Limber tail syndrome, also called limp tail, cold tail, cold water tail, broken wag or broken tale, is a fairly common injury affecting primarily sporting and working dogs. It's especially common in Labs and retrievers, but it's possible for any dog to get it.
Generally, limber tail is caused by overexertion. For example, when a Lab goes for its first swim of the summer after a winter spent indoors. In fact, if it's cold, even a simple walk could cause it. It's also possible for dogs to get the condition when they're crated for too long without enough exercise.
According to David Chamberlain, a veterinary consultant, "the condition appears to be associated with damage to the tail muscles which are located at the base of the tail." Basically, the first third of the tail extends from the base as expected, then the rest of the tail hangs limp. There is often swelling associated (which causes the hair to stand up), and it can be quite painful.
The good news is that this isn't a serious condition. You should certainly have your dog see a vet to rule out a break or other ailments, but this is a case where time heals the wound. The vet can also prescribe anti-inflammatories to help your pet with the pain and swelling and make it heal more quickly. Once your dog has had limber tail, there's a 1 in 3 chance it could recur and a 16 percent chance there could be a permanent alteration in tail posture.
It isn't uncommon for a vet to refer to it as a sprain, which while a misnomer, is often more easily understood by owners because of the similarity of the causes and treatments. You also shouldn't be alarmed if your vet doesn't immediately know about limber tail or feels he or she needs to research the treatment, because this ailment is most common in actual working and sporting dogs — sled dogs, dogs used as herders, hunting companions and those used in organized sports. These dogs are often treated by specialized vets, so it's not impossible for pet vets to go their entire career never having seen it.
When I called my vet to start research, he'd never seen a case after over 20 years of practice. But a colleague of mine recently had her Golden Retriever get the condition after his first serious swim of the season.
There's no foolproof way to prevent the condition, but you can reduce the likelihood of it.
If your dog still gets limber tail, you should also remember that it's not your fault. Pro athletes are carefully monitored by a number of professionals and they still get injured.
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