By Christie Long
Tail injuries, while certainly not the most life-threatening and serious problems I see, can be extremely frustrating.
Dogs and cats get them for different reasons but the end result often is the same: amputation.
The tail ranks low on the functionality-of-body-parts scale, but both species use their tails to show emotion. Dogs wag their tails briskly when they’re excited or lower them when they’re in protective mode. Cats flick theirs back and forth to show interest or possibly annoyance. Cats also use their tails for balance when performing impossible feats such as walking along the tops of fences or doors.
Cats routinely get their tails caught in things, most notably closing doors. This typically causes what’s known as a degloving injury, which means the skin is peeled away from the tissue below, much like a glove is removed from a hand. Bones can be fractured as well.
This is a painful injury.
Dogs certainly can get their tails caught and bluntly traumatized, too, but they have a malady all their own known as “happy tail.” This occurs when an overly exuberant long-tailed dog aggressively wags its tail so much that it whacks it repeatedly on anything in its orbit. This creates a lesion that breaks open and bleeds over and over. This is not a happy situation for the dog or the owner who has to deal with blood stains in the house.
Because the tail is situated at the end of the body, the blood supply is not exactly robust. This is one factor that makes tail injuries difficult to heal. In addition, the tail is an extremely challenging area to effectively bandage. Because the tail is a high-motion area, bandages often fall off, and animals are good at getting at their tails with their mouth and removing bandages on their own.
With these inherent frustrations in mind, I often talk to owners from the onset about amputating the tail. If an animal has sustained an injury that has fractured one of the vertebrae, the small bones that make up the tail, there’s really no other good option to effectively deal with the pain and leave the animal with a functional tail. If the injury is only to the soft tissues, it’s often worth it to try managing the injury with bandages and pain relief.
Owners need to understand that bandage changes will be frequent, often daily for several weeks, and infection is common. And the pet must wear an Elizabethan collar at all times to prevent self-trauma.
While amputation might seem like a drastic step, it’s often the quickest way to heal these injuries. Recovery time after surgery usually is no more than two weeks, and the animal is left with a functional albeit shorter tail. The vast majority of animals will go on to function normally with no deficits.
Christie Long is a veterinarian at the VCA Animal Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. Long left her job in software sales in 2000 to travel for 13 months. Along the way, she was touched by the plight of the animals she saw and somewhere in the Nepalese Himalayas she vowed to return to school to become a veterinarian. While she often finds end-of-life situations heart-wrenching, she considers herself blessed to be called upon as a trusted advisor to families during difficult times. Dr. Long’s family includes her husband and travel partner, Wiley, their 5-year-old son, Wiley IV, their dogs Pancake and Gizmo and cats Sneaky and Sidh.