First Aid for Tail Injuries in Cats

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

It is a simple fact: cats move their tails. Tail movement is a communication tool in the feline world, so when a cat does not move her tail, it is an indication that something might be wrong.

The tail is an important part of the feline anatomy and is actually an extension of the spine. The bones of the tail (vertebrae) are bigger at the base and get smaller toward the tip. Soft discs cushion the spaces between the vertebrae and allow flexibility. The tail muscle and nerves facilitate tail movement. This complex tail structure of bone, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels can easily be injured.

What are some common tail injuries, and what should I do about them?

Here are some of the most common feline tail injuries and how they should be treated:

Abrasions. Simple scrapes can occur when a cat flicks their tail against an sharp surface (wire fencing) or catches their tail under something (like a rocking chair). If the hair is rubbed off and red skin exposed, clean the area with mild soap and warm water. Apply antibiotic ointment and bandage the tail lightly with self-adhering wrap instead of adhesive tape. To avoid restricting blood flow, do not wrap the bandage too tightly. Change the bandage and re-apply antibiotic ointment daily. Bitter Apple or an Elizabethan collar (cone) may deter chewing at the bandage.

If excessive bleeding or swelling occurs or if the tissue changes color, take your cat to your veterinarian. If skin and muscle damage is severe, medical intervention is advised. Your cat may need antibiotics and pain medication to allow for proper healing.

Lacerations. More severe than simple abrasions, lacerations can be deep cuts that expose underlying muscle and bone. Some lacerations are self-inflicted by cats that are nervous, bored, or have other behavior problems. Tail biting can also be a result of flea allergies or impacted anal glands. Infection is likely to occur, especially with bite wounds, and some lacerations will require sutures (stitches). Wrap the tail in a towel to control bleeding while you transport your cat to the veterinary emergency clinic.

One of the more common ways that a cat can lacerate their tail is when they get caught in the fan belt of a car. When the weather is cold, many cats seek the warmth of a car engine and are injured when the motor is started. To avoid this situation, bang on the hood of your car and honk the horn before turning on the ignition.

Fractured Tail. Like any other bone in the body, the vertebrae that make up tails can break. Very often a fractured tail occurs when a cat is hit by a car, falls off a porch or bed, or has her tail slammed in a door. The location of the fracture has a lot to do with how serious the injury is.

If the fracture is located at the tip of the tail, it usually heals well without any treatment, although, the tail may have a bump or kink at the fracture site. If the bones in the tail are crushed, part of the tail may have to be amputated. Injuries near the base of the tail often involve nerve damage and are more serious.

If your cat is hit by a car or has a bad fall, take her to your veterinarian to have a complete exam. Her tail may not be the only thing that needs attention.

Nerve damage. The nerves in the tail are protected by the bony vertebrae, but they can be injured nonetheless. Avulsion injuries, caused when the tail is pulled strenuously, may stretch or tear nerves, while breaks near the base of the tail may sever nerves. Tail pull injuries can cause damage to nerves higher up in the spinal cord that control urination and defecation.

If the nerves that control urination and defecation are injured, your cat may become incontinent. With time, nerve function may return; however, some cats remain unable to control their bladder or bowels. Nerve damage may also cause the tail to hang limply. The cat may not be able to move her tail or even raise it when having a bowel movement. Skin infections may be a secondary problem with limp tails. If you notice that your cat cannot flick or move her tail and it hangs limply, consult your veterinarian.

While minor abrasions may be treated at home, many tail injuries require veterinary attention. Your job as a pet owner is to assess the situation and seek veterinary help when needed. Your cat’s veterinarian can prescribe antibiotics (oral or injectable) and pain medication or even perform surgery if needed to treat the injured tail. With proper care, your cat will hopefully be moving her tail again in no time.

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