I once received a note from a pet parent about an unusual and perplexing condition in her canine companion. She lived in southwestern Florida, and had recently taken her dog and foster pup for a doggie paddle in the sea. Although the water was cold, it was a warm Florida day – and there was just no denying the pups a dip!

The next day, she discovered her dog’s tail hanging limply. No matter how happy he was, his tail just couldn’t show it. Worried the tail was broken, she rushed to the nearest veterinary emergency clinic.

She recounted her “tale of the tail” to the ER vet. As she replayed the swimming, the roughhousing and the resulting motionless tailpiece, the veterinarian began to smile. I could totally relate. “It’s not broken. It’s limber tail.”

Limber tail? What in the world is that?

I’ve seen my share of hunting and field trial dogs over the last 25 years. If you’ve had working Coonhounds, Pointers, Labs or Beagles, you’ve probably run across similar symptoms.

The traditional scenario is a dog who was crated for a long time, had a hard workout or event the previous day, was swimming in cold water or wet conditions, and the next day the tail wouldn’t budge.

Growing up I knew this condition as “cold tail,” because we most commonly saw it in dogs who had been swimming in cold water or wetlands. These hounds often had pain a few inches from the tail base, and appeared normal otherwise.

dog swimming in lake


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What causes limber or cold tail?

Maybe we’re correct with our theories, after all! A 2016 study conducted by the University of Edinburgh, and the first study of its kind, concluded that dogs didn’t have to swim to be affected by limber tail.

Most of the dogs definitively diagnosed with limber tail lived in northern UK, further supporting the notion that cold may be the underlying trigger. The researchers also found that working dogs were more likely to develop the condition than pet pooches.

Even more interesting was the discovery that related dogs often developed limber tail, fueling speculation of a genetic or hereditary trait.

But the truth is, we still don’t know for sure what causes limber tail in dogs. It appears spontaneously, maybe as a result of overexertion and decreased blood flow to the tail base area. Most cases improve on their own within a few days or weeks.

We also don’t know how many dogs are actually affected. There is active research being conducted in the UK to evaluate Labrador Retrievers for this and other genetic and lifestyle conditions. Hopefully we’ll have a better understanding of the causes of limber tail in the near future.

How is limber tail treated?

We know how to treat limber tail, sort of. When I was working for a vet as a youngster, we saw enough hunting dogs to know the best cure was rest. The majority of affected dogs returned to normal within a few days without any medical intervention. These days I’ll prescribe an anti-inflammatory if the pup is in pain or has swelling. I don’t normally take an X-ray or conduct diagnostic tests unless there’s evidence of injury or the tail stays floppy after three to five days.

I hope I’ve given you a little insight into an odd, uncommon and unsolved canine medical mystery. Now let’s all go for a swim!

Mar 26, 2015
Pet Health

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