Tail Stories

The tail will always be a fascinating piece of anatomy, because you and I can never know what it’s like to have one. Tails are useful to those who own them—for communicating, keeping one’s balance, and warming one’s nose when the temperature drops. However, they also serve as a convenient handle for attackers and an extra appendage that’s somewhat accident-prone. Injuries here don’t heal easily, and serious complications can arise when there is any trauma to the intimate connection between the tail and the spinal cord.

Yes, tails are readily damaged by vehicles, garage doors, territorial dogs, and clumsy people. Some animals are even born with a problem tail. One source of severe skin infections is “corkscrew tail”, the twisty little nub that can be found at the end of most bulldogs. These tails are crooked and shrimpy from birth, but they seem to shrink even more deeply into the dog’s rear end as he ages. The tissue at the tail base grows thicker and fatter over time, creating a permanent wrinkle. This deep, ring-shaped crevice is never exposed to natural light or air circulation. The warmth, darkness, and moisture inside that skin fold make it a haven for germs. It’s possible for these skin infections to go on for years, despite everyone’s best efforts. The patient becomes so itchy and painful that the entire wrinkle may eventually have to be removed by surgery. That area of skin can’t be eliminated without amputating the tail nub down to its base, but this kind of dog (and his owner) are much happier after the source of the trouble is removed. After surgery, the patient’s rear end is as round as a cueball, so it may look a little unusual, but that flat skin stays healthy and comfortable without any extra effort.

Sacrocaudal dysgenesis is a problem of Manx cats, a breed that’s quite famous for their missing tails. Now, even though we’d consider the tail to be an optional item, it does form a sensitive junction with the spinal cord. Some Manx kittens have neurologic problems because of their poorly developed tail base, and some actually don’t survive. This condition can also occur in tailless dog breeds.

On a more pleasant note, dogs born with “happy tail” are blessed with such an exuberant personality that they cannot seem to stop wagging. Happy tails hammer endlessly on everything within striking distance, often to the point of bruising, splitting, and bleeding. Profusely. The tail is painful afterwards, of course, but these dogs are just too busy wagging to notice. This fun personality leads to lots of frustration for owners who are spending more time at the vet than anyone should. Damage done to the home environment is variously described as “bloodbath”, “slaughterhouse”, even “Texas chainsaw massacre”. It’s a never-ending cycle for happy-tailed dogs, since no amount of discomfort seems to dampen their enthusiasm. Happy tails frequently benefit from amputation. The owners are delighted with their new, gore-free home interiors and lower vet bills. The dogs, of course, are still happy.

Dr. M.S. Regan