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First Aid for Tail Injuries in Dogs

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Care & Wellness, Emergency Situations, Pet Services

It is a simple fact: dogs wag their tails. The wagging tail is a communication tool in the canine world, so a dog that does not wag his tail is a dog with a problem.

The tail is an important part of a dog`s anatomy and is actually an extension of the spine. The bones of the tail (vertebrae) are bigger at the base and get smaller toward the tip. Soft discs cushion the spaces between the vertebrae and allow flexibility. The tail muscle and nerves facilitate tail movement. This complex tail structure of bone, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels can easily be injured.

What are some common tail injuries, and what should I do about them?

Here is a list of the most common canine tail injuries and how they should be handled.

Abrasions. Simple scrapes can occur as dogs wag their tails against an abrasive surface (concrete steps, wire fencing) or catch their tails under something (rocking chair). If the hair is rubbed off and red skin exposed, clean the area with mild soap and warm water. Apply antibiotic ointment and bandage the tail lightly with self-adhering wrap instead of adhesive tape. To avoid restricting blood flow, do not wrap the bandage too tightly. Change the bandage and re-apply antibiotic ointment daily. Bitter apple or an Elizabethan collar (cone) may deter chewing at the bandage.

If excessive bleeding or swelling occurs or if the tissue changes color, take your dog to your veterinarian. If skin and muscle damage is severe, medical intervention is advised. Your dog may need systemic antibiotics and pain medication to allow for proper healing.

Lacerations. More severe than simple abrasions, lacerations can be deep cuts that expose underlying muscle and bone. Some lacerations are self-inflicted by dogs that are nervous, bored, or have other behavior problems. Tail biting can also be a result of flea allergies or impacted anal glands. Infection is likely to occur, especially with bite wounds and some lacerations require sutures. Wrap the tail in a towel to control bleeding while you take your dog to the veterinary emergency clinic.

Happy Tail. Despite the name, happy tail injuries are NOT happy. Certain breeds of dogs wag their tails constantly, hitting them repeatedly against solid objects like coffee tables, trees, or walls, causing injury. Happy tails often develop bleeding ulcers that will not heal because the source of the problem (wagging) will not stop. These injuries expose delicate nerves that cause pain, so veterinary intervention is advised. Sometimes bandaging the injured area along with antibiotics and pain medication will prevent infection, calm the nerves, and allow the tail to heal. In severe, chronic cases where the wagging will not stop and the injury will not heal, the best solution is surgical shortening of the tail. Although this changes the dog’s appearance, a shorter wagging tail is less likely to cause injury.

Happy tail injuries are usually not emergencies, but require treatment to heal properly. If you notice a raw spot on your dog’s tail, call your veterinarian.

Fractured Tail. Like any other bones, tail vertebrae can break. Very often a fractured tail occurs when a dog is hit by a car, falls off a porch or bed, or has his tail slammed in a door. The location of the fracture has a lot to do with how serious it is.

If the fracture is located at the tip of the tail, it usually heals well without any treatment, although the tail may have a bump or kink at the fracture site. If the bones in the tail are crushed, part of the tail may have to be amputated. Injuries near the base of the tail often involve nerve damage and are more serious.

If your dog is hit by a car or has a bad fall, take him to your veterinarian to have a complete exam. His tail may not be the only thing that needs attention.

Nerve damage. The nerves in the tail are protected by the bony vertebrae, but they can be injured nonetheless. Avulsion injuries are caused when the tail is pulled strenuously stretch or tear nerves, while breaks near the base of the tail may sever nerves. Tail pull injuries can cause damage to nerves higher up in the spinal cord that control urination and defecation.

If the nerves that control urination and defecation are injured, your dog may become incontinent. With time, nerve function may return; however, some dogs remain unable to control their bladder or bowels. Nerve damage may also cause the tail to hang limply. Your dog may not be able to wag his tail or even raise it when having a bowel movement. Skin infections may be a secondary problem with limp tails. If you notice that your dog cannot wag his tail and it hangs limply, consult your veterinarian.

Limber or Cold Tail. Limber tail is a painful muscle condition that is thought to be caused by overexertion. It causes pain at the base of the tail that is usually sensitive to touch and the remainder of the tail is often limp. It most commonly affects large breed, working dogs. Since a fractured or infected tail can look similar it is important to consult with your veterinarian to enable the best treatment. If fractures and infections have been ruled out, treatment includes rest and anti-inflammatory pain medications.

While minor abrasions may be treated at home, many tail injuries require veterinary attention. Your job as a pet owner is to assess the situation and seek veterinary help when needed. Your dog’s veterinarian can prescribe antibiotics (oral or injectable) and pain medication or even perform surgery if needed to treat the injured tail. With proper care, your dog will hopefully be wagging his tail again in no time.

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