Limber Tail Syndrome: My Dog’s Tail is Limp!

Better understand the condition in dogs nicknamed swimmers tail.
By JoAnna Lou, September 2016, Updated July 2020
swimmers tail in dogs

From time to time I hear about friends’ dogs who have developed something called “swimmers’ tail.” Officially referred to as Acute Caudal Myopathy, limber tail syndrome causes a dog’s tail to become limp. At first you might notice your dog weakly wagging her tail then shortly after her tail will become completely limp and she might show signs of discomfort. Seeing a normally perky dog tail go suddenly limp can be unnerving to most pet owners.

What is limber tail syndrome?

Limber tail syndrome is a condition in dogs that typically affects large breed dogs causing the dog’s tail to become flaccid typically after spending too much time playing in the water or overuse while playing. This type of overexertion can cause a strain of the muscles used for holding up the tail and tail wagging. Along with tail limpness, the base of the tail is often stiff, and the dog may experience pain. Limber tail syndrome will resolve on its own without veterinary intervention.

Limber tail syndrome is also known as swimmer's tail, cold tail, frozen tail, dead tail or any combination of limber, swim, and cold. Don’t confuse this condition for “Happy Tail Syndrome.” 

In 2016 a team at the University of Edinburgh wanted to study cases of limber tail in order to understand the habits and lifestyles that might explain why some dogs are affected and others are not. The researchers confirmed that limber tail syndrome is more likely to show up in working breed dogs such as English Pointers, English Setters, Foxhounds, Beagles, and Labrador Retrievers. Researchers also found that dogs with limber tail were more likely to live in northern areas, lending some support to anecdotal reports that the condition is associated with exposure to the cold. But don’t take this as a hard and fast rule, many dogs have experienced this in warm weather especially while swimming.

Related: Swimming dogs are at risk of water intoxication

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An important note, while this condition has the nickname “swimmers’ tail” not all the affected dogs in the study had been swimming prior to the onset of symptoms. Researchers classified swimming as a potential risk factor. Interestingly, researchers also found that Labradors that suffered limber tail were more likely to be related to each other than unaffected dogs, which may indicate an underlying genetic risk factor.

This was the first large scale study of limber tail syndrome. Researchers hope that further studies will look to identify genes associated with the condition, which could help breeders identify animals that are likely to be affected. Overtime, this could help reduce the disease prevalence.

How is limber tail treated?

Thankfully, limber tail isn't a life-threatening condition, but this often causes it to be overlooked and underestimated. Limber tail is not often reported to veterinarians since symptoms usually resolve themselves within a few days or weeks. The best treatment for limber tail is rest, so encourage your dog to take it easy for a few days. However, limber tail is thought to be very painful and distressing for affected dogs so if the condition doesn’t resolve or show signs of improvement, contact your vet. Your vet may be able to prescribe pain relief and anti-inflammatory medication to ease the discomfort for your dog.

After a little rest and relaxation, your pup and her tail will be wagging again in no time.

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.