Swimmer’s tail is known by many names, including limber tail, cold water tail, dead tail, broken wag and sprained tail. These names all refer to the same condition: a suddenly limp and flaccid tail. Swimmer’s tail most commonly affects large breed, hunting, athletic and working dogs such as Labrador retrievers and pointers.
Dogs with this condition have essentially strained the muscles in their tail. This is thought to result from overuse of the tail, which can happen when a dog swims for a long time, especially in cold water. Sometimes it happens just because the dog has had an exciting day or two and has spent far more time than usual wagging their tail. For example, maybe they spent the weekend at the lake or the grandchildren came to visit. Other risk factors for swimmer's tail include intense physical activity, prolonged transport in a cage and being in cold and wet weather. After these activities, signs usually appear quickly, within hours to days.
The primary sign of this condition is a limp tail that droops between the dog's legs. In some cases the entire tail is flaccid, but in other cases the tail is stiff at the beginning and becomes flaccid towards the end. Because swimmer's tail can cause pain and discomfort, affected dogs may pace, yelp when lying down or defecating, frequently change position while lying down, and eat less. Some dogs may struggle to stand up because the tail helps with balancing. Other potential symptoms include chewing the tail and raised hair on the top of the tail due to swelling.
To diagnose this condition, your veterinarian will rely on information about your dog's recent activities, clinical signs and physical exam findings. Your veterinarian may also take X-rays to rule out other causes of your dog's symptoms, such as tail fractures.
Once swimmer's tail is diagnosed, your dog should rest and exercise less to allow for recovery, just as you would do if you sprained a muscle. Your veterinarian may also recommend giving anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the pain associated with this condition. Warm compresses on the tail may also help with pain and quicken the recovery process. Swimmer's tail has an excellent prognosis, as dogs generally get better within 2-14 days. However, having swimmer’s tail once does not mean your dog can't get it again. Relapses are possible.
Potential ways to prevent swimmer's tail include not overexerting your dog, especially if they aren't trained for it, and, during transport, letting your dog out every 4 hours or so. There is no prevention for over-wagging when your dog is really happy, though!