Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"Cold Tail"

Meet Jasmine, one of our "frequent flyer" patients (luckily for mostly routine care!). Jazzy came in on Monday with a complaint that her tail seemed painful and was hanging somewhat limp and slightly tucked. The day before she had been on a three hour hike which included wading in some creeks, and when she arrived home she had a bath to get rid of the accumulation of mud (we had 12 INCHES of rain in April with more this past week- FINALLY we have strung together a few sunny days!). When I examined her, she was a little more subdued than usual. Her tail hung straight down for the first 4-5 inches with the remainder tucked slightly between her legs. She was painful when I manipulated the tail, especially at the base, and showed some sensitivity over the root of the tail as well. She has a history of some anal gland issues, so we checked those out and found no problems. She showed no abnormalities in gait and was more than willing to relieve us of a few cookies.

Jasmine was suffering from a malady known as "cold tail", "limber tail", "rudder tail", or "swimmers tail". I was never taught about this in school, but luckily years ago before my first case I read about it on VIN, the Veterinary Information Network- a computer network for veterinarians to discuss cases and get advice from specialists. This is definitely NOT a specialist type case- it's more the type that "Old Doc" can spot in the waiting room but might have the new grad scratching their head! (I guess it is somewhat of a bummer that I am far closer the the "old doc" than "new grad" category these days!). Most hunting dog trainers are quite familiar with this condition as well.

Jazzy's tail had a little more tone than most; in most cases the whole tail will hang limp or the first few inches will be held out straight behind with the rest of the tail hanging limp. The dog still can move it normally and has normal neurologic responses. Many of these dogs are extremely painful. It occurs almost exclusively in short haired sporting breeds, and the most common history is that they had heavy exercise which most likely involved swimming or bathing and/or cold, wet weather. I did find a couple reports (in labs, of course!) where it occurred the day after a prolonged party or family gathering, where the dog's tail never stopped wagging all day! Occasionally prolonged cage rest has been associated as well.

This wasn't the easiest thing to demonstrate in photos but hopefully you can get the idea. Sometimes the hair on the top of the tail will be raised; Jasmine did not demonstrate this symptom.

So what causes it? A study was actually done on several Pointers by Dr. Jan Steiss at Auburn and found that there was damage and inflammation in the coccygeal muscles (which connect the pelvis to the first few tail vertebrae). When swimming, these dogs use their tail as a rudder and in effect pushing against the water is similar to isometric exercises. Any exercise which emphasizes this "rudder" function of the tail has the potential to produce the problem. Most dogs will improve within a few days to a week, and anti-inflammatories can help to make them much more comfortable.

In Jazzy's case, she had had what sounded like a prior episode while vacationing in Florida and swimming in the ocean. Dogs who have one episode have a 50/50 chance of having future episodes. We sent her home on NSAIDs and expect her to make a full recovery in no time. Should she not recover as expected, we will look further for more serious issues but I 'm pretty confident that cold tail is our answer!

Here's a link to an article that gives a little more info if you are interested:


  1. Thank you for the post... my dog has been sensitive around at the base of her tail all morning. I thought her stomach had flipped. But this happened to her once before at our lake cabin and go figure we were swimming all gay yesterday as well as playing ball. I give here an antiinflamatory today and avoid swimming/runniner her today. Thanks!!

  2. I had two Labradors who would get Cold Tail. Czorro would get it, we would give him one asprin a day and he would be back to normal in about 2 days. We found when he didn't get dry enough that if it were cool in the house that was when it happened. Deo would get it only a couple times, again we would give him an asprin and he would be fine in a day or two. Deo was always in the water, he only got cold tail a couple of times. We also taught one of our Cincinnati Vets about cold tail. Labradors and Goldens seemed to be the most prone to it.