it’s often known as frozen tail, dead tail, or any combination of limber, swim, and cold, is known as swimmer’s tail.
“Limper Tail Syndrome” is not the same condition as “Happy Tail Syndrome” In 2016, researchers at the University of Edinburgh studied dogs with limber tails to learn the habits and lifestyles that explain why some dogs seem to have it and others don’t.
In limber tail syndrome, working breed dogs are more likely to experience the condition than other breeds, such as English Pointers, English Setters, Foxhounds, Beagles, and Labrador Retrievers.
Researchers also discovered that dogs with limber tails are more likely to live in northern regions, confirming anecdotal reports that the condition is associated with cold exposure.
Do not take this as a hard and fast rule, many dogs have experienced this in warm weather, especially when swimming. We were having almost 90 degree weather in Seattle when we took our Lab to the beach.
What Causes Limber Tail/Swimmers Tail
If your dig swims in too cold or, rarely, too warm water, they are likely to develop a limp tail after a short period (within 24 hours).
The cause is unknown, but it may be because of narrowing of the space through which the spinal cord passes, usually caused by degenerative changes in the intervertebral disks.
Changes in these underlying structures may not be noticeable until the problem is suddenly aggravated, such as during physical activity or after trauma.
Breeds Prone to Swimmers Tail
Certain breeds are more susceptible to limber tails than others due to their lifestyles.
A limp tail is more common in the following hunting breeds:
Problems with limp tail often occur at the beginning of hunting season, especially if the dogs are not properly conditioned or have been working hard.
Other Causes of Limber Tail?
Dogs with lumber tails often have injuries to their tail muscles because of sprains or strains.
Swimming is the most common reason for a limber tail, possibly because of cold water conditions and abnormal exercise.
Basically, swimming requires dogs to use their tails for balance and steering, which can cause them to exhaust themselves more than on dry ground.
If your dog has been swimming or hunting, then the limber tail signs may be mistaken for some form of trauma.
The following signs may suggest that your dog’s tail muscles are overworked:
- Prolonged crate confinement
- Exposure to cold weather
- Excessive exercise without proper conditioning
- Climate changes
- Completely limp tail, from base to tip
- Partially limp tail, held horizontally out from the base, with the rest hanging down
- Absence of wagging
- Discomfort or pain, especially if you try to move the tail
- Whining or whimpering
- Licking or chewing at the tail
- Raised fur along the top of the tail
Other Conditions that Mimic Limber Tail
Other conditions can mimic limber tail and your dog may suffer from one of the following issues instead:
- Trauma to the tail
- Tail fracture
- Tail cancer
- Impacted anal glands
- Intervertebral disc disease
- Cauda equina syndrome
Many of these conditions threaten your pet’s health and a thorough veterinary examination is needed for a correct diagnosis.
Signs and Symptoms of Swimmers Tail
This injury affects the dog’s tail, causing it to be painful at its base or close to it.
Dogs with limp tails cannot wag or move as they normally would. The owners of dogs with the syndrome reported their dogs were suffering from pain of a six out of ten.
Some of the other symptoms include:
- Trouble walking or standing – dog’s tails are useful for balancing
- Reluctance or discomfort while defecating
- Unwilling to go outdoors
- Struggle to get comfy lying down or sitting
- Whimpering or other vocal signs of pain Source
Weather conditions that are cold, wet, and windy seem to increase the risk, but don’t let this stop you from going out and walking your dog.
Keeping your dog healthy and stimulated requires enough exercise - make sure that you get your dog warm and dry as soon as possible after the walk, and avoid strenuous walks if your dog isn’t used to them, try building up gradually.
How Can I Prevent Limber Tail?
It is possible for some dogs to have a limber tail repeatedly. By gradually increasing the amount of physical activity your dog does, you will prevent repetitions of the event.
Performing all-day activities should be preceded by brief training sessions. During competitions or hunting, make sure to give your dog frequent breaks if your dog is crated.
Losing the wag is a painful, worrisome condition for dogs. If your dog is having tail issues, contact your veterinarian for help.
How to Treat Limber Tail Syndrome or Swimmers Tail
After a few days of rest, the tail returns to normal.
An anti-inflammatory drug, such as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, may be administered to relieve pain.
Limber tails don’t pose a life-threatening threat, but this often leads to them being overlooked and underestimated. Since the symptoms usually resolve themselves within a few days or weeks, veterinarians rarely see limber tails.
Relaxation is the best treatment for limber tails, so encourage your dog to take it easy for a few days.
The condition is thought to cause severe pain and distress in affected dogs, so if it does not resolve or show signs of improvement, contact your veterinarian.
Consult your veterinarian to make sure there is no bone damage or other health problems with your dog. When there is muscle damage, veterinarians can take an X-ray and run a blood test to see if an enzyme is present.
Dogs may benefit from anti-inflammatory medications prescribed by their vet - but do not try to self-medicate, as this could cause further problems! Make sure your veterinarian prescribes the correct medication and dosage.
Just as when humans hurt their muscles, a warm pack can help them recover. Warm packs placed at the base of your dog’s tail can aid recovery.
After a week or two of being well rested and comfortable for your dog, the condition should resolve on its own. Check with your veterinarian if you still have concerns after this time.
Try not to worry, it won’t take long for her tail to start wagging again after a little rest and relaxation.