Water tail syndrome in dogs

Two black dogs with sticks in the water

Dogs who like to swim or spend a long time in cold or wet weather can sometimes suffer from something called limber tail syndrome. There are many other names for this condition including: cold water tail, frozen tail, water tail, broken tail, broken wag, or wet tail. It’s formal name is acute caudal myopathy. Read more about the signs, diagnosis and treatment of limber tail syndrome in dogs here!

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Signs of limber tail syndrome

  • The tail hangs straight down, as if paralysed, which usually confirms the diagnosis
  • Soreness around the tail and hind end
  • Reluctance to sit down
  • Off colour or lethargic
  • Off food
  • Bitches may find it difficult to pee as they cannot lift their tail
  • Difficulty passing stools
  • Relatively common in retrievers, spaniels and other dogs who like water, but all breeds of dogs can be affected

Causes of limber tail syndrome

The exact cause of limber tail syndrome is unknown. It is thought to be caused by restriction of the blood supply (ischaemia) to the tail muscles (caudal myopathy), generally after swimming, or exposure to cold or wet weather. The specific muscle groups most severely affected are the intertransversarius ventralis caudalis (IVC) muscles. These muscles create the side-to-side motion of tail wagging. There is very little space around the tail head within which the muscles can expand. As a result, the blood supply to these muscles is restricted, causing pain, swelling, muscle damage and paralysis.

It has been associated with overexercise or hunting, under conditioning, and swimming in water that is too cold or too warm. Male dogs are at increased risk, as well as those with a high tail conformation or very active tails. Affected Pointers typically have a history of prolonged cage transport, a hard workout the previous day, or exposure to cold or wet weather. It can also affect young dogs that are out working for the first time. Limber tail syndrome can also recur in around ⅓ of cases.

It is also important to rule out other possible causes of these signs, such as damage to the lower back and tail, or neurological problems. Nutritional factors have also been suggested as a possible cause. Your vet will be able to perform a neurological examination or take x-rays to exclude differential diagnoses.

What can I do to help my dog and how to prevent limber tail syndrome?

  • Rest
  • Warm packs applied gently to the affected area
  • Pain relief prescribed by your vet
  • Avoid overexercise
  • Plan an appropriate conditioning exercise programme for your dog
  • Avoid your dog being immersed in water of extreme temperatures, or for prolonged periods of time
  • After swimming, dry your dog thoroughly
  • Keep your dog warm and dry, preferably using a warm blanket, if it is cold
  • On long journeys, schedule rest stops to allow you dog to move and stretch their legs

Treatment of limber tail syndrome

The prognosis for limber tail syndrome is excellent. A complete recovery is usually seen in a few days to two weeks. Affected dogs will often have elevated muscle enzymes on a blood test. Keep your dog warm and dry. Ensure that they rest, with short lead-walks for toileting only, until they have fully recovered.

If your dog is very sore, contact your vet, who will be able to prescribe anti-inflammatory medication. Seek vet advice if your dog has not recovered after two weeks, as other diseases or injuries will need to be excluded.

When to see your physical vet

  • If you see signs of limber tail syndrome above and if your dog is in pain or discomfort
  • Weakness in the whole body or hind legs
  • Difficulty with urination or defecation

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