Gazette Vet: Cold Tail

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Dr. Andersen’s dogs in the ocean

My two Labrador Retrievers love to swim and fetch. As soon as we approach a lake or river, they take off at full speed into the water, knowing they’re about to have a big play session. Our female, Ruby, is a total nut. She is beside herself with excitement—swimming in circles, fetching leaves, and frantic with activity. Our male, Boone, who is decidedly more levelheaded than his sister, also seems to lose his mind. For him, it’s all about the fetching.  If you’re not throwing something for him, he will sit and bark loudly at you. This is one of the only times he barks like this.  

Needless to say, when we take them hiking and swimming, they expend a lot of energy and are thoroughly tired later that day.

When Ruby was about one year old, she seemed to overdo it one particular swimming trip. We had a typical weekend hike and swim session in the woods and a few hours after we returned home, she started acting strangely. She was looking at us with a pretty sad face (for her) and we noticed her tail seemed to be limp. Usually all you have to do is look at her and her whole body wags, including her tail. But she was slinking over to us with her tail limp, hanging directly down. When I touched the base of her tail, she winced in pain. Ruby had “cold tail.”

Ruby’s was a classic case of a fairly common problem in working dogs after strenuous exercise. Cold tail is also referred to as “limber tail” and “limp tail,” but all describe the syndrome when a dog plays or works hard and then later seems to have a painful, limp tail.  

There is very little research about cold tail. It’s not a major health problem and much of the time, the owners don’t seek veterinary care because the dogs are otherwise acting normal and they seem to improve in a day or two. 

What we think happens is that a high-energy dog simply overworks and sprains/strains the muscles, tendons, and/or ligaments that support the base of the tail. This leads to pain and stiffness and reluctance to wag the tail a few hours after the exercise. This may last for a day, or sometimes for several days. There are some cases in which the dog never seems to regain normal function of the tail. We suspect there may also be some nerve impingement, possibly from a herniated disc between the bones of the tail.  

The tail is a complex and amazing structure in dogs and cats. Sometimes up to two feet in length but with a relatively small base of support, the tail is made up of individual “coccygeal” vertebrae with an incredibly strong set of muscles, tendons, and ligaments that hold it all together, keep it stable, and give it movement.  The spinal cord officially ends just a bit before the tail, but there are plenty of long nerves that course down its length. Just like any other orthopedic unit in the body, it can be injured, and cold tail is one of the common tail injuries we see.  

Ruby gets cold tail about 3-4 times a year because she is a total nut in the water. Since I know she is prone to this problem, I’ve watched her swim and sure enough, she uses the heck out of her tail. Also, as she shakes herself dry, her tail is flopping all over the place. We usually take them swimming a few times a month, so no wonder she is prone to this problem.

Ruby loves swimming, so I’m not going to deny her that. Is there anything I can do to prevent or treat this?  

As far as prevention goes, there’s not much I can do given our lifestyle. Like any orthopedic issue, heavy exercise without regular training is a recipe for injury. If we went swimming twice a week, every week, perhaps her cold tail episodes would disappear as her tail became more fit. We can’t get her out that much given our schedule, so we try to limit how much fetch we play when we do go swimming. Now we usually give her a veterinary anti-inflammatory like Rimadyl either before we go or right after we return home. This is a safe way to help alleviate some of the pain before it gets started and usually reduces her symptoms to just a day.

So, if you take your dog swimming or playing and later he or she is in a lot of pain with a limp tail? It’s probably cold tail, but if you’re not sure, see a veterinarian as soon as you can. I see a lot of cold tail patients. 

If Ruby could choose between no swimming or swimming but with tail pain afterwards, she would definitely choose swimming. She is six years old now and seems to be having less severe episodes, so perhaps she is actually starting to slow down a bit with age. However, she is still a nut, so we’ll keep Rimadyl handy and enjoy watching her and her brother play hard. 

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