Limber Tail, Cold Water And Your Labrador

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Your Labrador’s wagging tail is a big part of who he is. It can be quite a shock to see that your dog has lost his wag, especially if his tail appears to be injured. The tail of a dog with limber tail may hang lifelessly from the root or stick out a little before drooping down. It is sometimes called called ’broken wag’ or ‘dead tail’. ‘Swimmers tail’, or ‘cold water tail’ are other names for this condition.

Affected dogs tend to look very miserable, but if your dog has limber tail, the good news is, with the right treatment, he’ll soon be on the mend. Let’s find out what has happened to him.

My Labradors Tail Has Stopped Wagging

Limber tail is a painful condition affecting dogs of all ages, but it seems to be more common in larger working dogs. It has anecdotally been linked to prolonged swimming in cold water, and one study has shown that swimming is a risk factor, although not a necessary precursor.

When a dog is struck by limber tail, the pain seems to be focused on the base or root of the tail, and the dog is clearly not able to wag or move it. Sometimes it hangs limply from the root, but it often sticks out a little way from the base, before drooping down. Affected dogs may be reluctant to sit down and clearly in pain

Limber Tail Causes

Veterinarians have noticed that dogs with limber tail may have several things in common.  The first is unaccustomed exercise. So for example, this condition is seen in working dogs that have just returned to work at the start of the shooting season. A 2016 cohort study has shown that working dogs are more susceptible to limber tail than non-working dogs.

Another contributory factor is confinement. Dogs that have be crated for example for a long journey appear to be more susceptible.

Until recently it was seen as quite a mysterious condition, with some sources claiming that spinal problems involving bones or nerves were implicated. But a study on working dogs  carried out in 1999 suggested otherwise. In the dogs they examined that were suffering from limber tail they found clear evidence of muscle damage. They also noted that all the dogs had a recent history of one or more of the following

  • Prolonged confinement
  • Hard exercise
  • Exposure to cold wet conditions

A 2016 study looking at 38 cases of limber tail and 86 controls, has found more dogs with limber tail to be related than you would find by chance. Suggesting that there may be a genetic component to the condition – although this needs further study to be confirmed.

How To Avoid Limber Tail

You may be able to influence whether or not your dog experiences an attack of limber tail. For example, if you work your Labrador during the shooting season, you should help him build up to full fitness gradually, several weeks in advance.

This may be especially important if your dog spends a lot of time retrieving in cold water. And it might be especially worthwhile if he has already had an attack in the past,  though many dogs who experience limber tail, do so only once. You can also help him by treating each attack promptly when it occurs.

Limber Tail Treatment

The first thing to do is get your dog to a vet without delay. Anti-inflammatories may be effective in reducing the length of the attack if administered in the first 24 hours. Not to mention the fact that it hurts!  There’s no reason to keep your dog waiting for pain relief. Don’t give him human drugs, some are harmful to dogs, get your vet to prescribe the right medication

It is also important to rule out other possible problems.  This is because there are other, potentially more serious conditions, which can cause similar symptoms.

The key to recovery is rest.  Your vet will probably advise this together with anti-inflammatory pain killers. Most dogs recover from the symptoms within a few days.  Though it can take a week or more for full recovery.

Limber Tail In Labs

The pain and loss of movement in the tail is now thought to be caused by injury to the tail muscles, typically brought on by exercise, particularly in cold conditions. Current thinking is that it may be more likely to occur in dogs which are exercised hard when somewhat out of condition

There are no strict rules governing the progress of limber tail. But most dogs make a full recovery and with care you should be able to avoid a recurrence and keep your dog’s tail wagging. Has your dog ever had limber tail?  Share your story with us in the comments box below.

More information on Labradors

You can find out more about how to keep your Labrador as fit and healthy as possible in the Health section of our website.

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References and Resources

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46 COMMENTS

  1. Hot day yesterday in CA. Spent rest of the day indoors in AC. Woke up with cold tail. I’ve seen this before in my other lab.

  2. My 2 yr male black lab had a bath outside with the hose it was warm and sunny outside but the water was too cold. He woke up with “limp tail” a shot of metcam and rest is in order so I cancelled my day to lay with him. He never left my side when I had surgery so I’m doing the same for him. He’s had this before from swimming in a cold lake. But how do you tell your Lab no swimming??? Life is better with a Lab ❤️ Rest and he’ll be fine.

  3. Took my Lab to Lake Tahoe on Friday. She played fetch in the water for nearly 2 hours which is not unheard of, but it had been a couple of months since she last went. Seemed to be perfectly normal and on Monday we went for an easy 3 mile hike along a creek which we allowed her to jump in and out of along the way. Around 2am the next morning she woke up and for the next 5 hours she was restless up and down and seemed like she could not get comfortable whimpering and moaning occasionally. Also was boot scooting a little in the beginning so we thought maybe it was her glands. Took her to urgent care and turns out it Swimmers Tail!

  4. Wonder, 5 year old black lab, swam in the Kenai River quite a bit during the last 2 hours of our 3 day raft trip. My husband was swimming ouf there too in his drysuit. Super cold water, especially skilak lake. He was sfiff and miserable for about 24 hours.
    This was the first time we’ve seen his tail like that and he swims a lot in glacial rivers. But then he was energetic and happily ran around on our steep hike the next day. He healed quickly.

  5. My 17 month old male black lab is very energetic and do NOT take “no play” seriously. We went to the river last weekend in our southern Oregon home town and he caught a glimpse of the river and off he went. He leaps in and chases anything he sees and a pair of geese where in reach. He did NOT want to get out of the water. He found a stick and with his big brown puppy dog eyes coaxed ya into letting his play fetch for about 20 minutes. It was about 60 degrees outside and sunny but the water was COLD! We finally got him out and a good nights sleep in a pile of comforters was in order. The next day he woke up “ swimmers tail” “limp tail” or what ever you call it. We call it “ swimmers tail”. Our older lab has gotten this when the hose water was too cold for him during his outside baths in the summer. But our younger lab doesn’t seem to show pain when he gets it. You can tell it’s dropping and he isn’t wagging as aggressive as usual. We have messed with it to see if there is pain that he appears to show, but doesn’t. He also seems to not really show pain that we have seen. But we know it must be uncomfortable. We did get meds for muscle relaxing from the vet and will give him a dose tonight and will have some on hand when he decides to be a lab and get in the cold river again. 🙂 #LabMom

  6. We were out walking on the lake ice the other day. The ice was still thick and safe enough, but there was an area near the shore where melt water was spilling into the lake and the ice was thinner there. My big sweet four year old male lab Bernie had to go investigate, and he broke through the ice and fell into the cold water. He struggled hard to get out, but couldn’t. He had his front paws on the ice, but couldn’t get enough grip to get his hind legs up and lift himself up. My brave wife cautiously approached the edge of the ice, grabbed his collar and gave him just enough of a boost to pull him out. He seemed just fine, but right after that I noticed him favoring his tail. He wouldn’t wag it and was very careful sitting down. In fact, be just preferred to lay down, which is unusual for him. The symptoms he was showing were identical to what is described in this article. I felt his tail with my hand and he yelped, so it was obviously hurting him. It must be limber tail, and it must have been brought on by his struggle in the cold water.

  7. Has anyone had an issue with a lab not urinating at all due to tail pain? My lab rolled in something nasty on a Saturday, we washed the dirty area on his front shoulder outside with cold hose water (not even a full bath). By midnight Monday, he was pacing, panting, uncomfortable. Long story short, the vet catheterized him, withdrew 40 ml liters of urine, he had two ultrasounds and spent the night at the emergency vet. The vet ruled out kidney stones, UTI, blockages, etc and found nothing wrong. It wasn’t until he came home (tired but ok, thankfully) that I thought of ‘broken’ tail. Just wondered if anyone had seen limber tail cause a dog to be unable to pee for more than a day?

  8. My yellow lab is exercised frequently and is in excellent shape. He does suffer from limber tail. I first noticed it after he went swimming in the creek by our house. The next time was after he had a bath outside, no warm wafer. He does not fit the study posted on this article. I am glad to know what it is called and will take him to the vet of it ever happens again.

  9. My yellow lab went hunting yesterday in 32 degree weather. He’s in excellent shape and just about 2 years old. It was a VERY tough day in the field, he had 6 retrieves a couple very long in the cold water followed by a two mile trek in and out to get to the hunting spot. He was a champ. Noticed he was whining/groaning a bit last night and he NEVER WHINES. Thought he was just exhausted.

    Today I noticed he didn’t want me to touch his tail and he was feeling discomfort when sitting. Also noticed a kink in his tail halfway up. This article saves me a trip to the vet as he still seems in good spirits and pain seems to be decreasing. If he still looks to be in pain in a few days we’ll take a trip to the vet, but checks all the boxes

  10. If they have limber tail, keep them warm and comfortable without being intrusive. Don’t touch their tail- it’s the equivalent of us hurting our cocchyxs (the bone at the bottom of your spine). They need to be warm, comfortable and rested. Also lots of patience as it might take them longer to go to the toilet.

  11. Just woken up to this with my 5 year old choc lab. He exercisable regualay just hasn’t been for a swim for a while. His tail was fine all yesterday after his swim and run. Until this morning. Hopefully vets will confirm it is this. He looks so confused he can’t move his tail 🙁

  12. I have a 1.5 year old male black lab that has his first bout of Limber Tail right now. We spent all day at the ocean, where he was running in and out of the water for a couple of hours. To make matters worse, we had an hour and a half drive home afterwards. During the car ride it was clear he was in discomfort, as he kept trying to get into the front seat. When we got home we noticed all of the symptoms of Limber Tail — limp tail, swollen, clear discomfort when sitting down, fast breathing (pain), muscle spasms, hesitance to go to the bathroom, lethargic, etc. Without the knowledge of the condition, the symptoms can appear quite serious — so the research that has been conducted and the coverage in these articles is much appreciated. We definitely recommend taking the animal to the vet, as our veterinary doctor explained that the symptoms can sometimes be confused for more serious conditions. He prescribed us Carprofen to be taken 2x daily. The dog is now almost 24 hours into this and he is still quite lethargic but clearly is in less discomfort. He is walking around the property, eating and urinating regularly as well. But sleep seems to be the trick. Hoping he’s back to his normal, active, and playful self soon.

  13. My black lab got in when he went to my dog sitters he wagged it that much playing with the other dogs when he came home its was just hanging he looked so sad it took a week or so before he was ok buthe enjoyed
    himself

  14. My yellow lab Maia has this for the first time. Not been swimming or hunting just ball chasing and running through long grass. She does not appear to have any pain so hopefully it will resolve before a visit to the vet is needed.

  15. My 18 month old black lab is currently suffering from Rudder tail. He had a bath yesterday morning (using warm water), then during the afternoon he spent a couple of hours swimming with the kids in a warm swimming pool. 3 hours later he was incredibly restless, couldn’t get comfortable and clearly in discomfort from his tail (whimpering). A trip to the vets, injection and anti-inflammatories meant he settled down after a few hours. Poor lad looks so sorry for himself :(. He’s a fit boy, perfect weight, running 5k most days and covering another 2-3k walking. He’s at his happiest when swimming and has enjoyed hours swimming in the sea/lakes/pools in the past, so quite a shock to see him debilitated out the blue. Guess we’ll have to reduce his swims and keep a close eye on things.

  16. My black lab Oscar went for a swim in the sea and later that day he suffered the same symptoms after reading the article I took him to our vets the next morning and he was given anti inflammatory medicine and told to rest no off lead running. I will defiantly be keeping a towel in the car for next time don’t want to see him like this again.

    • Hi,
      How is Oscar now? My black lab has had exactly the same yesterday after sea swimming. How long did it take for him to recover (hopefully he has?)? The vet gave her an injection of anti-inflammatory drugs yesterday but they will wear off after 24 hours – I’m unsure whether to take her back for more or not. Thanks.

  17. Thanks for this article. Was really helpful. my 3yo lab was in distress tonight after all long walk this morning at our local park. Could not figure out for the life of me what was wrong but he could not get comfortable. It was, until he jumped off the sofa I noticed his tail was hanging limp. Sticking out from the Base and then just dropping down. I was so concerned that he had broke a bone and began to panic. That’s when I went on Google and saw this article. It does seem it is his first strenuous walk in a while and he may have overdone it. I have given him a hot compress to relieve some swelling and it has soothed him immensely. If the discomfort persists onwards tomorrow, It will look like a trip to the vets. But if anyone has they’re pooches suffering, do try a really hot compress at the base of the tail. We’re are now cuddled up on the sofa giving him plenty of kisses and cuddles to keep him relaxed. Hope this may help someone else.

  18. Our yellow lab Dexter gets this as well when he goes to the groomer. First time it happened I called them right away thinking they had caused it. The droop lasted about a week the first time and subsequent visits (even at different groomers) last at least three days.
    I had no idea it was painful for him! I will definitely get him to the vet for meds and be ready for the next visit.

  19. I had one awesome Master Hunter Jake who got cold tail about 5 times in total. I worked him in the field on average 5 days a week. Never confined at home, only in crate during training days, in a well padded crate. He would be confined for about 4 hours in total, with 15-20 minutes of exercise 3 times each training day. He was in top physical shape, muscular and thin, as he should be as a working lab. At least 3 times he got it in the summer! Also we live in So. California where we don’t get much “cold”. I would treat him to rest and NSAID each time. It was painful, but he would improve with 24 hours, gone within 72.

    Interesting enough he never got it past the age of 5 or so. None of the conditions mentioned seemed to apply to Jake. He was a very active guy. It must have been genetic? Although never contacted the breeder. My other lab at the time was related by sire- both of my boys were Master Hunters with 15 passes each, same training schedule, trained the same conditions!

    I now have 2 other pups, from same breeder, ages 3 and 4. My 3 year old has his Senior Hunter, training for MH, the other has bad elbows but still loves to run. No signs of cold tail yet!

  20. My yellow lab has had this condition nearly her entire life. She even gets it if we are just giving her a bath in the summer outside with the hose. She used to swim all the time in the summer, twice a week at least for 45 minutes to an hour and as soon as the cold would chill the water, she would get it. I retired her early from hunting at the age of 2 because I couldn’t stand to watch her circle in the yard to move her tail so she could urinate. When she would have the condition, her tail at the base would swell and she wouldn’t let me touch it. I tried to massage the base of the tail immediately after exposure to prevent the symptoms from appearing and that also didn’t work. She would be back to normal after about 3 days. I have moved several times and not all veterinarians are aware of the condition surprisingly. She even got it one day playing outside in the snow for a while. She is now 12 and purely a house dog as her age and ruptured ACL have prevented her from chasing toys anymore.

  21. Just got back from Vet diagnosed with Swimmers Tail. Scared me as she was shaking, panting, whining, breathing very heavy, and extremely scared/confused (ears down, looking around attention-less) for hours. This is after she overcame a full blown case of PARVO (vaccinated) not 2 months ago. I thought it may be some form of horrible side effect or related problem so I rushed her in to Emergency……again $$$$. Freakin’ swimmers ear/limber tail/cold water tail whatever it is she is not feeling well at all. She will rest and receive the prescribed anti-inflamitory and pain relief pill administered by vet. I have crap for luck with dogs, but who said owning and caring for pets was easy, if you do it right that is. She is the best Chocolate Lab ever just not so “lucky” are we. Hope someone can use this information for symptoms and avoid the expensive vet trip to the ER and maybe just the $40.00 family vet visit fee. I know I would have welcomed the information if I had the time to research but it was 3AM and she was very “out of sorts”, no time to GOOGLE. Lord, I hope we don’t have a summer of this poorly named problem!!!!

  22. My chocolate Lab Snickers used to get limber tail if he’d jump into the pool during wintertime, or if it was especially cold! After we trained him to only go into the pool on our signal, we could avoid the condition altogether. I’d encourage other Lab families to test the water temperature before letting your buddy take a swim!

  23. My golden retriever had this at young age, the problem was that the vet didn’t know anything about this condition 🙁 and at that time I found nothing useful on the internet neither. So we just waited to get better without any medication 🙁

  24. My 2 month old Labrador retriever Honey just got this.. And i don’t know why. I’m so sad for her. I hope she gets better soon

  25. My almost 3 year old chocolate lab suffers from limber tail. It first occurred last year after her first swim in the pool in June. She took a leisurely swim on and off throughout the day, came in that night and could not lie or sit comfortably. She ended up panting so fast in pain we rushed her to the Vet where she received pain meds and an anti inflammatory. This year it has now happened twice! She is in great shape, runs approximately 2 miles per day with my husband and I. These past two times we only allowed her in the pool for about 1-2 hours theoughout the day. She will just go in, take a lap around, come back out and lie down. She is not jumping in or doing any kind of strenuous swimming. I am completely baffled by this condition. She is never confined to small spaces like a crate, she runs with us daily, swims on and off when possible, but yet has gotten limber tail 3x now. She does have a pre existing condition of urinary incontience which we were told could’ve been a potential complication from the spay. Curious if anyone else’s dogs have urinary difficulties along with occasional limber tail? even though I know it will break her heart, I guess I will have to keep her swims to a minimum from here on out.

    • Brittany – our lab is about to be 4 years old and sounds very similar to your pup. We had had issues with urinary incontience since a little while after she got spayed (probably before a year old). We just took her swimming and she got a ton of running in two days ago. She seemed fine until today after our daily walk. She got a limp tail and her incontience seemed to increase. After reading some articles it sounds like she has limber tail and hopefully it’ll resolve itself. We’ve never had this issue with her in the past, so it was baffling to us as well. But I found your story interesting since our lab has the same urinary issues that happened after her spay.

  26. Our 15 month Lab Misha went on his first snow goose hunt in Quebec Canada, even though we try and keep him in shape throughout winter , sadly came home with this condition. It’s been 2days now , we gave him some dog anti-inflammatory and hoping he’ll get well soon. Thank you for everyone’s input.

  27. Boxing day walk followed by a swim in lock Ness….. Yeap less than 12 hours later and our black lab can no longer either club you to death, beat the children or wipe every glass of wine off the side tables. As funny as this may sound we now have a very depressed looking lab who is desperately trying to show his affection with a tail that sticks out rigidly for a couple of inches then hangs lifelessly towards the floor. Having read numerous posts this morning i, m more than confident that our lab although very fit at just over 12 months old was not prepared for the ice cold waters of lock Ness which he attempted to race his mother and older brother across, without a shadow of doubt this is the cause – or saving grace depending on how much you like to be clubbed !!!! A week of rest and he’ll be back to clearing the tables in a single swipe in no time…

    The message is as much as it may look alarming there’s nothing to worry about, and certainly nothing that a few days rest wont be able to solve.

  28. Rusty had this a couple of years ago just woke up one morning crying in pain. He was trying to move his tail which was obviously painful but we didn’t twig that at first – he seemed to be in pain but we couldn’t work out why. Took him to the vet when they opened about 90 minutes later and the tail was completely limp so I guessed what it might be which was just as well as the vet had never seen or heard of the condition. Some metacam helped and we separated him from the other dogs for rest and he fully recovered. Some research I did said there were some suspected links with a nutritional deficiency. Given that about a month before I’d switched his food and that none of the other suspects applied I switched back to his previous food immediately. He has been fine since – no idea if it was food but I’m not prepared to risk it.

  29. Our Lab had recurrent problems as an older pup. Once she was past 18 months and we could trust her not to chew we dispensed with her crate, never had limber tail again.

  30. My 7 year old Lab seems to be suffering with this condition. We took him and his sister for a swim in the sea last week. An hour or so after we got home, it was clear he was in discomfort and some distress, panting and moving very quickly in a slinking kind of manner, with his tail to one side. Took him to the vets who diagnosed the problem as ‘swim tail’. Now, a week later, he’s not as poorly as he was but is still in some discomfort. I will return to the vets if it continues.

  31. My 3 yr old rottweiler experienced this same condition after a morning playing in the river and then running around with another dog after. He was standing in the river, not swimming and most of the time only up to to his knees. Took a week to recover.

  32. My dog Bruce is not a working dog and hates water so doesn’t swim! He isn’t over weight or out of condition and gets regular walks. His limber tail came out of the blue and lasted 2 days about 6 months ago. It happened again about 6 weeks later. It’s still a mystery!

  33. My Ollie recently had a bout of ‘cold tail’ he was in a lot of pain and discomfort and my vet suggested no more ball chasing and shorter walks then build him back up again. It was awful seeing him in such pain, but thankfully he’s on Joint Aid and is back to his cheeky self

  34. My 11 month old labrador Inca has just started getting this after her hydrotherapy session. She goes every two weeks as she has elbow dysplasia. I give her painkillers after she has been swimming, within a couple of hours she is wagging her tail again!

  35. My two year old black lab is experiencing her second bout of this condition. We have made our vet appointment for proper medication. Our vet did not label this condition as limber tail, just called it a muscle issue. I was glad to read your article and now think our swimming pool might be the problem. She swims year round even when the water is cold. I am finding that she is wanting to rest without any nagging on my part. She also does not want to be in her crate, perhaps too confining with her painful tail. Thanks for this article, it was quite helpful.

    • My 2yo Lab had this about two months ago and I know exactly when and where he got it. It was the first nice sunny Spring day and we had a walk along the lake. The water being extremely cold, obviously, yet I wasn’t thinking and let my dog play in it for a while. I did notice he was shivering a bit on the way back to the car but didn’t think much of it, until about 5 hours later when I took him for his last walk of the evening: he couldn’t even poop as lifting the tail was to painful. I felt so sorry for him, he was in agony. I still didn’t know what it was but googled it and presto: limber tail came up and that diagnoses fitted the symptoms. Off to the vet first thing the next morning and with a healthy dose of pain relief for about 5 days I went home. Took three days of absolute rest but really, he was already a lot better after about 48 hours. I now always make sure I have an old towel at the ready, in my dummy bag, in the car, everywhere, so every time he comes out of any water I quickly rub the area on his lower back, just above the tail. It may not prevent any future limber tail but it certainly can’t harm. The vet says he sees it a lot (we have lots of lakes and rivers in our area) and he sees it most often with labs. Its them wagging their tails like crazy that sometimes can cause it as well! This article mentioned a muscular issue, which makes perfect sense to me. My vet mentioned that limber tail may also be a result of neurological issues, like the smallest of nerves in the lower back, top end of the tail, are causing the pain.

  36. Our lab Hershey who is sadly no longer with us had this “tail experience”. We finally had warm weather & celebrated with a BBQ & lots of swimming on Father’s Day. Our teenage son who was Hershey’s litter mate had friends over & Hershey soon became the monkey-in-the-middle in the water. The game lasted for a couple of hours & after Hershey’s tail just hung there, his wag gone. A trip to the vet & some aspirin fixed the problem.

    • My black lab got this twice just after having he’s bath and I only use warm water. He’s a house dog so now I just brush him every day and use a herbal rinse that you don’t need to wash off to keep him smelling nice.

      • My lab had a fabulous day. A light walk off leash without vigorous exercise 20minutes. She then had a swim in a dam weather was the start of winter temperature about 7 degree Celsius. She ran to a dam jumped in only for a moment then left to have a ball chase at the dog park for 30 minutes . The weather had turned windy and she was still wet from the swim. Took her to have a warm hydrobath. Next morning tail was dropping with about 10cm at the stump sitting straight.
        She was annoyed by her tail and seemed to want to bite it.
        Vet trip and lit on anti-inflammatory. That night her pain worsened and she found it difficult to sit or lay comfortably. Next day much better tail sitting up 75percent of what it usually is. She seems in much less pain today only 24 hours after her treatment with the anti-inflammatory medication.

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