It’s Dead Tail Season!

by | Canine Health

How to avoid and treat dead tail, also known as “cold tail,” “limber tail” or “limp tail,” a strange thing that strikes some dogs.

Many of my friends were out training or hiking with their dogs this weekend in and around lakes and streams, which reminded me that it is “dead tail” season, so I thought I’d write about this strange phenomenon in dogs.

What is “Cold Tail?”

“Cold tail” is a poorly understood syndrome that tends to strike hunting dogs (particularly hounds, retrievers. setters and pointers) but can affect other breeds. Little is known about the cause of cold tail and even less is known about effective treatments.

However, it most often strikes after a dog has gotten wet, either due to weather or by swimming or being bathed in cool or cold water, and is then inactive for a period. This can happen if a dog is crated after doing water retrieves but can also occur if a dog curls up in its bed for a few hours after a long hike.

What Happens with Cold Tail?

When the dog stands, her tail is drooping. Sometimes the tail hangs straight down from the back while other times, it sticks out for three to four inches at the base before drooping toward the ground. Even with effort, the dog cannot pick her entire tail up to horizontal and usually cannot wag anything but the very tip. The whole picture is quite tragic, especially on a typically cheerful pup.

Thanks to Kristin Cowell for this photo of her boy Miles’ cold tail.The base of the tail may swell and is often very tender to the touch. Sometimes the hair on the base stands up. The dog may resist having her tail manipulated and clearly is in pain but rarely has a fever. Some dogs with cold tail may be lethargic while others appear unaffected except for their sad-looking, droopy tail.

There hasn’t been much research done on cold tail so we do not know what is actually wrong with the dog but research from 1999 showed damage to the coccygeal or tail muscles for several days after onset of symptoms.

Treating Your Dog’s Cold Tail.

Although your dog will be pitiful for a little while, she will recover within a few days or a week without treatment. However, since dogs often develop cold tail right before an important event, I’ve tried many treatments over the years to try to resolve the pain and discomfort quickly. In doing so, I’ve found a few things that help move the healing process along.

  • For years I’ve used pain medications like Ascriptin (an over-the-counter coated aspirin) or a prescription-only non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), like Rimadyl or Metacam, with reasonable results. Homeopathic options include Traumeel and Arnica Montana.
  • Limiting the dog’s activity for a day or two often helps, as well, especially for high-drive hunting dogs. If your dog’s cold tail is really painful, steroids can help bring the swelling down and reduce the pain.
  • More recently I’ve had excellent success with acupuncture. If I get the dog into my veterinary acupuncturist within a day or two, her cold tail has resolved within 24 hours of treatment. I cannot tell you the points my acupuncturist used but they sure were effective.
  • If you have a cold laser available, either through your veterinary team or at home, treat the base of the dog’s tail and lower back with it.

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Preventing Cold Tail. Although this syndrome can be quite mysterious, the best way to avoid cold tail is to:Drying your dog’s tail well can help it avoid cold tail.

  • Dry your dog after it swims in cold water. The best tool I’ve found for this is The Absorber. These great little towels can get much of the water out of even the heaviest coat in short order. I have one in every car!
  • Avoid crating or confining your dog after swimming, bathing or hard field work. It’s better to keep your dog moving or stake her out for 15 or 20 minutes than to let her lie down. If you want to use a stake, avoid pet tie-out stakes with long lines. Instead, invest in the simple tie outs that most professional field trainers use. These stakes do require a hammer to pound into the ground typically but they come with a short chain so your dog won’t get itself tangled or interfere with other dogs. I love this tie-out stake from Gun Dog Supply.
  • Try to keep your dog moving for 15 to 20 minutes after swimming or hard work. Think of this as your dog’s cool-down period after exercise. Even after that, do not let your dog curl up to sleep for two hours.Instead, get her up for a stretch every now and then.
  • Bathe your dog in warm water. Yes, I have washed my dog using a garden hose but I know when I do so that I’d better let her dry completely before going inside or settling down.
  • Do not bathe your dog late in the evening since she will likely curl up and go to sleep for the night afterwards. Many times, dogs will wake up with cold tail after this.
  • Some dogs have a predisposition toward cold tail. If your dog has had two or three bouts with this syndrome, be extra cautious when bathing or swimming your dog. Keep some pain meds on hand and get to know your local vet acupuncturist.

So what have been your experiences with cold tail? Do you have a fool-proof treatment for your dog’s sad, droopy tail?


Steiss, J, Braund K, et al. 1999. Coccygeal muscle injury in English Pointers (limber tail). Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine Nov-Dec13 (6): pp. 540-8.


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