It’s Cold Tail Season!

by | Dog Health, Puppy

How to avoid and treat cold tail, also known as “dead tail,” “limber tail” or “limp tail,” a strange thing that strikes some dogs.

Many of my friends were out training or hiking with their dogs this weekend in and around lakes and streams, which reminded me that it is “cold tail” season, so I thought I’d write about this strange phenomenon in dogs.

What is “Cold Tail?”

“Cold tail” is a poorly understood syndrome that tends to strike hunting dogs (particularly hounds, retrievers. setters and pointers) but can affect other breeds. Little is known about the cause of cold tail and even less is known about effective treatments.

However, it most often strikes after a dog has gotten wet, either due to weather or by swimming or being bathed in cool or cold water, and is then inactive for a period. This can happen if a dog is crated after doing water retrieves but can also occur if a dog curls up in its bed for a few hours after a long hike.

What Happens with Cold Tail?

When the dog stands, her tail is drooping. Sometimes the tail hangs straight down from the back while other times, it sticks out for three to four inches at the base before drooping toward the ground. Even with effort, the dog cannot pick her entire tail up to horizontal and usually cannot wag anything but the very tip. The whole picture is quite tragic, especially on a typically cheerful pup.

Thanks to Kristin Cowell for this photo of her boy Miles’ cold tail.The base of the tail may swell and is often very tender to the touch. Sometimes the hair on the base stands up. The dog may resist having her tail manipulated and clearly is in pain but rarely has a fever. Some dogs with cold tail may be lethargic while others appear unaffected except for their sad-looking, droopy tail.

There hasn’t been much research done on cold tail so we do not know what is actually wrong with the dog but research from 1999 showed damage to the coccygeal or tail muscles for several days after onset of symptoms.

Treating Your Dog’s Cold Tail.

Although your dog will be pitiful for a little while, she will recover within a few days or a week without treatment. However, since dogs often develop cold tail right before an important event, I’ve tried many treatments over the years to try to resolve the pain and discomfort quickly. In doing so, I’ve found a few things that help move the healing process along.

  • For years I’ve used pain medications like Ascriptin (an over-the-counter coated aspirin) or a prescription-only non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), like Rimadyl or Metacam, with reasonable results. Homeopathic options include Traumeel and Arnica Montana.
  • Limiting the dog’s activity for a day or two often helps, as well, especially for high-drive hunting dogs. If your dog’s cold tail is really painful, steroids can help bring the swelling down and reduce the pain.
  • More recently I’ve had excellent success with acupuncture. If I get the dog into my veterinary acupuncturist within a day or two, her cold tail has resolved within 24 hours of treatment. I cannot tell you the points my acupuncturist used but they sure were effective.
  • If you have a cold laser available, either through your veterinary team or at home, treat the base of the dog’s tail and lower back with it.

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Preventing Cold Tail. Although this syndrome can be quite mysterious, the best way to avoid cold tail is to:Drying your dog’s tail well can help it avoid cold tail.

  • Dry your dog after it swims in cold water. The best tool I’ve found for this is The Absorber. These great little towels can get much of the water out of even the heaviest coat in short order. I have one in every car!
  • Avoid crating or confining your dog after swimming, bathing or hard field work. It’s better to keep your dog moving or stake her out for 15 or 20 minutes than to let her lie down. If you want to use a stake, avoid pet tie-out stakes with long lines. Instead, invest in the simple tie outs that most professional field trainers use. These stakes do require a hammer to pound into the ground typically but they come with a short chain so your dog won’t get itself tangled or interfere with other dogs. I love this tie-out stake from Gun Dog Supply.
  • Try to keep your dog moving for 15 to 20 minutes after swimming or hard work. Think of this as your dog’s cool-down period after exercise. Even after that, do not let your dog curl up to sleep for two hours.Instead, get her up for a stretch every now and then.
  • Bathe your dog in warm water. Yes, I have washed my dog using a garden hose but I know when I do so that I’d better let her dry completely before going inside or settling down.
  • Do not bathe your dog late in the evening since she will likely curl up and go to sleep for the night afterwards. Many times, dogs will wake up with cold tail after this.
  • Some dogs have a predisposition toward cold tail. If your dog has had two or three bouts with this syndrome, be extra cautious when bathing or swimming your dog. Keep some pain meds on hand and get to know your local vet acupuncturist.

So what have been your experiences with cold tail? Do you have a fool-proof treatment for your dog’s sad, droopy tail?

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References

Steiss, J, Braund K, et al. 1999. Coccygeal muscle injury in English Pointers (limber tail). Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine Nov-Dec13 (6): pp. 540-8.

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19 Comments

  1. Deb

    Cold laser all around the base of the tail and lower spinal area is also very effective for speeding up getting their tail operational.

    • Marcy Burke

      Deb,

      We agree !00% – the cold laser is incredibly effective in getting that tail wagging again!

    • Brian

      Cold Laser? Please explain. Is this something a pet parent can do his/herself? If so where do you get one?

      • Gayle Watkins

        Brian,

        Although you can do cold laser on your dog, most of us can’t afford the laser. Even used ones run $3,000 or more. However, more and more vet clinics are providing cold laser therapy as one of their services. Here is a good video about a cold laser https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hg4ruVCNp7o. This one is being used for wounds but it works well on arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.

        Gayle

  2. Deb Goodie

    Getting the dog warm and dry is important. Another common time of occurrence is after hard competition in cold wet weather. Dry the dog off, cover it with a warm blanket and walk it down like you would a horse. I have often seen dogs come off the course in 35 degree wet weather steaming. If you put that dog up in a box you really increase a bout with limber or cold tail.

    • Avidog International

      Deb, We agree, getting the dog as dry as possible, keeping it warm and putting it up after its dry can help avoid cold tail. You never know when it will happen to a dog, though. We’ve seen dogs affected after a nice warm bath with no real exercise beforehand. We’d love someone to do a study to try and figure this one out!

  3. Melinda Harvey

    We have found it also common in our Portuguese Water Dogs in the spring or after a period of inactivity and cold water. Have had wonderful results using Traumheel or Arnica Montana. Both are natural treatments for sprains and strains (most likely the culprit in “dead tail”…and it not only helps reduce the pain but the recovery time is reduced greatly. It is a staple at any of our spring water workshops and camps!

    • Gayle Watkins

      Melinda,

      That’s a good reminder! We’ve used Arnica in the past and found it reduced the dog’s pain but didn’t necessarily cut the length of the syndrome short. Have you had a different experience? We’ll definitely add Traumeel to our recommendations, too!

  4. Gigi Skousen

    Thanks for the info, this is what i just needed. The other day my husband when for hunting ducks with “smooky” and he just came here all wet with cold tail problems (Poor 😉 ). I would love him start shaking his tail again!

    • Marcy Burke

      Gigi,

      So glad you were able to see this blog in time for you to know what is happening. Be assured, Smooky will be happily wagging that tail in no time!

  5. Divey

    Thanks so much for this post! I’m thinking that’s what’s wrong with my lovely Shepherd/Husky pooch. Had to give her a bath today and then we ran straight outside into Cold Canadian Winter for 6 mins of hard running. It’s good to know it’s not serious and will recover soon.

    I look forwards to her happy wagging tail and her usual tail carriage (high up over the back, thank you very much)!

    • Marcy Burke

      We are thrilled that this was able to help you recognize cold/limp/dead tail. If you don’t see improvement in a week, be sure to get her in to a vet. Hopefully you will see that happy, wagging tail soon.

  6. lizzie hart

    Thanks for the informative read. My Labrador has cold tail at present from being in water. This is the third time he has had it in 2 years. I have taken him to the Vet to check him out and they said he will be fine and to give nsaid anti inflammatories. It is day 6 now and while his tail is better and able to wag again he is still turning his body the left and trying to grab his tail and you can tell he still feels uncomfortable with his tail. Is this normal?

    • Marcy Burke

      So sorry to hear about your boy’s issue with cold tail. It usually takes about a week for cold tail to resolve, but we have seen it take up to ten days. We have found acupuncture to help it resolve much more quickly. I hope your boy is feeling better soon.

  7. Cindy Smith

    Very informative. My Airedale Terrier, yes an Airedale has swimmer’s tail. He was fine last Thurs. night and woke up with his tail between his legs on Fri. a.m. Thought it might be his anal glands which need to be done every month. They were very full but not the culprit. The vet told me about swimmer’s tail, except Riley doesn’t swim and hjs tail is docked, but he displays all the signs and symptoms of swimmer’s tail. The vet gave him a Prednisone shot and put him on 4 days of Prednisone pills. Every day is tail is better. Yesterday it was horizontal, today it is more up, but not all the way. Don’t know if you have heard of an Airedale getting this. He was with the handler for 3 days getting groomed, but has never had this problem coming back from their before. I picked him up last Wed. afternoon and as always when I pick him from there he was bouncing with excitement. His tail was fine Thurs. took him for a walk and then Fri. a.m. his tail was down. Hopefully, it will get back to normal. Every day is better. Just wish I knew how he got it.

    • Gayle Watkins

      Cindy, I’m so sorry to hear about your boy’s tail. Cold (or swimmer’s) tail is perplexing. Sometimes we just can’t find a cause. Dogs can become predisposed to it though so for the next few grooming said make sure he is bather in warm water and completely dried before being crated. That seems to help avoid the problem. Old luck with him and may his tail be all the way up soon!

  8. Tim Austin

    Hello, first I want to say thanks for the one of the best articles I’ve read yet, I’ve been struck twice with this, and I’m working hard to prevent it again, the one thing I was trying to figure out is after a hunting retrieve my dog comes back into the blind staged and ready to go for the next bird, but it can take a while, I’m going to try and use the cloth you recommended, and I’m also going to try to keep the dog off the cold ground and elevate and insulate his pad better thank you for the help and I’ll try to let you know how it works

  9. JAMIE VERALDI

    Just had an in season bitch with dead tail due to …. flagging! Will have to rethink kenneling after breeding.

    • Gayle Watkins

      That’s a good point, Jamie! We have to kennel after an AI but not a natural so avoiding it to keep those tails healthy might make a lot of sense.

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