By Elizabeth Xu
You might not think about your dog’s tail as being much more than a way to measure how happy he or she is, but it’s actually much more than that. Like any other part of your dog’s body, it can be affected by a number of health issues.
Even though tail problems are not everyday occurrences, they are worth knowing about. The tail can be difficult to treat because the area is hard to bandage and a dog won’t necessarily tolerate a bandage on their tail, says Dr. Patrick Mahaney, a holistic veterinarian based in California. Additionally, when a dog is experiencing a tail issue, it’s generally very noticeable.
Here are the eight most common tail problems you might spot on your dog:
Social dogs usually enjoy playing with other dogs, either while out on a walk or at a dog park. However, that fun can turn to pain.
“The tail is a place that can be injured very easily when dogs play with other dogs or when escaping from an animal seeking to do them harm,” Mahaney says. “It very often gets bitten when one dog is running away from the other.” This could cause trauma on the base of the tail or anywhere along the tail, he says.
Dog bites should be assessed by a veterinarian, and common treatments include cleaning the wound, topical medication, oral antibiotics and pain relievers, he says.
There are many reasons skin infections could occur on a dog’s tail, including allergies or infections related to cuts and scrapes that come from trauma.
“We see many infections from allergies, which cause the pet to chew and itch at their tail,” says Dr. Duffy Jones, DVM of Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital in Georgia. “Because the tail typically has very little extra skin, once the skin is broken into an open wound it can be very hard to get it to heal.”
Treatment for skin infections is difficult, Jones says, because while the dog can be placed in an Elizabethan collar to prevent them from licking the tail, the dog will likely still wag the tail, irritating the wound.
“Many times they are going to need to be on oral antibiotics,” he says. “Sometimes we also add in topical medications but those can be difficult because it might cause the dog to want to lick more.”
Tail sprains mainly occur from overuse, Mahaney says, especially with dogs who swim a lot because they tend to use their tail as a rudder as they swim. He says the issue happens because the muscles get fatigued, the small joints and ligaments in the tail get stressed and then the tail becomes flaccid. Treatment often involves restriction from activity and anti-inflammatory medication, he says.
If your excitable dog wags her tail just about everywhere, her enthusiasm likely makes you smile. However, these dogs (whom Mahaney calls “fierce wagggers”) can have problems if they get their tail too close to furniture, walls, or other objects that could harm their tail.
“The tail can be traumatized to the point that there’s erosion of skin on the surface and damage to blood vessels occurs, causing a Dexter-style bloodbath in your home,” Mahaney says. “It’s a fairly common event that, in some dogs, actually leads to the need for partial tail amputation.”
If this is a problem for your dog, Mahaney suggests simply moving any problem-furniture out of your dog’s way. Additionally, make sure your dog gets enough outdoor exercise, as a tired dog is likely to wag less “fiercely” than is one who has a lot of pent up energy.
Nerve damage in tails can occur after traumatic events, like a car accident. According to Jones, a tail that has nerve damage can appear limp and not have a lot of movement. However, tail nerve damage isn’t always caused by an accident.
“We can also see the same nerve issue arise more slowly in pets with chronic disc disease,” he says. “The disc puts pressure on the spinal cord and the tail can lose its ability to move.” Other types of chronic neurologic diseases affecting the lower back can have a similar effect.
Whenever possible, therapy should involve treating the primary issue, whether it was a car accident or spinal cord compression, Jones says. Treating nerve damage may also include anti-inflammatory medications, pain relief, physical therapy, surgery and more.
Some dog breeds, such as pugs, have corkscrew tails which can pose problems to their health. Mahaney says fecal matter can get trapped by the tail around the anus, which can lead to irritation and infection. A partial tail amputation could treat this issue, he says. Of course, there are other steps you could take first.
“I recommend owners of pets having issues where the tail traps fecal material clean the perineum (area around the anus) and any other parts prone to fecal and environmental debris collection every 12 hours or as needed,” Mahaney says. “Over-the-counter baby wipes or a veterinary-prescribed antiseptic wipe are generally safe to use and non-harmful to the skin.” If your dog’s fur is responsible for trapping fecal material, keeping the hair in that area trimmed short can also help.
The fracture or dislocation of a tail can happen if it’s grabbed, stepped on, or gets stuck in a door, Mahaney says. Since it’s difficult to bandage a tail, the best case scenario is for the tail to heal on its own, he says, although partial tail amputation might become necessary if adequate healing doesn’t occur.
If partial tail amputation is necessary, anesthesia is required and the skin will take 10 to 14 days to heal, Mahaney says. After surgery, dogs will need to wear an Elizabethan collar and owners will need to provide medication as well as keep an eye on the surgery site.
It can be hard to tell if a dog has a fractured or dislocated tail, but Mahaney says tails with these issues usually have a weird angle to them. If the fracture or dislocation is recent, the dog probably won’t wag the tail much and it will likely be tender to the touch.
Fleas often target the base of a dog’s tail, which can lead to problems with the tail itself. Mahaney says fleas bite a dog’s skin, causing irritation.
“The dog will lick or chew to remedy the uncomfortable sensation of the bite and the inflammation it causes and will create further irritation to the skin around the base of the tail,” he says.
If fleas are an issue for your dog, there are several flea treatments and medications that can help kill the fleas and make your pup flea-free.
Some tail problems are easy to spot, especially if blood’s involved. But others are not, so owners need to watch out for more subtle signs like a tail that is bending in a strange way, is limp, or is not wagging as often as normal. Any of these could be signs your dog has a tail problem.
“If you suspect that your dog or cat has a tail problem, you should immediately address it with your veterinarian,” Mahaney says.
Think your dog has dead tail? Read more about it here.