Acute Caudal Myopathy (Limber Tail)

By Courtney Barnes, BSc, DVM; Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

My 10-year-old Labrador retriever suddenly stopped wagging his tail. It is droopy and sore, and my veterinarian says he has limber tail. What is that?

The term “limber tail” is one of several slang terms that apply to a condition that is technically called acute caudal myopathy. Some of the other terms you might hear applied to this include:

  • swimmer's tail
  • cold water tail
  • dead tail
  • limp tail
  • rudder tail
  • broken wag
  • flaccid tail syndrome
  • sprained tail

Working dogs and active hunting dogs seem to be at greatest risk for developing this condition. It is more common in large breed dogs, but it can happen to any breed.

Is this a true medical condition?

acute_caudal_myopathy_limber_tailYes. Acute caudal myopathy typically results from overuse of the tail, causing a strain or sprain of the muscle groups used for tail wagging. Possible scenarios leading to limber tail include vigorous play within the previous 24 hours, prolonged swimming, or active hunting within the past few days. Your dog may act fine immediately following activity but will wake up in pain the next day. The key risk factors appear to be overexertion and/or exposure to very cold water or cold weather.

 How is limber tail diagnosed?

Typically, limber tail is diagnosed by connecting the dots between your dog's symptoms and recent high activity, in addition to a careful evaluation of your dog's tail by your veterinarian.

Your dog may have difficulty rising because dogs use their tails for balance. Likewise, your dog may seem restless and unable to settle because he can’t sit comfortably. The tail may droop limply between your dog's rear legs, or it may stick straight out behind him for a short distance before drooping. Your dog may be so distracted by his pain that he might not eat and may be reluctant to squat to urinate or defecate. Your dog may cry or pull away when the tail is touched.

During the examination, your veterinarian will carefully feel the tail, starting at the base (by the pelvis) and proceeding down the entire length. The goal is to locate the discomfort and rule out any other problems that might explain the symptoms. X-rays may be taken to assess for any other injuries.

What else can explain these symptoms?

Other medical problems that resemble limber tail include:

  • tail fracture or dislocation
  • lower back problems such as intervertebral disc disease, arthritis, or other spinal cord disease
  • infection or inflammation of the anal glands
  • prostate disease 
  • infection or inflammation of the skin under or around the tail

The fact that other medical problems can look similar reinforces the need for a thorough examination by your veterinarian.

How is limber tail treated?

Uncomplicated acute caudal myopathy is treated with rest and anti-inflammatory pain medication (e.g., meloxicam, brand name Metacam®). Only use medication that has been prescribed by your veterinarian. Most dogs are back to normal within a few days to a week. Just because your dog developed limber tail once, does not mean that it will happen again when he returns to his favorite activities. You do not need to prevent your dog from doing the things he loves.

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