Cold Water Tail
Diane O. Gifford
First Printed in the Labrador Retriever Club, Inc. Yearbook (1995). Updated January 2001
It was early in the training season and the pond seemed to have warmed enough for a water session. After working on a water blind handling pattern, the two year old black Labrador Retriever bitch was toweled and returned to her kennel in the car without any unusual occurrences. The next morning her owner noted that her tail was not carried in its normal manner--two thirds of her tail hung limply behind her. Upon examination of her hindquarters, the Labrador appeared in obvious distress and even yelped and whimpered when asked to sit. Fearing a "broken tail" or some other injury, a veterinarian was consulted and x-rays were taken; however, no firm diagnosis was determined. Four days later, without treatment, the bitch's tail carriage returned to normal.
"Cold water tail," "limber tail syndrome," "broken tail," "dead tail," "broken wag" are all euphemisms for a relatively common occurrence in sporting dogs. The tail of the dog hangs down from the tail base or is held horizontal for three or four inches and then drops down. A flaccid tail episode appears to be a painful, but relatively benign affliction that can occur after swimming, after a heavy hunting day or even after a bath with cold water or water that is too warm. It is not always associated with swimming or water, but can happen after a heavy day of work that involves a lot of tail action. The majority of limp tail cases have been reported in sporting dogs or hounds -- Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Setters, Pointers, Flatcoats, Foxhounds and Beagles are the breeds frequently named. Almost all dogs that suffer through an occurrence return to normal within a few days. Affected dogs may or may not have a repeat incidence during their lifetime. [It is this author's experience that symptoms will repeat in the same animal and can be trigged by something as simple as a cold water bath.] This affliction has been described by the layman as a "sprain," fibrosis or a "cold in the tail." The affected dog is miserable at the onset and the tail is painful. If neither the dog owner nor the veterinarian is familiar with this condition, it can be disturbing--fostering conjecture on a possible fracture or spinal cord disease.
Males as well as females are affected as the following narrative from Ron Mandsager D.V.M., Nordic Pine Labradors, Stillwater, Oklahoma indicates. "My male Lab has experienced the condition on two occasions-both were a day or two after several days of heavy hunting (pheasant). On the first occasion, I was very concerned--the tail was carried limply and my dog was in obvious discomfort. Not knowing what was going on (this condition was never mentioned in Vet School, folks!) I was concerned about the possibility of either a fracture or nerve injury in the tail. We radiographed the caudal pelvic area, and the only thing we may have detected was swelling of the ventral muscles at the base of the tail. It resolved spontaneously after a day or two. After the second occurrence, and thinking a bit about what had transpired prior to the condition developing, my hunch is that in my dog it is a response to strenuous exercise of the tail muscles--more than they are used to. When my dog hunts pheasants and gets "birdy," the tail is up and beating rapidly. Between bouts of heavy activity, my dog is crated overnight or as we travel--this may aggravate the condition. This is just a hunch--no evidence. As a veterinarian, I had never seen or heard of this condition, nor had several colleagues with whom I discussed the condition with when I first encountered it."
Janet E. Steiss, DVM, Ph.D., and J.C. Wright, DVM, Ph.D., researchers in the Sports Medicine Program at the College of Veterinary Medicine
, Auburn University, conducted a study on limber tail syndrome in hunting dogs. They surveyed sporting dog owners and trainers by mail and telephone as part of a project aimed at determining the cause or causes of this condition. Their initial inquiries were sent to 418 owners and trainers of hunting dogs in the Southeastern United States. Twenty-seven per cent replied--90% had owned or trained hunting dogs for more than 10 years and respondents had a total of 3,066 dogs in their kennels. Seventy-six per cent of the dogs were used for hunting. Half were in the field once a week and the other half more than once a week. The five breeds commonly observed to have been affected with the syndrome were the English Pointer, the English Setter, the Foxhound, the Beagle and the Labrador Retriever. Based on this study, it appears that the limp tail syndrome is associated with damage to the tail muscles. Dogs that were examined early in the course of the disease showed elevations in serum creatine phosphokinase, a muscle enzyme. There are similarities between this condition and "delayed onset muscle soreness" in humans. Underconditioning or overtraining has been implicated in many cases of dogs showing symptoms of limp tail syndrome. Without a direct cause for the condition, veterinarians find it difficult to prescribe treatment, however experienced owners and trainers feel that recovery time is shortened if anti-inflammatory drugs are administered as soon as the condition is observed.
Grayson, Peggy, Water and the dead tail syndrome, Dog World, May 5, 1995
Grayson, Peggy, What causes dead tails?, Dog World, April 14, 1995
Roslin-Williams, M., A1I About the Labrador Retriever, Pelham Books, England, 1980
Sawtelle, Lucille, AII About the Golden Retriever, Pelham Books, England, 1980
Steiss, Janet E.DVM, Ph.D., Limber Tail Syndrome in Hunting Dogs, American Canine Sports Medicine Association Newsletter, September 1996, Volume 2, Issue 3.