Getting a handle on Limber Tail

Chances are if you frequent the outdoors with your Labrador Retriever, you may already be familiar with a condition called "limber tail". After a vigorous day of hunting, you notice your dog's tail hanging limply as though it might be broken.

"The tail hangs down from the base of the tailor extends horizontally for three or four inches and then drops down," says Janet Steiss, DVM, Ph.D., PT., associate professor at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. "To the owner, it may appear to occur unexplainably. Usually the dogs recover in a few days."

"The tail is real important to balance and the flow of body movement," says Robert Gillette, DVM, director of the Sports Medicine Program at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. "The base of the tail is where the muscle mass of the tail is located and where you see limber tail."

Steiss and several colleagues at Auburn studied limber tail in English Pointers in the late 1990s. Their findings, published in the November/December 1999 issue of the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, showed that the condition is associated with damage to the tail muscles.

"It can happen after a heavy day of work involving a lot of tail action," Steiss says. "The typical case is where a young adult dog develops a tail that becomes so flaccid he is unable to raise it.  The tail appears to be painful.  It can be a problem for the athletic working dog and may require an owner to withdraw a dog from competition due to abnormal tail carriage."

Defining Limber Tail 

Limber Tail Considerations

If your dog's tail hangs limply, appears broken and is painful to the touch, he could have limber tail.  Damaged tail muscles cause the condition, which generally goes away in a few days to weeks.  Here are some points to consider that may help prevent cases of limber tail in the future.

  • Make sure your dog is properly conditioned prior to hunting or field trial season.  Gradually get your dog into condition so he doesn't experience stress or fatigue in the first few outings.
  • Regardless of the season--but particularly in wet, cold conditions--be sure to keep your dog's bedding dry.
  • Don't keep your dog in a cramped crate.  A dog should have enough room to move around.  When traveling, make sure to get your dog out frequently to stretch his legs--once every two hours or more.


Limber tail syndrome - also called cold water tail. limp tail, broken wag or broken tail - describes a relatively common condition in sporting dogs.

Ed Aycock, DVM, of Sanger, Texas, who practices at the Lewisville North Animal Clinic, has seen a number of cases of limber tail, including some in his own field trial retrievers. "We didn't have a specific name for limber tail until Dr. Stress' research. It wasn't something you learned about in veterinary school. Old timers called it cold water tail because episodes most often were associated with wet and cold weather."

"Generally, affected dogs may act as if they are in pain for the first 24 to 48 hours, and resent being touched at the base of the tail because its painful," Steiss says. "Sometimes, the owner notices that the hair around the base of the tail stands up - this is probably due to the swelling of the muscle tissue at the tail base."

The three most common causes for limber tail are climate changes, especially exposure to wet, cold weather, underconditioning or overexertion, and being confined in a crate for long periods of time," Steiss says.  Veterinarians tend to see limber tail in sporting dogs during certain seasons.  It commonly is seen in retrievers and pointers as they start back into heavier training in the fall or in young dogs out for the first time that come down with limber tail from overuse of the tail muscles."

Though limber tail is rare in the dog population as a whole, it is common in hard-training pointing and retrieving dogs and has been reported in Labrador, Golden and Flat-Coated Retrievers, English Setters, English Pointers, Beagles and Foxhounds.¹ Males as well as females are affected.

First Research Study

Wanting to know more about limber tail, Steiss and colleagues began an epidemiological study in 1997 - believed to be the first study of the condition - in which they surveyed sporting dog owners and trainers in the southeastern United States by mail and telephone.

"Ninety percent of the people surveyed had owned or trained hunting dogs for more than 10 years, and collectively the respondents had a total of 3,066 dogs in their kennels," Steiss says. "Sixty-seven percent of the dogs were used for hunting - half of the dogs spent time in the field once a week and the other half more than once a week."

From this survey, they were able to obtain information about the characteristics of limber tail in 83 dogs.² In addition, the scientists examined pointers affected by limber tail and a control group from the same kennel that were undergoing the same training regimen. Dogs examined by laboratory analysis early in the course of an episode showed elevations in a muscle enzyme called creatine kinase (CK) circulating in the blood.' CK is an enzyme that is released when muscles are damaged. Increased serum CK is commonly seen after muscle infection, trauma or surgery.

X-ray images of the tails showed no fractures or other abnormalities of the spine. "This combination of findings - elevated CK with a normal X-ray - suggested a problem that is muscular in nature, without involvement of the bony structures of the tail," Steiss says.

Other testing included thermography, a special heat-sensing camera that detects differences in an animal's body temperature. This identified one of the most striking abnormalities," Steiss says. "Dogs affected with limber tail showed significant 'cold zones' in their tails several inches from the tail base. Temperatures in the affected portion of the tail were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius cooler than normal. These cold zones likely represent local areas where swelling after the injury has caused a decrease in blood flow."

Electromyography (EMG) was used to assess the electrical impulses conducted by nerves passing through a select group of muscles. "Abnormal electrical activity was observed in the muscles of the base of the tail of dogs with limber tail," Steiss says. "Biopsies showed microscopic evidence of muscle damage. The muscle group most
severely affected was the intertransversarius ventralis caudalis. These are the muscles used in lateral flexion (side-to-side motion) or wagging of the tail."

"Based on this study, we concluded that limber tail syndrome is associated with damage to the tail muscles," Steiss says. Ultimately, the results of the tests suggested that limber tail appears to be linked to a general condition called ischemia, meaning a lack of blood flow, and in this case to the muscles of the tail," Steiss says.

"The tail muscles are located in a small space surrounding the tail bones, and the entire tail has an outer layer of dense connective tissue. Because bone and dense connective tissue are inflexible tissues, they cannot stretch to accommodate the swelling of the muscle," she explains. "From the pointer who completes a lengthy weekend hunt or field trial to the Labrador in a field trial or cold duck blind, each animal has an active tail and may experience injury to the tail muscles during or following exercise," she says.

"Because there is not room for the muscles to expand, they essentially become entrapped by a natural tourniquet, resulting in decreased blood flow. So, limber tail may be a type of compartment syndrome," Steiss says. "Without normal amounts of oxygen-rich blood, muscle cells start to degenerate. This causes.the pain and dysfunction."

Managing Limber Tail

Without a direct cause for limber tail, veterinarians may find it difficult to manage. Experienced owners and trainers know that rest is the best management, although some feel recovery time is shortened if anti-inflammatory drugs are given as soon as the condition is observed, Steiss says.

Non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly used to help manage limber tail, Aycock says. "There are both human and veterinary products available for use in dogs," he says. "It has been questioned whether these drugs actually decrease swelling. However, at the very least, they are effective in controlling muscle pain and soreness."

The good news is that with proper rest, the tail generally recovers completely. "During recovery, the tail may hang to one side," Steiss says. "But after several days to weeks, the tail is usually back to normal."


While the pain resolves quickly in nearly all cases, some dogs - up to 16 percent - may experience a permanently altered tail posture (conformation), resulting in the sudden end of a pointing dog's field trial career.³ Dogs that do recover have a one in three chance of experiencing a recurrence of limber tail later in life, Steiss says.

"Fortunately, the majority of limber tail cases in dogs resolve quickly with little treatment," she says. "We've learned a great deal, but we still need to learn more about why it happens and how it should be treated."

² Steiss J, Braund K, Wright J, Lenz S, Hudson J, Brawner W, Hathcock J, Purohit R, Bell L, Horne R. Coccygeal Muscle Injury in English Pointers (Limber Tail). Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. 1999;13:6, p. 540. www.uab. edu/shrpat/Jan%20Steiss/ steiss_ I.pdf
³ Eward W, Gillette R. An Update on Limber, Cold, and Swimmer's Tail. The Richard G. and Dorothy A. Metcalf SMP Newsletter. Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. Winter/Spring 2003.

Limber Tail Study Findings
Study Type Process Method Results in Dogs with Limber Tail
Epidemiological Surveyed dog owners & trainers, who collectively had 3,066 dogs in their kennels. Mail & Telephone Obtained information about the characteristics of limber tail in 83 dogs.
Clinical Examined pointers with limber tail and a control group from the same kennel undergoing the same training regimen.
  • Serum biochemistry
  • Complete blood count
  • Thermography
  • Electromyography
  • Radiographs
  • Nuclear scintigraphy
  • Biopsy
  • Laboratory examination showed elevated serum levels of a muscle enzyme, creatine kinase (CK), that is released when muscles are damaged.
  • X-rays showed no sign of fractures or abnormalities of the spine.
  • Thermogoraphy indicated a cold area in the tail several inches from the tail base, where swelling associated with the muscle damage probably caused decreased blood flow.
  • Electromyography revealed abnormal electrical activity in the muscles of the base of the tail.
Findings Limber tail is associated with damage to muscles located near the base of the tail. Management Rest is the best management.  Dogs should be rested until the tail motion has returned to normal.  Anti-inflammatory drugs given for the first two or three days during an episode may help to reduce recovery time and decrease pain and inflammation associated with the muscle damage.

Article seen in the July 2004 issue of the Purina Pro Club Labrador Retriever Update.