Vet Reviewed

By Carmela Ciuraru | September 30, 2023

Limber tail syndrome, or acute caudal myopathy, is also known as “rudder tail” or “swimmer’s tail.” That’s because this condition is caused by an injury after strenuous swimming, especially in cold weather. It’s a temporary but painful condition. There are a few ways to treat limber tail syndrome, but above all, it’s crucial to restrict your dog’s activity to promote healing and recovery. 

What are the signs of limber tail syndrome?

You’ll know limber tail syndrome when you see it: an affected dog is unable to wag their tail, and the tail hangs limply, either straight down or slightly off to the side by a few inches. It appears“broken.” The tail will hang down whether your dog is standing or sitting, and your dog may seem reluctant to sit down (or even poop) because it’s so painful. You also also notice that, due to swelling, your dog’s fur is upright at the base of the tail.

Dogs use their tails for balance—and as a kind of rudder while swimming—so when the muscles that hold the tail up and move it from side to side are overused, they can become inflamed, and the result is limber tail syndrome.

Breeds commonly affected tend to be sporting dogs and include English setters, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and English pointers, but any breed (including mutts) can get this exercise injury. It happens most often in young adult male dogs. 

Because tails are typically indicators of excitement and happiness, it can be upsetting to see your dog’s tail hanging limply, with no movement. Unfortunately, limber tail syndrome often happens after a day of great fun for your dog—maybe swimming for hours in chilly water at the beach, happily retrieving balls or sticks in a cold lake, or just swimming in cold weather (such as in wintertime). Even when you know your dog should stop or slow down, it’s may be tough to convince them. Hours later or the next day, your dog may be coping with a motionless, painful tail. This can happen no matter what physical condition your dog is in, and even if the dog is accustomed to a high level of exertion.

How is limber tail syndrome diagnosed and treated?

Treating limber tail syndrome may require a trip to the emergency vet, depending when and where the injury occurs, and how acute the injury seems. But treatment is fairly straightforward: it typically involves an examination, and sometimes an X-ray of the tail, to confirm the diagnosis, and make sure there are no broken bones, as well as a cortisone shot to give your dog some immediate pain relief by reducing inflammation. The vet might also prescribe an anti-inflammatory medication. Never give your dog over-the-counter or prescription drugs made for people—your vet can prescribe something to ease the pain that’s both safe and effective.

Most importantly, your dog must get plenty of rest to speed up recovery time. To help alleviate the pain and discomfort, you might consider applying a warm compress at the base of your dog’s tail while the dog is lying down. If you’re not seeing much improvement after a few weeks, get in touch with your vet for advice.

The good news is that limber tail syndrome is never life-threatening—and even with no treatment, the tail will usually heal within a few days or weeks. But that happens only after your dog has been well rested, with restricted physical activity, while injured.

So how will you know your dog has fully recovered? You’ll see that happy tail wagging and whacking again.