Corkscrew tails

By Catherine Barnette, DVM

What is corkscrew tail?

Corkscrew tail, also known as screw tail or ingrown tail, is a vertebral malformation that commonly occurs in certain dog breeds. In this condition, vertebrae may be fused together or otherwise abnormally structured, leading to the tail taking on an abnormal shape and curvature. Affected dogs typically have a deep skin fold surrounding a tightly-curled, malformed tail. This deep skin fold is predisposed to developing skin infections, which can become severe and negatively impact the dog’s quality of life. In some cases, the tail anatomy is so deformed that it limits the dog’s ability to pass feces normally, forcing feces to also accumulate in the skin fold surrounding the tail.

Corkscrew tail is commonly observed in English Bulldogs, Pugs, Boston Terriers, and French Bulldogs, although it may also occur in other breeds.

What are the clinical signs of corkscrew tail?

The most common sign of corkscrew tail is the presence of recurrent infections in the tail fold. Dogs with a tail fold infection may have severe itching and discomfort around the tail, leading them to chew at their tail and drag their hind end on the ground. Additionally, you may notice a foul odor coming from the skin around the tail. This odor may be related to a bacterial skin infection, or it may be caused by feces that has become trapped within the skin folds. If your dog belongs to a breed that is predisposed to corkscrew tail and you notice signs of a tail fold infection, there is a high likelihood that your dog has corkscrew tail that is contributing to this skin condition.

How will my veterinarian diagnose corkscrew tail?

Corkscrew tail can be diagnosed on the basis of a physical examination. Your veterinarian will examine your dog’s hind end, looking for the characteristic tail malformation and deep skin folds that are diagnostic for corkscrew tail.

In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend radiographs (x-rays) to better characterize the vertebral anatomy of your dog’s tail. Your veterinarian may recommend diagnostic tests for your dog’s tail fold infection. Bacterial culture and sensitivity testing, for example, can help your veterinarian determine which bacterial species are causing the infection and which antibiotics will be most effective for those bacteria.

What is the treatment for corkscrew tail?

There are two options for the treatment of corkscrew tail: medical management and surgical correction. Medical management typically requires a lifelong commitment to care, while surgical correction is more invasive but can be curative.

In medical management, the goal is to adhere to a cleaning regimen that will help keep skin infections at bay. In most cases, this requires regular cleaning of the tail fold with antibacterial shampoos, wipes, or antiseptic solutions. Many dogs require cleaning after every bowel movement, to prevent feces from being trapped within the skin folds. Even with regular cleaning, however, your dog will likely still develop periodic skin infections, which must be treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication. Regular cleaning is intended to decrease the frequency of tail fold infections, but it is unlikely to completely prevent them.

In many cases, owners opt for surgical correction of corkscrew tail. In this case, your dog will be placed under general anesthesia and your veterinarian will surgically remove some or all of the tail vertebrae. Doing so alleviates obstruction of the anus and reduces the presence of skin folds around the hind end, reducing the likelihood of infection. Your veterinarian will provide you with detailed instructions regarding the best surgical approach for your dog and your dog’s anticipated recovery. Following post-operative instructions carefully is essential in order to ensure that the procedure is as successful as possible.

Can corkscrew tail be prevented?

Corkscrew tail is an inherited condition. There is nothing that you can do to prevent your dog from developing corkscrew tail, but there are measures breeders can take to reduce the incidence of corkscrew tail in their litters. Breeders of predisposed breeds should have spinal radiographs performed on any potential breeding dogs to evaluate the vertebrae. Any dogs with abnormal vertebrae should be removed from the breeding program.

If you are planning to purchase a puppy that belongs to a breed commonly affected with corkscrew tail, talk to potential breeders to ensure that they are screening their breeding dogs for vertebral abnormalities.

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