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Swimmers Tail in Dogs: Our Vet Explains Causes, Signs, Treatment

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By Dr. Samantha Devine

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Written by

Dr. Samantha Devine

Veterinarian, DVM

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Dogs use their tails for communication, from a happy wag to a tucked tail suggesting they’re afraid. You love seeing your dog wag their tail, but what does it mean when you come home and your dog can’t wag their tail?

A quick Google search presents various possibilities, from a broken tail to something called swimmer’s tail. Some people may not have heard of swimmer’s tail before. How do you tell what’s wrong, and is there anything you can do for swimmer’s tail in dogs?

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What Is Swimmer’s Tail in Dogs?

Swimmer’s tail is a tail sprain in your dog. This condition typically occurs when a dog overuses their tail.

Other names for swimmer's tail include:
  • Acute caudal myopathy
  • Limber tail
  • Flaccid or limp tail
  • Cold water tail
  • Dead tail

You won’t typically see small dog breeds with swimmer’s tail. It’s usually larger, athletic dogs. Some breeds that may be a little more predisposed to developing swimmer’s tail are:

What Are the Signs of Swimmer’s Tail in Dogs?

As you might guess with a name like “limp tail”, the hallmark sign of swimmer’s tail is that your dog’s tail droops and is limp. Dogs may have different displays of this sprain. Some dogs’ whole tails might be floppy, while others may have just the end of the tail held limply. In these cases, your pup may hold their tail quite stiffly at the base.

Dogs will also display signs that they are uncomfortable. Your dog might wince or yelp when you touch them or cower away from you. However, some dogs show vague signs, such as that they might pace or move around restlessly. The pain may cause your dog to eat and drink less.

Because of the pain, your dog might chew on their tail. The top of the tail might also be thicker due to swelling and inflammation.

It’s less common, but dogs may have trouble standing because their tail helps them balance.

dog biting his tail
Photo Credit: KPhrom, Shutterstock

What Are the Causes of Swimmer’s Tail?

Swimmer’s tail has different causes, including the following:

  • Swimming, especially in cooler water
  • Excitedly playing for an extended period
  • Wagging vigorously
  • Prolonged time in a cage or kennel

Dogs are more at risk for developing swimmer’s tail when they’re active but haven’t been appropriately exercised or conditioned.

To prevent this, ensure your dog gets proper exercise throughout the year. Build up their endurance in the water, playing outside or doing whatever your activity of choice is.

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How Do You Diagnose a Dog With a Swimmer’s Tail?

Your veterinarian will usually start with a thorough exam and review the dog’s history to determine what they have been doing or exposed to.

Some possible questions are:
  • Have you had company over?
  • Does your dog wag their tail a great deal?
  • Has your dog gone swimming recently?
  • Have they been in a crate for an extended period of time?

As part of the exam, your veterinarian will gently manipulate your dog’s tail to feel for any irregularities. If your dog has been chewing their tail, your vet will likely perform a rectal exam to check their anal glands, which can become painful when full and trigger chewing.

Sometimes, your veterinarian might suggest radiographs (X-rays) to look for a tail break or fracture. These diagnostic images can also inform your veterinarian if there is arthritis in the tail or lower portion of your dog’s back, which can be painful.

pug dog in a veterinary clinic
Photo Credit: Rawpixel.com, Shutterstock

How Do I Care for a Dog With a Swimmer’s Tail?

If your dog has a swimmer’s tail, they need rest. You’ll want to keep them quiet and calm for a week or two, the time it usually takes to heal a tail sprain. As difficult as it might be for active dogs who love to swim, you must keep them out of the water and away from excitement.

Your veterinarian may prescribe medication for your dog. Do not give your dog human medications like aspirin, Tylenol, or ibuprofen, as they can cause significant side effects. Always follow your vet’s instructions.

If your dog tolerates it, apply a warm compress to the tail or have it sit in a bath of Epsom salts. It’s essential to keep them from licking the water with Epsom salts, though, as that can cause significant diarrhea.

Dogs will usually recover from swimmer’s tail uneventfully. You will need to give them time, though. However, they can have another occurrence of swimmer’s tail in the future; having it once before doesn’t predispose them to develop it in the future.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How can I prevent my dog from getting swimmer’s tail?

The best way to prevent swimmer’s tail is to keep your dog from overexerting themselves. If they’re out in the water, have them take periodic breaks, especially in cold water. Build up to more extended periods of activity, just like you would do for yourself.

If your dog gets swimmer’s tail when they get excited, monitor their activity levels when friends or family visit. Taking a break then can also be important to let them rest.

If you need to keep your dog in a kennel cage, ensure it is roomy to give them plenty of space. Also, let them out every few hours to stretch their legs, such as during transport. A rest stop is a great time to get out and walk around for both of you!

smiling caucasian woman in a swimming suit hugs a Newfoundland dog after swimming in a lake
Image Credit: UncleFedor, Shutterstock

Are swimmer’s tail and happy tail the same thing?

Swimmer’s tail and happy tail are different conditions that can affect your dog’s wagging appendage. Swimmer’s tail is a tail sprain. Happy tail can also have sore muscles, but the characteristic is usually a split at the end of the tail. You might see some blood splatters if the split is large and your dog has been wagging their tail a lot.

With swimmer’s tail, your dog needs to rest. If happy tail doesn’t readily heal with rest and a bandage, your dog might need to have a tail amputation, especially if they damage the end of the tail down to the bone.

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Conclusion

Whatever you call it, swimmer’s tail is a treatable condition in dogs. You’ll want to keep your furry family member quiet and calm while minimizing excitement to allow them to heal.

If your dog is showing signs of swimmer’s tail, you should take them to the vet to make sure there’s no further injury and to get anti-inflammatory medications to help keep your dog comfortable. Don’t worry; they’ll be back to playing in no time!


Featured Image Credit: SeventyFour, Shutterstock

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