Tails, the Long and Short of It

The tail might seem like a superfluous part of your pet’s anatomy (I mean, after all, I’ve survived nicely for decades without one), but it is actually a valuable tool. Dogs use it to communicate with each other and with us. Cats use it to express their feelings of the moment—which is not really the same thing as communicating, as any married person will tell you. Tails play an important role in landing on one’s feet and even house some of the muscles that are used for defecation.

The tail is especially vulnerable to damage because of its situation, swinging in the breeze. Its internal structure is largely composed of bone, with little support from blood vessels and nerves. The tail therefore has restricted access to resources and repair functions that are abundant near the center of mass. It’s more easily damaged by frostbite and infection, more susceptible to numbness and paralysis.

A paralyzed tail must sometimes be removed, if it is constantly being soiled by urine and feces. Tails with sensory nerve damage (numbness, we surmise) can be very disturbing to the patient. These frequently undergo catastrophic damage by the patient’s own teeth due to a lack of pain and other normal sensations coming from the skin. If the entire numb portion can be removed, these pets are much more comfortable after surgery, regardless of the length that is left. Actually, many injuries ultimately end in removal of a portion of the tail because it is so difficult to splint, bandage, and protect from the patient’s own efforts to interfere. Even a seemingly simple bandage can rapidly cut off the already mediocre circulation on the far side of the wrapping, so dressing a tail wound at home is not recommended.

There is one painful tail condition that is abrupt in onset and can look very severe, but doesn’t require surgery. Limber tail usually occurs in sporting breeds with uncut tails, such as Labradors and retrievers. Limber tail is very painful and can even cause an unnatural bent appearance, but there is actually no permanent damage. Pain medication is needed for several days; during that time, the problem usually resolves nicely without further intervention.

A pulled tail, on the other hand, can be extremely serious. When the tail is trapped someplace and its owner attempts to flee, nerves way up inside the patient’s back can be stretched or broken. A badly pulled tail can result in so much nerve damage that the patient becomes incapable of urination and defecation. Amputation won’t help with this problem. If the pet and owner can wait it out, partial or even complete healing may occur over the course of several months, but sometimes the damage is permanent.

Your pet is currently making good use of his tail, but—if it cannot be saved—he will still do fine without it. Once the stitches are removed, he’ll get right on with his life and very likely never look back.

Dr. M.S. Regan