Written by Vet

Limber Tail Syndrome – What Is Limber Tail In Dogs?

Ivana Crnec
Written by: Dr. Ivana Crnec
The limber tail syndrome is often seen in working dogs. It's very often seen in sporting dogs as well. Read on to learn what a limber dog tail syndrome is and how it may hurt your dog.

To a dog, its tail is an essential accessory. Well, it is more than just a decorative accessory – it is a functional one.

Dogs communicate with the world through the position of their tails. By analyzing the dog’s tail position, we can know how the dog feels at all times.

For example, a happy dog will vigorously wag its tail. A scared dog will tuck its tail between its back legs. An aggressive dog will hold its tail stiffly and rigidly.

In addition to being a communication mean, the tail helps dogs maintain balance when moving and sitting or standing up, and it serves as a rudder when the dog is swimming.

With so many different functions, it is only logical to wonder what would happen if the dog’s tail suddenly ceases to function? And what can cause that sudden stop?

Well, several conditions can affect the dog’s tail. This article will extensively review a condition known as acute caudal myopathy or limber tail.

More often than not, the limber tail is a benign and self-limiting issue. However, some of the other problems affecting the tail’s function are more serious and require special treatment and management. Therefore, all dogs with tail issues or tail injury, no matter how small and insignificant they may seem, require veterinary attention.

Limber Tail Syndrome: Definition

There are many slang terms and euphemisms for a limber tail, like cold-water tail, frozen tail, sprung tail, broken wag, swimmer’s tail, rudder tail, dead tail. However, the official medical term is acute caudal myopathy.

To better understand what that means, we should break down the medical name. Simply put, the term “acute” describes that the condition has a sudden onset.

The term “caudal” indicates that the condition affects the dog’s tail. Finally, the term “myopathy” means the condition stems from the muscles – it is a muscular disorder.

All in all, the term acute caudal myopathy means a “sudden muscle disorder of the tail”. The condition clinically manifests with a tail that extends straight for several inches and then limply drops down.

Limber tail is a poorly understood and often underestimated condition. Luckily, it is transient and non-progressive in nature, which means it can resolve on its own without special treatment.

However, since it is associated with significant discomfort and pain, it should be always be appropriately managed following the vet’s bits of advice.

Limber Tail Syndrome: Etiology And Incidence

The exact cause of limber tail is not determined but there are several known risk factors:

  • Swimming in cold water
  • Excessive exercise, especially in unconditioned dogs
  • Exposure to cold
  • Prolonged confinement
  • Climate change

Limber tail is most frequently reported in hunting dogs. This is mainly because hunting involves four of the five known risk factors – swimming in cold water or exposure to cold (depending on where the dog hunts – land or water, or both); excessive exercise – most dogs do not exercise all year round but are quite active during hunt season and prolonged cage transport.

All in all, the limber tail is most common among hunting dogs, at the beginning of the season, especially if left without proper conditioning before the season starts and after a long day of exhausting work.

Theoretically, all dog breeds can develop a limber tail but due to their unique lifestyles, certain breeds are at higher risk.

Susceptible dog breeds include:

  • Retrievers
  • Pointers
  • Hounds
  • Beagles
  • Setters

The condition is more common among males than females and among young than adult dogs. The tail conformation seems to be an important factor too – namely dogs with high-set tails are more likely to develop a limber tail.

Newer studies suggest there are genetic and nutritional components to the limber tail susceptibility. However, these theories are yet to be confirmed.

Limber Tail Syndrome: Pathogenesis

Limber tail, as a condition, is undoubtedly related to muscle damage. This is supported by the fact that there are elevated blood levels of the muscle enzyme – creatine phosphokinase in dogs with a limber tail.

The muscle damage can also be seen on muscle tissue observed under a microscope. Namely, suppose a biopsy is taken from a dog with a limber tail and the tissue adequately prepared and analyzed under a microscope.

In that case, there will be apparent damages to the muscle fibers.

From the above explained, it is safe to assume that the limber tail is caused by muscle damage, but which events lead to muscle damage in the first place?

Well, the tail muscles are confined in the small spaces between the vertebrae. When an external factor damages those muscles, they respond to the damage by swelling.

Since they are already bound once swollen, they become trapped. As a result, the blood flow in those muscles decreases, which aggravates the already difficult situation.

When the blood flow is impaired, and the muscle cells are deprived of oxygen, they start to degenerate. The muscle degeneration is followed by pain and dysfunction.

It is an interesting fact that not all tail muscles are equally damaged. The most severe damage is to the musculus intertransversarius ventralis caudalis, or in layman’s terms, the laterally positioned muscles mostly used for side-to-side motions like wagging.

Limber Tail Syndrome: Clinical Manifestation

A dog with a limber tail will manifest the following signs and symptoms:

  • Abnormal tail positioning – straight at the base and then flaccidly limp
  • Decreased appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Reluctance to sit, lay down, stand up, or move
  • Shifting weight from side to side
  • Reluctance to defecate
  • Reluctance to urinate (in females)
  • Pain and discomfort

Limber Tail Syndrome: Differential Diagnosis

There are several conditions that can mimic a limber tail in dogs.

When a dog presents with a flaccid tail, the following differential diagnosis are worth considering:

  • Tail trauma
  • Tail fracture
  • Impacted anal glands
  • Prostatitis
  • Tail cancer
  • Intervertebral disk disease
  • Caudaequina syndrome

Limber Tail Syndrome: Diagnosis

To set up the right diagnosis, the vet will start with the basics and then work his/her way up through the diagnostic procedures.

The diagnostic process, as in any other cases, consists of the following steps:

1. Acquiring The Dog’s History

First, the vet will ask about the presenting problem, which in this case is the weirdly hanging tail and flaccid tail. The dog owner will report the changes the dog exhibits, such as lethargy, decreased appetite, reluctance to sit and move.

The dog owner will also be asked if there were any significant events in the days before the issue. In most presenting cases, the owners report vigorous play, active hunting, and prolonged swimming or confinement within the previous 24 hours.

Generally, most dogs act normally immediately after the activity and develop the symptoms the next day.

2. Full Physical Examination

This is the most critical part of the diagnostic process. By examining the dog, the vet acquired essential information.

Despite the evident and abnormal tail positioning, the most notable sign is pain upon touching the tail. Basically, dogs with liber tail resent having their tails palpated.

3. Laboratory Findings

The vet will order a complete blood count (to assess the dog’s overall health) and a biochemistry panel (to check the blood’s muscle enzyme levels). In dogs with limber tail, the creatine kinase levels are higher than the average.

4. Special Tests

There are several diagnostic aids that the vet may use to make sure the diagnosis is correct. Those are:

  • Tail x-ray – tail radiography is used to eliminate tail fractures, and tail tumors are possible causes.
  • Thermography – this is an advanced diagnostic procedure that includes analyzing the tail from a thermal perspective. In dogs with limber tail, the damaged parts of the tail, closer to the base, are perceived as cold zones (with temperatures cooler for around 2 to 3 Celsius)
  • Electromyography – once again, this is an advanced diagnostic procedure, recommended for scientific rather than practical purposes. In dogs with limber tail, the electromyogram shows spontaneous and abnormal activity.
  • Biopsy – in everyday limber tail cases, a biopsy is not recommended because the tail muscles are too small, and the nerves are closely intertwined. Anyway, if the procedure’s benefits outweigh the risks, and the tissue is observed under a microscope, there will be visible damages to the muscle fibers.

All in all, an experienced vet will be able to set the diagnosis based on the dog’s history and clinical manifestations.

Just to be 100% sure and eliminate other potential issues, he/she may order an x-ray of the tail. However, when setting up a diagnosis, the vet must follow specific protocols, and sometimes that entails performing additional tests and diagnostic procedures that may not seem necessary at first.

Limber Tail Syndrome: Treatment

The treatment of limber tail in dogs is symptomatic and straightforward. Generally speaking, the treatment involves:

  • Plenty of rest – the goal is the give the muscle enough time to rejuvenate and heal. A dog with a limber tail should rest, but cage rest, especially in small crates, is forbidden since it is considered one of the risk factors for developing a limber tail. So, the dog should rest but in a spacious crate or comfortable bed. This is easier said than done, particularly for working dogs that thrive on having a job to do. Therefore, you must be super supportive and mentally stimulate your canine baby during its rest. Its body needs to rest, but its mind has full working capacity.
  • Steroids, non-steroid anti-inflammatories, and pain killers reduce the swelling and inflammation, thus achieving pain relief.
  • Once again, putting ice and heat pads to control the pain and swelling.
  • Ensuring an excitement-free environment – you need to make sure the dog stays in an environment where nothing can trigger an unexpected wagging session.

Recently, holistic and alternative treatments have gained popularity in all veterinary medicine fields.

New studies and experimental treatments suggest acupuncture and cold laser are the future of treating limber tail.

  • Acupuncture – dogs that receive acupuncture therapy within the first two days of developing limber tail show significant improvement in just 24 hours or after a single treatment.
  • Cold laser – dogs treated with cold laser show similar improvement as dogs with acupuncture treatments. When using the laser, it is essential to treat a broader region that includes both the tail base and the lower back.

Limber Tail Syndrome: Prognosis

The prognosis for dogs with liber tail is excellent. The condition is self-limiting, which means over-time, it resolves on its own.
Even if left without treatment, the condition does not progress. However, the limber tail is quite painful and uncomfortable, so the lack of treatment is considered inhumane.

Most dogs with limber tails experience significant improvement over few days and a full recovery within two to three weeks.

It should be accented that dogs that have already been diagnosed with limber tail, are more likely to develop it in the future. In fact, the limber tail has a tendency to reoccur in about 1/3 of the cases.

Limber Tail Syndrome: Prevention

Preventing is much simpler than treating and managing. Here are some useful tips on how to prevent your dog from developing a limber tail:

  • Build your dog’s stamina and endurance slowly and gradually. Do not practice intense workout regimens. Instead, keep your dog moderately active all year round – this will help maintain a healthy body weight and healthy condition.
  • Avoid confining for long periods. If the confinement is necessary (for example, for transportation purposes) make plenty of stretch breaks during confinement.
  • Always thoroughly dry your dog. This is particularly useful if the dog was swimming in cold waters or needs to stay in a cold environment after swimming.
  • Never bathe your dog late at night or in the evening unless you are planning on blow-drying it.
  • Do not forcefully end an intense workout. For example, if your dog was hunting all day do not make it go to bed as soon as the hunt is over. Instead, encourage your dog to move for at least 15 to 20 minutes more. This is the dog’s cool-down period and it must be planned gradually. Once the cool-down period is over you can let your dog sleep but not for the entire night. It is advisable to wake it several times during the night and promote stretching or light physical activity during those breaks.
  • Never let your dog sleep on wet beddings.
  • Keep in mind that some dogs are predisposed to developing limber tail. Also, keep in mind that dogs with a history of the limber tail are more likely to re-experience the condition.

If your dog belongs to one of these groups, be extra cautious and always practice the above-listed preventative measures.