You thought it’d be a bit of a laugh.
Creeping silently towards your splooting puppy, you gently but firmly tug its unsuspecting tail in a quick upwards motion.
What you didn’t expect was for your pooch to let out the most pained and sorrowfully surprised screeeeeeeech that you’ve ever heard in your life.
Hours later, here you are- sitting at your laptop and wondering exactly why that happened.
(And whether your puppy will ever nibble your ears out of love again.)
There are several reasons as to why a dog may suddenly deny its owner the privilege of lifting or otherwise touching its tail.
This could be due to a variety of factors, such as:
- A broken or otherwise injured tail;
- Limber Tail Syndrome;
- Having impacted or infected anal sacs;
- Being intimidated and having past bad experiences.
So, if you’ve found this page wondering, “My dog yelps when I lift his tail! Why?” You’ve come to the right place.
Read on for what may be the Ultimate Resource on the internet when it comes to dog tail injury causes, symptoms, and treatment!
- Why Is It That My Dog Won’t Let Me Lift His Tail?
- Anal Gland Issues
- Intimidation And Previous Bad Experiences
- Limber Tail Or “Cold Tail” Syndrome
- How Do You Tell If A Dog’s Tail Is Sprained?
- How Do You Tell If Your Dog’s Tail Is Fractured?
- How Do You Treat A Dog’s Tail Injury?
- How Do You Treat A Dog’s Limber Tail?
- How Long Does It Take For A Dog’s Sprained Tail To Heal?
Before we can delve into all the different reasons as to why a dog might be hesitant to let its owner lift its tail, it is important to understand the construction of a canine tail.
A dog’s tail connects to the end of the backbone and is made up of a series of small bones that are all encased in muscle.
Each connected to up to seven nerves, these muscles control all the movement that we are all used to and love seeing in our pups’ tails: Lifting, turning, curling- and of course, wagging!
Tail movements make up a huge component of canine communication as a way of conveying certain emotions.
Additionally, by being linked to multiple nerves and tendons, tail muscles invariably influence the function of the pelvic diaphragm, anus, and rectum.
They also help the dog balance during everyday movements such as climbing stairs, navigating narrow spaces, jumping, and swimming.
Now that we have a basic understanding of how a dog’s tail is built and works, let’s take a deep dive into all of the different factors that can cause a pooch to protest when their wagger is raised!
The primary reason why a dog yelps when its owner inadvertently lifts or touches its tail is because it hurts!
If your dog’s tail is injured in some way- or worse, broken– it logically won’t want to let you anywhere near the appendage. Injuries that a pup can suffer to its wagger can include abrasions, nerve damage, and fractures.
As already mentioned above, a dog’s tail is part of its spine. It has nerve endings, joints, and small vertebrae that are susceptible to dislocations and breaks.
For example, fracture injuries can quite easily occur when the tail is trampled or trapped in tight spaces (such as a car door- ouch!), or when the dog falls from a considerable height.
Breaks to the tail bones can also result in subsequent nerve damage (to be discussed in more detail below). In severe cases of fractures, amputation may be necessary.
Bone, nerve, and muscle damage means that the tail becomes extremely sensitive to touch; as such, lifting it will most likely cause the pup to yelp quite loudly!
As active as dogs are, it’s no wonder that they’ll suffer bruises and abrasions from time to time.
Just as easily as a dog can accidentally scrape its nose, it can just as readily scrape its tail through everyday movement and play!
Abrasions can happen when a dog wags its tail against a rough surface (such as a metal fence or concrete steps), or gets it caught under something heavy like a bar stool.
Scrapes and cuts will cause the poor pup’s red skin to be exposed, and may also result in bleeding.
There is actually a term for the injury suffered by a dog that wags its tail a little too enthusiastically: Happy tail!
This decidedly unhappy outcome is particularly troublesome as the exposed nerves and bleeding ulcers that result have a hard time healing due to the fact that the dog’s tail rarely stops swinging.
Each subsequent sweep runs the risk of hitting anything from a coffee table to a tree, potentially resulting in a reopening of the wound before it has a chance to properly seal.
Finally, a dog may also suffer lacerations to its tail if considerable force has been exerted.
Lacerations are very deep cuts that expose the underlying muscle and bone, and may more commonly be caused through self-inflicted means such as tail biting.
Flea allergies, boredom, and other behavioral problems are frequent factors in tail biting- though a silly dog might also injure its tail when playing by simply chasing its tail too vigorously!
Whenever skin breakage and superficial wounds occur, the risk of secondary skin infection also rises.
This can result in issues such as hot spots and dermatitis, which only add to the overall soreness of the situation.
With the existence of these surface injuries, it’s perfectly logical that a dog will be resistant to its tail being touched or lifted!
Remember those 4 to 7 nerves connected to each tail muscle that we touched on earlier?
Well, they can be damaged too.
While they might be somewhat protected by the bony vertebrae, tears and even complete severance of the nerves can occur through avulsion forces (i.e. tail pulling or stretching).
In rare instances, damage to the nerves in the tail and spine can also occur through disc diseases or a mass such as tumor placing pressure on the fibers.
Nerve damage can be particularly distressing to the dog, as harm caused to the axons higher up in the spinal cord can result in incontinence (the inability to control urination and defecation properly).
Damage caused to the nerves can also cause a dog’s tail to hang limply, rendering it unable to wag or even raise its tail during bowel movements.
While nerve function can return as time passes, the impairment is often long-lasting and an affected dog will remain unable to reliably control its bowels or bladder. As a result, the poor pup’s quality of life may be drastically compromised.
Anal gland complications are another prominent possibility when it comes to a dog that is hesitant to have its tail hoisted.
If you weren’t already aware, canines have anal glands at approximately the 4 and 8 o’clock areas located below their anus.
These glands are responsible for producing white or cloudy brownish substances that serve as a mode of chemical communication between one dog and the rest of its canine compatriots.
Normally, the fluids that are secreted inside these anal sacs are released naturally and automatically during a dog’s everyday bowel movements.
However, under various circumstances, these organs are sometimes unable to empty efficiently.
When this happens, you might spot your dog constantly licking and biting at the area, sitting down abruptly, or scooting around on your favorite rug.
What this results in is increasingly full glands that can eventually become impacted. Impacted glands may then rupture and possibly become infected– becoming extremely painful in the process, as you might imagine!
Dogs that are suffering from infected glands or anal sac abscesses may purposefully hold their tail down and act like it is sore in order to safeguard the area from an owner’s touch.
The soreness can realistically spread all the way up to the base of the tail, so the discomfort that a dog may show definitely isn’t exaggerated.
If you’ve noticed:
- A sudden foul, fishy smell;
- White substances staining the area around your dog’s bum;
- Dark areas around your dog’s anus (indicative of inflammation);
chances are that your pup’s anal glands are full and may be in need of a manual expression procedure performed by a vet or qualified groomer.
If you already take your dog to the vet or groomer for routine anal gland expressions and notice that it is shaking or hesitant for its tail to be lifted after such appointments, it may be because the tail was handled or tugged quite roughly during the process.
It’s also quite possible the anal gland area is feeling inflamed after being cleaned out and your pooch simply wants to protect the area.
If that’s the case, it may be helpful to flush the region with some cool water (using a water bottle can work nicely! Not the one that you drink out of though, probably) and then apply a layer of Neosporin or other antibiotic ointment to help soothe the inflammation.
Your dog’s psychology and state of mind influences its reactions towards you.
Thus, it also follows that an intimidated dog and one which has suffered previous bad experiences will yelp when you lift its tail.
What constitutes intimidation is particular to each dog. For some, approaching the dog in a loud way or touching its tail aggressively will prompt a distressed response.
If someone has hurt the poor pooch’s tail in the past, it may recall such an experience and won’t let you or others lift its tail until trust has been rebuilt.
In such situations, the dog might feel threatened and as a result won’t be too keen to let you anywhere near its vicinity- let alone to manually move its wagger!
While most canines usually love to be petted all over the body, the tail is usually a common exception. The aforementioned nerves that are present in the tail make it much more sensitive to touch.
Finally, remember that not all dogs love being touched or teased. You’ll know your own pooch best, but often when you attempt to lift the tail of an ill-tempered dog it will show its displeasure by yowling.
It might also be difficult to tell whether such dogs are just aggressive or actually have underlying health issues that are causing them discomfort.
Sometimes, the best course of action is to take them to a professionally-trained vet for a checkup in this instance.
A limp tail can cause a ‘broken wag’, or prevent a dog from wagging or lifting its tail altogether!
Limber tail syndrome, otherwise known as acute caudal myopathy or tail head myositis, is a temporary medical condition that affects the dog’s tail muscles from the base of the tail onwards.
It is not a disease per se, but an inflammation of the muscles of the tail that renders it immobile and painful to the touch.
Limber tail syndrome has a unique appearance, characterized by a tail that either dives directly down at the base, or which juts out horizontally for 3 to 4 inches before dropping down flaccidly.
The condition is a prevalent affliction in athletic working and hunting dogs, but can affect any dog breed.
Below are the dog breeds that are prone to limp tails:
Limber tail syndrome (also known as cold water tail or swimmer’s tail) often kicks in when a dog over-engages in strenuous physical activities such as a hard day on the farm or swimming- hence the name.
The result is transient damage to the tail’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, or base. This damage affects the whole tail, making the entire appendage near impossible to raise without pain. Swelling can sometimes be observed at the base of the tail, especially in short-haired dogs.
Other factors that may cause this condition are cold weather, prolonged crate confinement, and sudden climate changes.
Limber tail syndrome usually resolves on its own after a few days. With that said, you shouldn’t wait for the tail to heal at home.
Instead, it may be a good idea to take your furry friend to the vet immediately if it shows symptoms.
This is due to the fact limp tails frequently display similar signs to other more severe tail-related conditions like:
- Inflammation of the anal glands
- Tail trauma
- Tail fracture
- Intervertebral disc disease
- Tail cancer.
While it may be painful and share many of the same signs as more dangerous tail-related afflictions like those listed above, you’ll be glad to know that Limber Tail Syndrome itself is not dangerous.
Dr. Janet Steiss of Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine has confirmed that though the lesser-known condition is quite sore for the dog, it isn’t a life threatening problem.
An affected dog’s quality of life may be altered for a few days to a few weeks, but rest and anti-inflammatory medications such as Rimadyl or buffered aspirin will go a long way in helping to reduce the discomfort.
Dr. Steiss also emphasizes that even when the dog’s tail function has seemingly returned to normal, the muscles may not yet be 100% healed.
Therefore, it’s important not to let the pup go straight into heavy-duty work or strenuous exercises (such as high-jumping competitions) just a few days after recovery.
It’s best to play it safe for a few extra days– lest the all-too-familiar limpness ‘rears its ugly tail’ again!
A dog with a sprained tail will display certain characteristics. Here are the most common symptoms that you may see:
The most obvious sign of a sprained tail is pain. You’ll notice that the dog feels pain when you touch its tail, and will likely yelp and try to escape your touch.
It may also become unusually protective of its tail, and can even become aggressive in order to stop anyone from coming into contact with it.
A sprained tail is likely to hang limply down between the dog’s hind legs. Your dog won’t lift a sprained tail because, well, it hurts!
Some dog breeds do not entirely droop their strained tails. Instead, they will extend their tails horizontally two inches before dropping them vertically.
Dogs with strained tails rarely wag. This is because wagging strains the already affected muscles even further and leads to excruciating pain.
Dogs with sprained tails are usually in pain. If you try lifting a limp tail, the dog will whine in pain. Sometimes the dog will whimper even if you don’t touch it!
A dog’s tail provides balance during both simple and complex movements. If the tail has a strain, the dog might struggle to even stand up properly!
Not only that, you may notice a significant change in its gait as well. In order to avoid the soreness as much as possible, an affected canine may spread its hind legs or drop its lower back while walking.
Top Tip: It can be helpful to take a video when your dog is walking strangely or limping so that you can show it to a professional vet during the appointment.
It isn’t uncommon for dogs to lick their wounds. Like humans, dogs want to attend to their injuries immediately. If you spot your dog licking its tail, it might be a sign of a sprain.
Several factors can cause your dog to lose its appetite. Among these factors is the condition of your dog.
If your dog is hurting, it may be more reluctant to eat even if it is normally a voracious devourer of kibble. A dog that has a sprained tail is always in pain, and this pain might affect the dog’s eating pattern.
Another characteristic of a sprained dog’s tail is swelling at the tail base. An overworked tail base will be sore and might start to swell.
Apart from swelling, the dog’s fur might also raise near the tail base.
Dogs often squat when defecating or urinating. Your dog can only achieve the squat position with the help of its tail.
If its tail is broken, it might struggle to maintain its balance when squatting- and may explain why your dog is suddenly reluctant to poop outside!
A dog’s tail also contains a myriad of muscles and nerves. The nerves and muscles at the tail’s base connect to the bladder and rectum.
If these nerves and muscles are damaged, the dog might not be able to effectively control its bowel movements, resulting in incontinence (dribbling pee while walking or sleeping) and a need for Proin or doggy diapers.
A dog that has a fractured tail as opposed to just a strained one will nevertheless display many of the same symptoms as the latter. They may (or may not) simply be to a greater degree.
For instance, you’ll likely notice the same limp appearance and lack of tail movement, as well as an increased inclination to lick and bite at the area.
In terms of wagging, a dog with merely a sprained tail may be able to do so within days of the injury occurring. However, a dog with a broken tail will not be able to do so.
Your pup may also be more vocal in expressing its pain with constant whimpering, and be less willing to move from a resting position.
A broken tail is more likely to have noticeable swelling, bending or kinks in what is usually a straight appendage.
In addition to the above signs already listed in the previous section, here are a few additional clues that your dog’s tail might be fractured:
- Bleeding or pierced skin on the tail is a clear sign that trauma has occurred, and that the damage may go beyond surface-level.
It’s important at this point to get your dog to the vet immediately to be examined and treated as it may require stitches.
- If there is a foul smell emitting from your dog’s tail, it could be a sign that there is a hidden injury somewhere that is starting to become infected.
- Hair loss can occur in fracture areas due to the original abrasion and trauma, as well as from the extra attention that your dog is giving the region through gnawing and licking.
At the end of the day, the only way to be completely certain that a dog’s wagger is broken is by scanning it with an X-ray.
Though a professionally trained vet will likely be able to detect a fracture solely through touch, you probably won’t have the same ability. Please don’t try, as you may end up hurting your dog! Instead, take your poor pup to the vet to have it examined properly.
If you spot your dog walking with its tail sideways, you might naturally suspect a sprain or fracture.
While both of these are possibilities, it’s not always the case!
In fact, a tail that is held sideways can be linked more to the emotional state of a dog rather than the physical.
This is especially the case if the dog isn’t showing accompanying signs of discomfort such as whimpering, excessive licking, appetite loss, or difficulty while pooping.
Here are a few of the reasons as to why a dog may walk with its tail sideways:
- Natural curvature or bend. It may be that a dog’s tail simply bends sideways as it walks! If that’s the case, continually doing so shows that it is feeling relaxed and at ease.
- Along those same lines, canine tails can be very sophisticated mechanisms for communicating whatever they are currently feeling. For instance, a tail that is held high and to the right signifies joyfulness and confidence. On the other hand, a tail that is held mid-height and dragging to the left often is a sign of uncertainty.
- If the dog is female and it is holding its tail sideways while walking, it could be that it is currently in the peak of its “season”!
During this period, a female dog will be very excited around other dogs and as a result may hold its tail in an unnatural angle out to the side.
- Anal gland issues. We’ve already mentioned this topic above, but it bears repeating. If a dog’s anal sacs are impacted or infected, they’re likely to be pretty sore! As such, the pooch will likely carry its tail sideways in order to avoid even brushing the area.
How a dog’s tail injury is treated will depend specifically on what type of damage has been incurred.
Just like with a broken leg, a canine tail that has been snapped at certain points won’t heal optimally by itself and will likely need professional (and perhaps surgical) intervention.
With that said, many of the more minor dog tail issues can be resolved with minimal treatment and sufficient rest.
When managing your dog’s tail at home, always take care to handle your pup as gently as possible. Teach any children that may be nearby not to go near a dog’s tail when it is injured!
Many dogs will respond aggressively to their tail being touched, especially when it is hurting. If you feel like the situation is too dangerous, don’t hesitate to take your pooch to the vet’s office instead.
Minor cuts and abrasions are relatively easy to treat using regular first aid techniques.
Firstly, wash the area with a mild soap and warm water to clean the wound.
Follow that by applying an antibiotic ointment such as Neosporin and then bandage the region lightly to keep it clean and protected. It may be helpful here to use a self-adhering wrap rather than an adhesive tape.
If your dog constantly tries to chew at the bandage, bitter apple spray or an Elizabethan collar (‘Cone-of-shame’) are effective ways to deter the behavior.
In the situation where the pup’s cuts and abrasions have occurred due to ‘“Happy tail” (repetitive striking injury), thicker bandaging is essential to allow the wound to heal as quickly as it can.
In severe cases, you may have to be prepared for your dog’s tail to be surgically shortened. While this will change the cosmetic appearance of your poor pooch, a shorter tail will mean less injuries.
If at any point the wound does not look like it is getting better and is instead worsening, take your pet to the vet immediately as it may now require systemic antibiotics and pain medication in order to recover.
Fractures in the tail, as you might imagine, are best left to the professionals.
Though breaks in the bone can heal well without any treatment if they are at the tip of the tail, fractures elsewhere can be more problematic.
Broken tail bones tend to regrow quickly after snapping, but if the tail isn’t properly reset and immobilized it can result in a permanent bend or kink.
If you winced at the word ‘reset’, you’re not wrong- it’s as painful a process as it sounds.
Your vet will be able to provide the appropriate medication during treatment to help your pup manage the pain.
Bones don’t always fracture cleanly or uniformly, and in the scenario where they are crushed (in a car crash or big fall, for example) a segment of the tail may need to be amputated.
Any fracture injuries that occur close to the base of the tail will likely involve significant nerve damage as well that will require specialist treatment. Steroids will likely be administered to achieve a satisfactory outcome for the pet patient.
While Limber Tail Syndrome is a condition that can mostly be managed at home, it still pays to take your dog to the vet first when you notice any symptoms.
This will help to rule out more serious potential causes that may share similar signs, as Limber tail is more a diagnosis of exclusion than one of specificity.
When you arrive at the vet’s office, he will likely check overall physical status and wellbeing via the following:
- Heart rate
- Medical and recent history
- Anal gland examination
- Lower back X-ray imaging (to eliminate skeletal conditions such as osteoarthritis, diseased discs, or a broken tail)
Once the vet gives the all-clear, you and your pup will then be sent home with anti-inflammatory medication.
This will usually be NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) specifically formulated for animal use like Rimadyl (carprofen) or Metacam (meloxicam).
Buffered aspirin may also sometimes be prescribed if the dog does not exhibit any history of liver or kidney disease, bleeding tendencies, or a sensitive stomach.
The usual dose of buffered aspirin recommended for dogs is 5mg to 10mg per pound of body weight given every 12 hours.
Aspirin (as well as other painkillers) should always be given with a meal, and should not be given for more than 2-3 days in a row. Administration should likewise be halted immediately if any signs of loss of appetite, vomiting, or bloody stools are observed.
Other than that, recovering from Swimmer’s Tail is simply a matter of a few days (to weeks) of rest. It has been shown that complete recovery from the condition usually takes around two weeks.
The healing period tends to be quite uncomfortable for the dog, but the more confined, calm and quiet that you can keep your pet the easier it will be.
In addition to administering the pain medication, a warm compress can be used periodically on the base of the tail to ease swelling and inflammation by stimulating blood flow to the region.
Once the tail has healed completely, there are a few things to watch out for in order to prevent the issue from recurring or becoming chronic. These include:
- Making sure that the dog is in good physical shape
- Avoiding swims in cold or icy water
- Not pushing the dog too hard during work or training, especially without incrementally building up activity
- Not leaving the dog in a crate for an excessive amount of time.
According to PetMD, the usual recovery for a sprained or ‘dead’ tail can range anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.
Although a limber tail typically clears on its own, it’s advisable to take your canine friend to the vet for a checkup initially.
As already outlined in the above section, the vet will examine the dog’s tail and carry out x-rays to rule out other conditions like fractures and tumors.
Sprained tails aren’t severe conditions in the grand scheme of things. There might be significant pain and swelling in the short term, but these signs will clear quickly if the tail gets plenty of rest.
It can’t be understated just how vital adequate rest is in this instance. Making sure that the dog gets plenty of R&R time as well as appropriate administration of pain medication can ensure a speedier recovery.
It is inevitable for some dogs to have recurring bouts of Limber Tail Syndrome, especially if their lifestyle is more active.
In fact, it has been shown in a study that around 16% of dogs that have suffered Swimmer’s Tail will go on to have permanent changes in the anatomy of their tail.
The primary cause of sprained tails in dogs is strenuous activity. Physical activity is essential, but your dog needs to indulge in moderate exercises.
If there is a bigger workload for your dog coming up, make sure to increase its activity level gradually to improve its fitness. Ensure that the pup has plenty of rest in-between and after workouts.
Just as an older or less fit dog might display a limp after playing a round of fetch, it’s tail may also become strained due to the effort required.
It’s also a good idea to keep your dog warm at all times. Always dry your dog with a towel after it takes a swim or a bath.
Pay closer attention to the dog’s tail base, as this region needs to be as dry and warm as possible.
Finally, here are a few additional pointers on how to prevent tail sprains in canines:
- Though dogs undeniably love to jump, try to discourage them from doing so from high places! Did you know that one of the leading causes of tail injuries is when a dog jumps from a car and gets its wagger trapped in the seam?
- Teach children from the outset never to pull on a pet’s tail! This protects both canine and kids- the former from tail strain and nerve damage, and the latter from retaliatory aggression.
- Crate size is also an important aspect of making sure your dog is as ergonomically comfortable as it can be. A crate needs to be large enough so that a pooch can stretch its legs out from time to time, especially if it is going to be confined for a prolonged period.
As always, don’t be afraid to consult your vet on the best way to approach this problem in your dog.
It’s always best to avoid causal factors as much as possible in order to steer clear of unnecessary pain and costs that may otherwise become involved!
Heather Abraham is an owner of two dogs, one cat, a leopard gecko, and a parrot (who her dad still cannot teach bad words to), and an avid blogger. From the time she was a young girl, she always felt a connection with pets. She brings her love of every type of pet to you, with information on animal nutrition, medication, toys, beds, and everything else in between. Along with newly-on-board veterinarian DVM editor Elena, she puts pups first while offering other various fun tidbits along the way.