Because we are often accustomed to seeing our dogs greet us with wagging tails and happy body language, it can be very disconcerting when their tails aren’t “working right.” Our first response is usually, “did my dog break his tail?”
There are many injuries that a dog’s tail can sustain. Therefore, it is important to identify the cause of the discomfort before attempting to treat it. Minor scrapes, abrasions, and skin irritations can often be treated at home, but breaks and dislocations require the attention of a vet.
Dogs’ tails are an extension of their spines and may consist of any number of vertebrae depending on breed; commonly, tails consist of 5 to 20 vertebrae. These vertebrae change in shape over the length of the tail, becoming longer and narrower at the tip. Though dogs’ tails may appear externally simple, they contain muscles and blood vessels, and discs provide cushion between the vertebrae.
While dogs are able to live without their tails—as evidenced by dogs of certain breeds who are typically born without tails or whose tails were traditionally docked—these appendages do more than just serve as an indicator of the dog’s mood.
In addition to their role in body language (which, to be fair, is a very important function), dogs’ tails also help dogs balance, move and change direction, jump, swim, and keep warm. When the tail is hurt, these functions may be impeded; as such, tail injuries should be taken seriously and often require a veterinarian visit.
How to Tell if Your Dog’s Tail Has Been Injured
Seeing your dog in discomfort can be very upsetting, especially when the cause is not entirely clear. When your dog has hurt their tail, it is possible that the way their tail was hurt may not be immediately obvious. In other scenarios, the cause might be clearer but the extent of the damage may not be as straightforward.
A tail that appears to be broken may indeed be hurt, but a limp tail is not necessarily fractured. While some of the movement of the tail is subconscious or involuntary, your dog is able to control certain tail motions. When their tails are hurt, dogs may not move them as much as usual in order to avoid triggering pain.
Because of this, it is important to take a closer look in order to ascertain the cause of the pain or damage so that the best course of treatment may be established.
Causes of Dog Tail Injuries
Scrapes and Cuts
While tail scrapes are typically superficial and less likely to cause complications than a puncture wound or cut, they may still bleed a lot and can be very alarming. Abrasions or cuts may be caused by encounters with rough surfaces or contact with something sharp. When a dog’s tail is stuck in something, it could also be degloved, meaning the skin and fur are torn off (we suggest not Googling that!).
If left untreated, cuts and abrasions can become infected, leading to greater health concerns.
Allergies, Infections, and Skin Irritation
Skin allergies can be irritating and painful and have a variety of causes. Some dogs have skin that is very sensitive to grass, leading to itching sensations that they try to soothe through biting, nibbling, or licking at the affected skin. In some cases, these actions can break the skin.
In addition to infections and skin allergies, dogs may experience skin irritation around or on their tails as a result of fleas or a health problem such as blocked anal glands. In response to the irritant, dogs may chew on their tails (or near their tails), which could cause skin damage.
Generally, the types of tumors that would grow on a dog’s tail are not likely to be cancerous; however, if you find a tumor anywhere on your dog, you should have your vet check it out to make sure that is indeed benign and to find out whether or not it needs to be removed. Some dogs may be annoyed by tumors and may lick or bite them, leading to skin trauma and a risk of infection.
Broken or Dislocated Tail
A broken tail is usually the result of trauma such as the tail getting jammed in a door (commonly interior doors in their house, backyard doors, or car doors), the tail being stepped on, or the tail being pulled. Car crashes are another common cause of trauma to a dog’s tail; if your dog has been involved in a crash—especially if they were hit by a car—it is important to take them to the vet.
Tails that have fractures or that have been dislocated often look abnormal: some tails may have a bend or kink in a part that was previously straight, or the tail may be completely limp and unresponsive. Depending on the type of injury, its location, and your dog’s general health, the dog may express different levels of discomfort.
The same types of trauma that can result in broken or dislocated tails can also cause damage to the nerves in dogs’ tails. Additionally, dogs may suffer nerve damage as a result of problems with the vertebral discs in their backs or in their tails.
Nerve damage in and around the tail can have an effect on your dog’s ability to urinate and defecate; as such, it is important to keep an eye on injuries to the spine and to know whether or not your dog’s breed is predisposed to herniated vertebral discs.
Happy Tail Syndrome
Happy tail syndrome typically occurs in larger-sized dogs with smooth tails—for instance, Labradors or Pit Bulls—and is a result of the dog constantly wagging their tail, hitting things until it becomes battered or bloody. Because these dogs’ tails wag with a lot of force, there is an increased potential for their tails to be hurt if they are regularly hitting a wall or a hard object.
Limber Tail Syndrome
Limber tail syndrome refers to the strain or sprain that may occur to dogs’ tails after they have been wagging or using their tails too much; it is related to overexertion and may cause a limp tail. The dog may also experience pain near the base of their tail.
Limber tail syndrome may also be referred to as “cold water tail” because it can affect dogs who have been swimming, especially those who do not swim often or regularly exercise.
Treating an Injured Tail
Treatment of an injured tail depends on the exact type of injury the tail has sustained. In many cases, it is a good idea to take your dog to the vet; however, in instances of a minor abrasion, it may be alright to clean the wound with an antimicrobial solution, bandage it if necessary, and keep an eye on it as it heals to watch for signs of infection.
If you notice that your dog’s tail has blood on it but is not actively bleeding, it is a good idea to clean it off with cool water in order to locate the source of the bleeding. Although your pup may be heartbroken, you may need to put an Elizabethan collar (sometimes referred to as an “e-collar” or “cone”) on your dog so that they cannot do further damage to the injured to irritated spot.
Dogs who have a limp tail or a fractured tail—especially those dogs who have undergone trauma such as being hit by a car—definitely need to receive veterinary care. Depending on the severity of the injury, the vet may immobilize the tail to help it grow back correctly or, in very dire situations, may need to amputate part or all of a damaged or broken tail.
Injuries to the tail such as nerve damage may require treatment through rest and medication; depending on the exact cause of the nerve damage, surgery could also be involved. Skin allergies and infections may also need to be mitigated through vet-prescribed medications; in these situations, the dog will also need to wear an Elizabethan collar to prevent further skin irritation.
There are a number of options for pain management for both moderate and severe pain, but it’s best to consult with your vet to choose a pain medication that is both safe and appropriate for the injury.
Can My Dog Fully Recover from a Tail Injury?
As with treatment of tail injuries, the level of recovery depends on the type of injury the tail has sustained. Additionally, the location of the injury can make a difference: injuries near the base of the tail are typically more detrimental to a dog’s overall health and mobility than those affecting the tail’s tip.
When a dog has a particularly bad skin wound or a deep cut (especially one requiring stitches), scarring may be present. In some situations, this scarring may affect the dog’s fur pattern. However, many abrasions are likely to heal well and leave no marks.
Dogs who have had a broken tail may have healed tails that appear kinked where the damage occurred. Depending on how the fracture healed, this bend may be more or less obvious. It is important to be careful with dogs whose tails have been broken before; generally, this means it is easier for the tail to be broken again.
Some dogs do have to have parts of their tails—or their whole tails—docked due to a tail injury. However, a veterinarian would be able to determine when this would be the best course of action.
Ways to Prevent Tail Injuries
Although certain types of trauma occur as unavoidable accidents, there are still certain steps you can take to try to safeguard your dog’s tail health.
- Similar to the care you would take to prevent your fingers from being slammed in a door, make sure to watch out for your dog’s tail near closing doors, including doors in your home and in your car.
- Try to keep objects that could hurt your dog out of the way of their tails so they don’t hurt themselves when they wag.
- If your dog has been paying extra attention to their tail, chewing on it or obsessively licking it, you may want to examine the skin more closely to make sure they don’t have an abrasion or a bug bothering them.
- Be careful not to pull on your dog’s tail, and make sure to communicate to children that it is important not to yank any dog’s tail. This may be obvious advice, but it can be a good reminder because a playful pull can unintentionally hurt the dog.
- If your dog experiences a fall or clear damage to their tail, it is often a good idea to take them to the vet so that they can be checked for damage to the tail and to the surrounding area.
As you can see, injuries to a dog’s tail run the spectrum from minor to severe. However, a dog’s behavior is not always an accurate indicator of the severity of an injury, so it’s important to determine the exact cause of their discomfort so it can be treated properly.