Canine Limber (Cold) Tail Syndrome
October, in all her hues of autumn foliage, is a glorious time for travel to distant destinations for chasing birds with bird dogs. Two years ago I made my annual trip to southern Idaho to chase birds with my brothers. The Tacoma was loaded to the max with gear and gadgets for the uplands and the dogs were snuggly tucked away in their boxes. The trip from Colorado to Idaho is eleven long hours across windy Wyoming no matter how fast (or slow) I drive. I left home at 3 am to meet my younger brother, Andy, at one of our favorite coverts to pursue gray partridge and sharp-tailed grouse. My English setter Gretchen was energized and begging to be turned loose on the Idaho steppes in search of birds. I noticed that Gretchen’s normal “12-o’clock” tail was sluggishly sitting horizontal instead of her typical tail carriage within 30 minutes of the time I turned her loose. The remainder of the trip, Gretchen’s tail 3 to 4 inches from the base had a “hump” appearance and the distal portion was carried below horizontal. In fact, Gretchen was unable to hold her tail normal when she went on point.
The preceding history of Gretchen’s tail is classical with canine limber tail syndrome. Not much is understood about this condition nor is there much information in the most current veterinary literature (most of the veterinary literature dates back to the late 1990’s). Limber tail syndrome has many synonyms such as Limp tail, Cold tail, Happy-tail syndrome, Swimmer’s tail, etc. Limber tail syndrome is a condition of sporting dogs where the dog’s tail all of a sudden becomes flaccid or limp. Dogs with limber tail have a history of prolonged cage transport, a vigorous work-out (running, roading or swimming) or have a history of being exposed to extreme cold water or cold environmental temperatures. Other factors that have been cited in the literature include tail confirmation (high tails or active tails) and inadequate nutrition. The most common breeds associated with limber tail syndrome include Pointers, setters, Labrador retrievers and the hound breeds.
Clinical signs associated with limber tail syndrome include a flaccid tail that is painful on manipulation 3 to 4 inches from the tail-base. The affected tails are usually held horizontal from the tail-base for the first 3 to 4 inches and then the tail dips below the horizontal or may even be carried between the legs. Some dogs may have associated loss of muscle mass and weight loss, weakness, loss of appetite and typically have a normal rectal temperature (~100.0 to ~102.7 degrees F). The current thought is the coccygeal muscles and lateral positioned intertransversarius ventralis caudalis muscle fibers are damaged resulting in the flaccid tail. Electromyography data from some dogs with limber tail syndrome suggests denervation or a temporary loss of the nerve supply to the muscles occurs. Serum muscle enzymes (creatine phosphokinase or CPK) are often mildly elevated immediately following the onset of this condition. However, blood work is rarely examined in these dogs because most trainer and sporting dog owners understand this condition and rarely seek medical attention.
Limber tail syndrome usually resolves on its own in a few days without incident. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as carprofen (Rimadyl), meloxicam (Metacam), deracoxib (Deramaxx) and firocoxib (Previcox) along with strict rest have been shown to hasten the recovery time of the disease. I have seen a few cases including my own setter Gretchen where limber tail syndrome persisted for much longer. Dogs with prolonged clinical signs resolved with alternative treatment modalities such as electro acupuncture, class IV cold laser therapy and chiropractics.