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.

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."

Causes

Excessive exercise is the most common cause of limber tail, especially if the dog is not accustomed to that level of exertion.

"We get more phone calls asking about limber tail in athletic dogs at the start of the season when dogs are going back into heavy training," says Dr. Steiss. "For example, if hunting dogs have been laid off for the summer and suddenly, in September, the owner takes them out hunting all day Saturday, and Sunday, too, then by Sunday night suddenly the dog may show signs of limber tail."

Prolonged cage transport, exposure to cold water or a combination of these can also cause limber tail. If your dog has been in cold water, or if a trainer transports dogs and leaves them on the truck for 12 hours or more without stopping to air them, and then within the next day, the tail falls limp and seems painful, you should probably suspect limber tail.

Treatment

The good news is, limber tail is not life threatening, or even life altering (for more than a few days or weeks). It probably causes some pain for your dog for a day or two. Dr. Steiss says the most important thing is to rest the dog for several days, at least until the normal tail action has returned.

"But even after the tail action looks normal again, the muscle still needs time to heal," she says. "Also, it helps to give an anti-inflammatory for the first day or two, especially for dogs who seem to be in pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Rimadyl or Deramaxx are good examples, and your veterinarian can prescribe these. Or if you can't reach a veterinarian, try buffered aspirin for a day or two. Some veterinarians will give your dog a corticosteroid injection, which also is effective in alleviating the pain and inflammation."

Prevention

Hunting dogs are notorious for pushing their bodies to the point of exhaustion, so it's up to their handlers to set limits. Dog trainers and owners can help prevent limber tail by gradually working their dogs into shape and avoiding extremely cold water—especially when dogs are not in peak physical condition.

Also, avoid extended confinement. If you are going on a long trip, be aware that limber tail is more likely to affect dogs crated for long periods. Let your dog out of his crate every few hours to stretch.

Fortunately, limber tail is becoming a more recognized condition, especially in retrievers and pointers, and with awareness comes prevention.

"As dog handlers become more familiar with the condition, they're also learning how to prevent it," says Dr. Steiss. "The best way to prevent limber tail is to become aware of the specific risk factors and avoid them."