Not-so-happy endings: The messy frustration of happy tail

A dog who wags his injured tail can damage tissue and create a difficult medical decision for pet owners. A dog who wags his injured tail can damage tissue and create a difficult medical decision for pet owners.

“There’s blood on the ceiling,” says my frazzled client as her retriever thumps his massive tail against the wall in joyful appreciation of nothing in particular. The metronomic sound is only slightly muffled by a makeshift bandage cobbled together from a T-shirt and some masking tape. Spots of blood are soaked through the material and I can only imagine what her house looks like right now.

I don’t know of any official name for this phenomenon, but veterinarians often call it “happy tail,” a description that is simultaneously accurate and ironic. It can happen after any tail injury. Perhaps a bite wound, or maybe the tail got snagged on some thorns. Dogs—typically of a larger breed with a long, powerful tail—just can’t stop wagging it into things. It would heal if given the chance, but with every enthusiastic thwack, the situation worsens. The tail can become raw, swollen, and infected, and blood gets flung all over.

I’m often asked why dogs keep wagging their tail against things when it must hurt, and I honestly don’t know. I assume it’s like our inability to keep a straight face when something is funny. Some emotions are powerful enough to hijack our physical behavior, and dogs are intrinsically happy beings. They aren’t going to stop wagging, so we need to find a way to make it less traumatic.

This requires a padded bandage to protect wounds while they heal and to provide some shock absorption. These bandages can be a challenge to keep in place, and dogs often need to wear a “cone of shame” to keep them from chewing them off again. Depending on the extent of the damage, the bandages may need to be replaced frequently for a few weeks while everything heals up. For that reason, this approach works best when cases are caught early and can heal faster.

In some cases, the injuries are too great to heal properly. Other times, the tail heals well, but the dog keeps developing the condition again. In these instances, the best option may be to surgically remove enough of the tail to eliminate the damaged tissue and minimize the potential for recurrence.

This can be an emotionally challenging decision for owners to make, and understandably so. Tails are so expressive and endearing; they can almost seem like a physical manifestation of a dog’s personality. It is only after a great deal of consideration (and perhaps a few weekends of grisly house cleaning) that many people become comfortable with this outcome.

In my experience, these dogs are back to wagging their newly shortened tails as soon as they wake up from the procedure. And that shouldn’t be a surprise. Nothing ever stopped them from wagging before.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital.  He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.

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