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a tail to tell: broken tails in cats

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Dr. Kim Smyth
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Apr 11 2013
cat sleeping in windowsill | broken tails in cats | Petplan
One of my favorite parts of spring is being able to open the windows and let in some fresh air, and both of my cats agree. In the spring, you’re very likely to find them abandoning their favorite sleeping place (my pillow!) in favor of a warm, sunny windowsill.

This leads me to today’s blog topic – cats with broken tails. What’s one got to do with another? Well, the answer harks back to my very first spring as a practicing veterinarian. It was my first one spent in Pennsylvania (particularly rough for this Southerner!) so I was very glad to finally see a warm day. The town cats must have been equally appreciative, because that day I saw the first broken tail of my career, followed almost immediately by my second! Both cats were the victims of their position when old windows slipped and fell onto their tails as they were soaking up the sun.

How dogs and cats use their tails

Cats and dogs use their tails for both balance and communication. They are composed of segmented bones, muscles and ligaments, and attached to the sacrum, which is connected to the vertebral bones of the lumbar spine. Nerves travel back down along the spine to control the muscles of the tail, hind legs, large intestine, bladder and anus.

Symptoms

The symptoms of a broken tail are usually obvious – you may notice a kinked, painful tail, sometimes with an open wound. Less obvious breaks will still be painful, so you may notice your pet dragging his tail or holding it in an otherwise unusual way. An X-ray will usually be enough to confirm the break.

Treatment

The prognosis for a simple break is generally quite good – usually amputation above the break is recommended, and once the surgery site is healed, these cats lead a normal life with a bobbed tail.

Beyond a break, tails can be injured any number of ways, some of which may not be immediately obvious to even the most astute owner. As I’ve mentioned, windows and doors are common traps, as are cat fights and auto accidents. Less obvious injuries include tail pulling accidents, which can occur from an overly eager child, or a narrowly missed hit by car incident. When a cat is lucky enough to escape being hit by a car, sometimes his tail is collateral damage – it gets caught by the wheel but he keeps right on running, resulting in what we call a “tail pull” injury.

Tail pull injuries in cats

Tail pull injuries may be less obvious. When the tail is traumatically pulled, the nerves that travel down to the hind end can be stretched or even severed. This causes trouble for not only the tail, but for the other organs and muscles those nerves connect, including the bladder and intestines.

Signs of a pull injury include a dragging, dribbling of urine or urinary incontinence, and fecal incontinence. Similar to a broken tail, your vet will order an X-ray to be sure of the diagnosis.

Tail pull injuries vary in terms of prognosis, depending on the severity of nerve damage. Most cases recover, though it may take up to six months to do so. Even severely affected cats (those with fecal incontinence and no tail mobility at the time of the injury) have a 50% recovery rate, though a lot of nursing care will be needed until the condition is resolved. Having cat insurance from Petplan in place, which can cover accidents and injuries such as these, can help with the costs of caring for your injured cat during this difficult recovery period.