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When the wagging stops: Is it limber tail?

It seems like my dog Rio’s tail is always wagging—he’s a goofy Labrador retriever mix who sometimes even wags in his sleep. So one day when he was a few years old, I was shocked to discover his tail hanging limp like a wet noodle. He wouldn’t even wag for a treat.

Panicked, my husband and I rushed Rio to his veterinarian, who asked if we’d noticed him injure his tail. We hadn’t. We’d been camping all weekend by a lake, where Rio spent a lot of time swimming. Then we took a long hike and he wagged his tail the entire time, sometimes so enthusiastically that I started taking video because it was so charming.

Our veterinarian’s diagnosis: limber tail syndrome. Basically, Rio’s tail-wagging muscles were overworked and had become very painful. However, we were relieved to learn limber tail isn’t a permanent condition. With rest and anti-inflammatory medication, Rio was back to his happy, wagging self in a couple of days.

Joe Spoo, DVM, DACVSMR, co-owner of AAHA-accredited Best Care Pet Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and author of the GunDogDoc blog, said he tends to see an influx of patients with limber tail at the start of hunting season, when the weather starts to warm up and dogs spend more time recreating outside.

The tail either hangs limp from the base, or juts out horizontally for a few inches and then droops.

“The first time anybody sees limber tail, they panic and think their dog broke their tail,” he says. “The tail just dangles.”

Limber tail—also called swimmer’s tail, Lab tail, cold water tail, or pointer tail—is especially common in sporting breeds, but can affect any breed with a long, active tail, Spoo says.

“We can see the condition in any dog that goes from not using his tail to overusing it, whether it be swimming or playing or just being happy,” he says.

While limber tail tends to occur in the first three years of a dog’s life, it probably has less to do with age than the dog’s muscles not yet being trained to handle a typical workload, Spoo says. Often, a dog only experiences limber tail once, but there are exceptions.

“I used to say it was a ‘one and done’ [condition], but we’ll see it in a few dogs where it repeats every time the new workload starts,” Spoo says. “I do have a couple Labs that seem to have it once a year at the start of hunting season.”

Mild cases of limber tail will resolve with rest in less than 24 hours. For more severe cases, Spoo prescribes an anti-inflammatory medication to help with the pain and recommends restricted activity to rest the tail. Dogs typically recover in two to three days.

Diagnosing limber tail is fairly easy. Other causes of a non-wagging tail, such as trauma, can be ruled out if the tail hasn’t been stepped on, pulled, slammed in a door, or otherwise injured, while more serious causes, like neurological issues, would be accompanied by other signs, Spoo says.

If you suspect your dog has limber tail, do not treat him at home with over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medications for humans like aspirin or ibuprofen. Dogs do not have the same enzymes humans do and cannot break down these medications effectively, Spoo says.

“Don’t think, ‘I’m going to make a self-diagnosis and I have an anti-inflammatory for me, so I’ll just give it to my dog.’ [You] can end up in a way worse situation than a day or two of a painful tail,” he says. “Consult your veterinarian.”

Freelance journalist Jen Reeder was moved to tears when she realized her dog developed limber tail syndrome from wagging too much on the first family camping trip after her husband’s kidney transplant.

iStock.com/George Clerk

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