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A Lesson in Limber Tail

Many dog handlers and even veterinarians have never heard of limber tail. Read on to learn how to recognize, treat and prevent this painful tail injury affecting many sporting dogs.
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by Laura Houseal

Happiness is a retriever with a duck in his jowls; elation, a pointer flushing a covey of quail. Many hunting dogs are so consumed by the thrill of the hunt that they would rather endure physical harm than quit. Most of the time, hunters can tell when their dog needs to stop—they might slow down, or limp if injured—but one troublesome condition seems to show no signs in the field. Then suddenly, hours later, limber tail sets in, and your tireless hunting buddy is one pitiful pup with one limp, motionless and painful tail.

I first heard of limber tail after a day of fly-fishing on the Little Red River in Arkansas. My yellow Lab, Shiloh, had spent hours swimming in the ice-cold water, diving for rocks, retrieving sticks, balls and the occasional tree trunk. That night, we built a fire and prepared to settle in for the night, but Shiloh couldn't get settled. He'd try to sit or lie down, but quickly popped back up (and after hours of exercise, I knew he wanted to rest).

When I let him outside, he took one step down the stairs and bolted through the yard squealing like a wild animal being attacked. Eventually, he froze, eyes darting through the dark in search of his assailant. Finding no enemy, he again tried to sit, but instead yelped and took off in the other direction. Watching our crazed dog blast through the yard in pain and fear, something struck me: His tail never moved. Through it all, Shiloh's tail seemed stuck to his hindquarters. It didn't appear broken, but he definitely could not move it. We packed up our things, picked up Shiloh and headed to the emergency vet.

Limber tail

"Limber tail," the doctor said, "also known as 'cold tail' or 'rudder tail.' It's painful, but it usually goes away in a few days. He'll be fine."

One cortisone shot and a few hundred dollars later, we headed home relieved and intrigued. I've grown up with hunting dogs all my life, and I'd never heard of limber tail. Turns out, I wasn't alone. The more dog owners I asked, the more I realized few people have heard of this condition.

Dr. Janet Steiss, DVM, PhD, PT at Auburn University's College of Veterinary Medicine, isn't surprised by the lack of knowledge. She specializes in sporting dog medicine and has researched limber tail for 15 years. Unfortunately, she's one of too few people familiar with the condition.

"Many veterinarians have not heard about this problem, and limber tail is not talked about in some of the veterinary schools either," Dr. Steiss explains. "When we did our studies in the 1990s, there was no information about this condition in any of the veterinary texts."

Signs & symptoms

Dr. Steiss' research found that limber tail is caused by injury to some of the tail muscles, usually as a result of over-training or over-exercise.

"Dogs use their tail for balance," she says. "The affected muscles are those working to keep the tail moving side-to-side, or holding it up. Those muscles get overused, resulting in limber tail. During the acute stage, the tail is suddenly limp, hanging down from the base of the tail. The dog may seem painful near the base, and in severe cases where there's swelling of the muscle tissue, you may notice dog's hair standing up over the top of the tail near its base. Also, if you put a little pressure there, you may notice that the dog seems painful."

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