The Weird, Painful Condition That Stops Dog Tails From Wagging

The painful condition "limber tail" sees dogs' normally waggable appendages lose their mobility. Hana Surfer/Getty Images

Dogs may be man's best friend, but sometimes there are things about your friends — even the best of them — you still don't understand. Veterinary scientists have just conducted the first large-scale study into why your favorite dog friend suddenly can't hoist his tail and repeatedly whack you with it when you get home from work, even though he's a vewy good boy, yes he is, and still so handsome even dough his tail is sad and dwoopy, poor buddybear!

"Limber tail" is a painful canine-specific illness that causes a limpness in the tail that can last up to 10 days. The tail might seem broken, retaining normal stiffness for a few centimeters from its base, but from there it sags uselessly like a Slinky hanging from the dog's behind. It's pitiful, and also highly distressing for the dog.


The cause of limber tail has always been somewhat mysterious, with anecdotal evidence suggesting it happens more often in larger working dog breeds like Labrador retrievers, and has been reported in individual dogs who've recently swam in cold water (it's also sometimes called "swimmer's tail" or "cold tail.")

Due to the fact that limber tail usually corrects itself pretty quickly, it's often underreported by dog owners, so it's only been a couple of decades since a veterinary journal first described the condition. For this new investigation, researchers at the University of Edinburgh compared 38 cases of limber tail with 86 dogs who have never experienced it, with the goal of figuring out whether the cause of limber tail has to with genetics or lifestyle.

Their answers weren't conclusive, but the researchers found that limber tail is more common than previously thought. The study found more dogs who suffered limber tail were related to one another (suggesting an underlying genetic risk factor), and that dogs with limber tail more often live in cold climates.

"We were surprised by how many owners were reporting limber tail to us but it meant we had the chance to do a detailed investigation," said Dr. Carys Pugh, of University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute and Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, in a press release. "We have been able to add evidence to a lot of internet speculation about risk factors and the new findings relating to geographical region and family links give us avenues to pursue in understanding and avoiding the condition.".

Want to see what limber tail looks like in (in-)action? Here's a video from the researchers: