Everyone loves laid-back summer days — including our canine companions. The warm temperatures usher in a host of fun activities, many of which involve water. Dr. Julie Buzby, integrative veterinarian and founder of Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips®, shares her experience with a painful condition in dogs that often has a mysterious water association. Known as limber tail syndrome, this condition is easy to miss or misdiagnose.
“I’m with Banjo at the vet. Call me when you can.”
My sister lives four hundred miles away, so her voicemail one Saturday morning was all it took for me to know something was majorly wrong — especially since she and I just chatted the day before about Banjo, her recently adopted Lab mix.
The day before, Banjo had his first routine check-up with his vet. My sister had followed my seven tips for improving canine lab tests and Banjo checked out perfectly. My sister was thrilled he was healthy, and even though we joked about the cost of dog ownership, we both agreed the visit — and the peace of mind — was worth every penny.
I immediately called her back. “What happened to Banjo?” I asked.
“We think he broke his tail,” she said. She explained he had been sleeping in her daughter’s room, and they thought maybe he hit his tail on her daughter’s iron bed because Banjo’s tail was suddenly limp and crooked.
Banjo’s diagnosis: limber tail syndrome
A broken tail? That didn’t sound right to me. I have never seen a dog break his tail by wagging it too hard against something. As I listened, a condition that causes dogs to have a limp tail came to mind. My next question sealed the deal for me.
“Was Banjo by chance in the water yesterday?” I asked.
She paused. “Well…I gave him a bath. Why?”
My suspicions were confirmed. I was pretty sure I knew what was going on with Banjo. And while I normally refrain from making diagnoses over the phone, I broke my rule for my baby sister.
“I think he has something called limber tail syndrome. It can come on suddenly, and it sounds exactly like what you’re describing. The bad news is it’s excruciatingly painful. The good news is he’s going to be fine.”
As we ended our call, I sensed relief in her voice. She was off to see her veterinarian, but a calm concern had replaced panic and fear.
This summer as temperatures rise and your four-legged friend looks to beat the heat with a dip in the lake, a romp in the waves, or a cold water bath, be on the lookout for a suddenly droopy and limp tail. Like Banjo’s, it very well might be limber tail syndrome. While this condition is not as well-known as other summer-related hazards for dogs such as heat stroke, canine fireworks anxiety, and blue-green algae toxicity, it’s one that dog owners should be aware of.
So let’s dive in and learn why limber tail is often misdiagnosed, discuss what it is, and take a look at common symptoms (that come on fast!) to help you minimize your dog’s risk this summer.
A common misdiagnosis
In my years at veterinary school, never once did I learn about limber tail syndrome. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a seasoned colleague early on in my vet career who set me straight, I would have misdiagnosed my first patient with the tell-tale signs.
Unfortunately, it’s common to misdiagnose limber tail as:
- a prostate problem
- an anal gland problem
- a fracture in the hind end
- a disc herniation, or intervertebral disc disease
- an infection
And while it’s important to rule out these more serious conditions, limber tail is the most likely diagnosis for water-loving dogs with the classic symptoms.
I’m forever grateful for my colleague’s expertise and second opinion that allowed me to properly diagnose and treat my first limber tail patient.
About a month after first learning about limber tail from my colleague, I was on a flight from San Diego back to the East Coast. I struck up a conversation about dogs with a gentleman sitting next to me on the airplane.
Living on the California coast, he remarked how much his Labs loved playing on the beach every weekend. He asked me if I ever heard of swimmer’s tail (another name for limber tail). I told him I recently had a case, but it quickly became evident that he knew way more about it than I did.
We enjoyed a great conversation while snacking on peanuts, and I learned even more from his firsthand experience.
What is limber tail syndrome?
Limber tail syndrome, or acute caudal myopathy, is a relatively common condition in which a dog’s tail either drops down from the base or extends horizontally three or four inches and then continues downward.
The condition is also known as:
- broken wag
- cold tail
- dead tail
- frozen tail
- lab tail
- rudder tail
- swimmer’s tail
Limber tail syndrome is common in sporting dogs like Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Setters, Pointers, and Foxhounds. It is thought to be caused by damage to muscles of the base of the tail—almost like a sprained tail. One research study on “cold tail” examined four Pointers with this diagnosis. It confirmed evidence of damage to the muscles of the tail via bloodwork and electromyography.
Symptoms of limber tail syndrome
Limber tail syndrome is a strange phenomenon. Especially if your dog loves the water, it’s important to know the following common symptoms and risk factors:
- Pain at the base of the tail (where the tail meets the body)
- An inability to hold the tail normally
- A limp and droopy-looking tail
- A reluctance to wag or move the tail due to pain
- Recent exposure to water: an ocean, lake, river, or cold water bath
- Recent strenuous work or exercise, especially for sporting breeds like English Pointers, Labs, or Beagles
- Prolonged crate confinement from travel, hunting, or being home alone
Exposure to water is a consistent clue in all the cases I’ve seen. It’s important to note, however, that a limber tail diagnosis does not require recent water activity.
Treatment and prognosis
Thankfully, dogs with limber tail syndrome typically only take a few days to recover. With a combination of rest, time, and anti-inflammatory medication for pain, most dogs significantly improve within a short period.
That was certainly the case for Banjo. A few days after our Saturday morning conversation, my sister called to share that he was once again happily smacking his wagging tail into her legs and furniture.
Interestingly, I have had a few of my patients with this diagnosis receive immediate relief from veterinary spinal manipulation (ie. a chiropractic adjustment of the sacrum), but the majority do not.
Whenever you observe something unusual in your dog, it’s always important to seek accurate information from trusted sources. As always, please talk with your veterinarian if you’re concerned about your dog’s tail or any other body parts!
A simple action plan
This summer, as you venture outdoors, know the risks of limber tail in your water-loving dog. If you do see sudden onset of symptoms, you’ll have a hunch on the diagnosis and should set up an appointment with your veterinarian to formulate a plan.
Now, enjoy these warmer days and have a ball watching your canine companion make a huge splash — whether that’s in your bathtub, off the end of a dock, or in the foam of the salty tide.
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What fun or crazy water-related story do you have about your dog?
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