Wacky Tales of Whacking Tails

How on earth could a wagging tail be a problem?  Have you ever been around a large, muscular, happy dog who upends flower vases and knocks over beverages on coffee tables with his long vigorously wagging tail?  People living with such dogs literally have to “tail-proof” their homes! Ever been repeatedly slapped across the thighs by one of these wagging whips, and the more you react to the pain the more the dog wags?  Ouch! 

Such vigorous tail wagging can also be problematic for the dog.  By repeatedly whacking his tail against a firm surface such as wall or a table, an open bleeding sore can develop on the tail tip.   The dog’s response is to lick and chew at the site resulting in more inflammation and bleeding. This tail tip trauma isn’t typically terribly painful for the dog so, of course the tail keeps right on wagging.  Only now it’s a live paintbrush spattering speckles of red at the walls, furniture, kitchen appliances, and even nearby humans!  The result is as graphic as a CSI crime scene. 

One might imagine this would be a simple problem to fix.  The fact of the matter is, a bleeding tail tip poses a significant medical challenge. In order to heal, the tail must be immobilized, but how in the heck can you make a dog quit wagging his tail?  You can’t.  And it’s almost impossible to keep a bandage secured on the tail tip.  Most dogs are happy to chew off (and ingest) their tail bandages, and there are no Elizabethan collars large enough to prevent the tongue from reaching the tail tip. I’ve seen other things tried such as temporarily bandaging the tail to the dog’s hind leg so he can’t wag, or 24-hour supervision until the tip heals (a certain way to create a tired and pissed off client).   Besides, even if the tail tip does heal, the dog is going to re-whack it and the bleeding will start all over again. 

So, what’s the solution?  Partial amputation of the tail is the treatment of choice.  The tail revision need not need be as short as a Rottweiler look. Rather, the length should resemble an Airedale or Vizsla tail; still some tail, but short enough to prevent the wagging tip from coming into contact with hard surfaces. As with any surgery, there are potential complications and it is important to discuss them with your veterinarian.  Yes, the look of the dog is forever changed, but the wag will continue as vigorously as ever without altering the color of your wallpaper. 

Best wishes for good health,

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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17 Responses to “Wacky Tales of Whacking Tails”

  1. MMCTAQ Says:

    Can we hope that when the PeTAphiles and ARista looney tunes flex their lobbying muscle, you might come down on the side of choice when it comes to docking?

    I have had occasion to have to have the tail of an adult dog docked once, and it was a very painful surgery and lengthy recovery. I share my life with Dobermans now, and am glad that they will never have to undergo such an awful procedure. I hope very much that this will be true of all of the Dobermans I will ever own in the future, as well.

  2. Susan Says:

    Have you seen this?
    http://www.greatdanelady.com/articles/mending_a_tail.htm

  3. Mari Says:

    My daughter has “Zoe” who is a large dog (over 70 lbs) a mix of American Staffordshire and maybe lab? She’s table height anyway. Her tail does exactly that, sprays the walls with blood, we’ve tried everything to bandage it. She purposely will wake you by banging her tail on the hall wall or the bed. Her tail is thick, so you say “ouch” when that thing hits!
    She’s too elderly now to do an amputation, but I fashioned a “tail cover” from a clean sock and 2 long ties. I can put it on her and tie it under her stomach. She doesn’t like it, but leaves it on for quite awhile. It inhibits her wagging and my walls are clean!

  4. Sherryanne Farr Says:

    Having lived with multiple Dals for years, with only one dog needing his tail shortened when it would not heal..and that due to a dog sitter shutting the tail in the door..I am not an advocate of mass amputation of any part of a tail of a dog. I don’t believe the evidence is there to support such measures at all.

  5. speakingforspot Says:

    I love seeing Dobermans with their tails and ears in tact! Without question, there can be complications to tail amputation which is why I emphasized discussing them with the surgeon beforehand. Most dogs do wonderfully well with amputation- they are quick to heal with no muss, no fuss, but certainly what you’ve described represent potential complications.

  6. speakingforspot Says:

    Hi Sherryanne. Thanks for taking the time to respond. I’m all for trying medical therapy first, however most folks end up not having the fortitude to continuously fuss with a bandage on the tail for a long time, knowing that the problem has great potential to recur. Most tail tip trauma is really well tolerated by the dog, so medical therapy can be tried in most cases for a very long time without causing harm to the dog. Additionally, most folks I encounter have little tolerance when it comes to indoor red spray paint.

  7. Sherryanne Farr Says:

    In our country, through a vote on the bylaws of their vet medical associations, vets are voting to remove their services for tail docking, ear cropping and dew claw remova province by province.. While some people like to sink to name calling for those who hold the view that these things are not necessary, the vets are making the choice to remove those services. I look forward to the day when my Vizslas, like those in many other countries, will no longer be docked. In other countries when the tails are not docked, the actual rate of tail amputations due to injury are very low.

  8. jill breitner Says:

    There IS another option here that works yet may be difficult for some owners to do. As a behaviorist, one of the many calls I get is to stop the dog from being too excited during homecoming, with guests and just in general hyper. My very first experience with this was my first Labrador puppy in college. He knocked everything over that was on a coffee table or his level and bruised the legs of a very dear elder friend of mine. I have had many clients whose just learning to crawl children have been whipped in the face causing havoc for the child, the parents and the dog. After all, he’s just a happy dog, right?

    Teaching a puppy from the start is clearly the way to go, however, teaching an adult dog is also quite easy when one knows how to be the leader.

    First and foremost we must start with ourselves and this is the hard part because most people love this crazy excited greeting we get from out dogs yet it becomes a problem when we DON’T want that type of greeting which then becomes confusing for the dog.

    This blog is too long for me to teach how to solve this problem yet it will definitely be in my next newsletter. So, if you are interested in learning how to deal with this issue before surgery, then go to my website, sign up for the newsletter and it will be in your inbox by the end of today. I promise.

    Stay tuned:

    ~jill

  9. jill breitner Says:

    oops. I see my website doesn’t show up in the post. It is http://www.shewhisperer.com

    A calmer, less anxious dog is a happy dog 🙂

    ~jill

  10. Linda Henning Says:

    Having lived for 14 years with “Happy Tail”
    I’m all for docking where docking is called for. I’ve attended many Vet performed dockings to see 2 day old puppies happliy snuggling in their box just 30 seconds later. I find it unfortunate that inexperienced people will decide for me that I must live with a cronic injury. Just because a vet here and there does not see injury, they take that as “evedence” that its not needed. Our vet who lived near the US/Canadian border each year saw several drug dogs and hunting dogs who had their tails docked as adults due to injury. I know this because the topic was always brought up when our Happy Tail dog would visit. Tail docking as puppies is as uncomfortable as circumcising a baby. Would they ban that as well? I’ve seen dozens of instances of ripped dew claws in field events and had to get stiches on my forearm when a shelter dog ripped a 4 inch gash just shy of major veins. Now with a rescued Wirehaired Pointing Griffon , normally docked he has both dewclaws and long tail he uses as a flag. We’ll see how the summer of field work goes and decide in the fall if a tail docking is necessary.
    For our Happy Tail dog the end of his tail would heal then suddenly break open spraying the walls. He could not compete with an open wound and we were dismissed from several events. I only had some success by applying some neosporin, then a gauze pad, wraping the tail about half way down then wrapping with tape. Housing the dog in an airline crate over night or tethering him for a few hours in the middle of the back yard where he could not hit anything then keeping an eye out that he did not chew the dressing off.
    Ear cropping is an entirely different process involving much more work, after care and problems with complications. Most ear problems are solved by regular cleaning and drying out if they are swimmers.

  11. Dani Theule, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP Says:

    Nice article. What about a non-surgical behavior modification approach. When I see that kind of enthusiasm in a dog, I don’t think “oh what a very happy dog”, I think anxious dog displaying hyper-appeasement behaviors. So maybe the noninvasive, less expensive solution is foundation behavior training (or re-training if cues have been poisoned) and relxation protocols using no-force,humane primarily positive reinforcement based methods.

  12. Dawne Deeley Says:

    Dr. Kay,

    Just a thought for those who are having trouble with their dogs being tempted by tail-tip tasting during the healing process….:-)
    You mention no ‘collar’ is large enough to prevent a patient from attempting this, but I’ve found putting the collar on *backwards* works like a charm. Slip the wide part down to the dog’s shoulders (or thereabouts) and cut the tie loops off just where they attach to the body of the collar. If you feel the plastic is too rough or sharp, you can pad the edges and tape the material in place. The head and neck are then immobilised just enough to keep the dog from being able to turn and lick. The dog is able to see and move around better (no collar to whack into things) and will be able to bend over enough to drink. It worked like a charm on a catheterised 14 year old Karelian Bear Dog with bladder cancer; she couldn’t fuss with the tubing, so she quickly lost interest in it!

    Yours in dogs,

    Dawne Deeley
    TsarShadow Karelians

  13. Liz Rizzo Says:

    Cutting off a dogs tail because it wags is inhumane and cruel. In a Red Cross first aid class the instructor showed us how to put a cardboard from an empty paper towel roll and tape, cloth around the tail to protect it. Move the things in your home away from doggies tail. It someones children bumped into things would these folks start cutting off parts?

  14. speakingforspot Says:

    Hi Liz,
    The way I see it is, thank goodness we have a way to fix the problem when other methods such as putting a protective device on the tail and “tail proofing” the house don’t work. Of the dogs I’ve seen with this problem, many of them have caused the trauma by whacking their tails against walls. Making the dog live outdoors to avoid contact with walls isn’t a feasible option. Yes, there can be complications from partial tail amputations, but I can assure you that when surgery is indicated, the overwhelming majority of these dogs continue to enjoy a wonderful quality of life and, most importantly, they can continue to wag their tails without their humans getting upset.

  15. Courtenay Says:

    Susan, I was going to come here to post this exact thing. The o-ring method can be a godsend, especially for situations where dogs need to be in kennel runs temporarily and break their tails open on the concrete (but are otherwise fine in a home). I do think there are situations where amputation is the best option, but also feel that medical and behavioural interventions deserve a chance first!

  16. ADA Says:

    When taking on a dog and placing it in a domestic environment, consideration is so often not given to the dog’s natural functions and anatomy. They are better placed in unconfined space with no “coffee tables” and preferably without toddlers if they are a large to medium sized dog. Through all the centuries of breeding out from wolves, foxes, dingos etc., dogs are still born with tails. There are reasons for this.

    People and owners who want a domesticated animals have some responsibility to guard against possible injury situations. Docking (in countries where it is still permitted) seems to be retained for dogs that “resemble” certain breeds for which docking has become popularised but not for others.
    Tail docking should not be compared with circumcision – circumcision is not amputating the appendage!

  17. Dr. Tony Johnson Says:

    I have tried and failed to manage many of these in the ER – usually a case of ‘happy tail’ where the dog has injured it through excessive wagging. It is usually big, goofy labs and goldens that this happens to, natch.

    For such a tiny and seemingly simple thing, they are very very hard to get under control. Ditto for the bleeding ear – they become blood spraying lawn sprinklers. Nothing bleeds like an ear!

    Thanks for highlighting this common problem so owners are sympathetic to our plight. My heart usually falls a bit when I see a patient come in with a tail or ear injury.

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