Dogs And Their Tails: Q & A
By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz June 27, 2020
Dogs’ tails come in many shapes and sizes and can provide pet parents with a wealth of information about how our dog is feeling. Read on to learn about the importance of tails to dogs and how we can decipher our wagging friends’ body language.
Why Do Dogs Have Tails?
A dog’s tail serves a number of purposes. The first and probably the most obvious is that a dog’s tail aid in communication. Dogs rely heavily on body language to share their intent and how they are feeling, and tails are a very clear visual cue to those around them. Other, less obvious uses of a dog’s tail have to do with aiding their movement. Research has shown that dog’s use their tails as a counterweight to help them balance when they are running or when they are walking on uneven or narrow surfaces (Wada, 1993). Additionally, it is thought that dogs use their tail as a rudder to help guide them in their desired direction while swimming.
Why Don’t All Dogs Have Tails?
You may have noticed that not all dogs have tails. Some dogs have full, long tails, while others have shorter docked tails, and some just have little nubs. Some breeders choose to dock their puppy’s tails when they are young, resulting in adults with very short or non-existent tails. Other dogs have a genetic mutation that results in them naturally being born with a bobbed tail. This mutation is prevalent in many breeds including the Australian Shepherd, Jack Russel Terrier, Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Rottweiler, English Bulldog, Boston Terrier, King Charles Spaniel, Miniature Schnauzer, and others. Some breeders will purposefully select for this trait in order to avoid traditional tail docking practices.
Does The Length Of A Dog’s Tail Affect Them In Any Way?
There is a wide variation in tail lengths between dogs, and this has led researchers to question whether tail length affects dogs in any way. One study used a life-sized dog model with various tail lengths and movements to see how tail length altered intraspecific signaling between dogs. The treatments included a short still tail, short wagging tail, long still tail, and a long wagging tail. The study found that dogs were least cautious and most likely to approach the model with the long wagging tail. Additionally, researchers found that the dogs would respond with an elevated head and tail to the model with a long, wagging tail. They found no differences in response to the model with a short tail. This study demonstrates that tail length does play a role in dog’s ability to communicate with their peers (Leaver and Reimchen, 2008).
What Is A Dog’s Tail Made Out Of?
A dog’s tail is essentially an extension of their backbone. The backbone is made up of little stacked bones called vertebrae. In mammals with tails, these bones continue out past the body, forming the tail. Dog tails can include anywhere from 6 to 23 vertebrae, with the average dog’s tail containing 20 (Paninárová et al., 2016). These vertebrae are enclosed in muscle which allow for movement of the tail.
Do Dogs Have Control Of Their Tails?
The musculature of the tail allows for dogs to have control of their tail. These muscles give dogs the ability to curl, lift, lower, turn, and wag their tail. These movements are especially important in how dogs convey messages to other dogs and people. There is thought that tail wagging is a learned behavior, and that puppies do not wag their tails until they are about 30-50 days old (Finlay, 2017). If your dog appears to have lost control of their tail consult with your veterinarian. This could be a sign of injury or could be a sign of limber tail syndrome (sometimes called swimmers tail). Limber tail syndrome is most often observed in working dog breeds such as English Pointers, Beagles, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers. Dogs with limber tail syndrome will display limp, drooping tails or broken looking tails. It is thought that vigorous exercise, prolonged time spent in a cage, or extreme temperatures can lead to this syndrome (Abbas et al., 2015). Thankfully, successful treatments exist for this condition through your veterinarian.
Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?
We often associate tail wagging with a happy dog because it is one of the most prominent features we notice when our furry friends greet us with excitement. However, it is important to know that dogs will wag their tails to express a wide range of emotions, sometimes even negative ones. By examining specifically how a dog is wagging their tail (i.e. at what height and speed) along with the social context we can judge their emotional state.
Tail elevation can aid in preparing for locomotion and can also indicate alertness, confidence, or aggressiveness. Dogs may use high held tails to assert dominance or indicate aggressive intent. High tail postures associated with negative emotional states are often accompanied by stiff body posture. Lateral tail movements, on the other hand, are mostly associated with a dog’s level of excitement. They may wag their tails to express happiness, to diffuse potential conflicts, or to indicate frustration (Kiley-Worthington, 1976).
Research has also indicated that the direction in which a dog is primarily wagging their tail can be indicative of a dog’s emotional state. Dogs are more likely to wag their tail to the right when they are happy, such as seeing their owner, and to the left when they are uncomfortable, such as being approached by an unfamiliar dog (Quaranta et al., 2007).
Another function behind tail wagging is spreading scent. Dogs have an incredible sense of smell and thus rely on scent for communication. Dogs have glands at the base of their tails. As the hair erector muscles contract, secretions from these glands are excreted. The wagging of the tail helps dissipate the scent into the air (Shabadash and Zelikina, 2004).
What Does It Mean When My Dog Puts Their Tail Between Their Legs?
Low tail posture is most often related to fear. Fearful dogs may also cower, put their ears back, avoid eye contact, lick their lips, or yawn. Tails lowered between a dog’s legs may also be a sign of submission or non-aggression (Kiley-Worthington, 1976). Finally, dogs may carry their tail between their legs when they are feeling sick or are experiencing pain.
Why Do Dogs Chase Their Tails?
The most likely reason your dog is chasing its tail is to relieve boredom and pent up energy. Many dogs find chasing their tail to be fun and it allows them to burn off energy in a restricted environment. They may also get a reaction from their owner which adds to the joy they experience. If you are worried that your dog is bored, consider providing environmental enrichment such as food puzzles to keep their minds active. Increasing their ability to exercise by providing more space to run around or going on more walks may also reduce their need to chase their tails. In rare cases, tail chasing could be a sign of reduced cognitive functioning, such as an old dog not realizing that their tail a part of their body, or it could be a sign that your dog is in pain and is trying to soothe an injury. Finally, tail chasing could be a sign of parasites and that your dog is trying to reach an area of discomfort (their hind end). If your dog’s tail chasing is a new behavior, or if it is occurring excessively, check with your vet to rule out any underlying health reasons. If you want to learn more about why dogs chase their tails, then read our article here.
Can Dogs Feel Pain In Their Tails?
Absolutely! A dog’s tail contains nerves, which means it can perceive pain. Since tails are composed of muscle and bones, it can also experience sprains and breaks, respectively. These tail injuries can be extremely painful for a dog and require veterinary treatment. Additionally, dogs can develop sores at the tip of their tail. These sores may occur from repeated contact with hard surfaces such as doors, furniture, or their kennel. This injury is sometimes referred to as ‘happy tail’ as it often results from excessive tail wagging.
What Is Tail Docking?
Tail docking is a medical procedure in which a dog’s tail is cut between the bones to shorten its length. This is most often performed on 3 to 5 day old puppies when their tails are small by using a pair of surgical scissors or a sharp blade (Bennett and Perini, 2003). The procedure can also be performed on adult animals that medically require it and may be referred to as ‘tail amputation’.
Tail docking is a controversial procedure, and there are growing movements to prohibit this procedure from occurring. In many countries, it is now illegal to perform routine tail docking without proof that it is medically necessary. Historically, tail docking was performed on working dogs to prevent tail injury from livestock, gates, or other objects. However, most modern-day tail docking is performed for cosmetic reasons and to align with traditional breed standards. Even in modern studies of working breed dogs, it has been shown that tail injuries are generally rare and occur at an incidence of 0.21% to 0.39% (Darke et al., 1985; Diesel et al., 2010). Based on current data, it is believed that approximately 500 dogs need to be tail docked to prevent one tail injury later in life (Diesel et al., 2010).
The following is a list of pros and cons of tail docking.
- Thought to prevent injury.
- Tail docking at birth is easier than amputating an injured tail later in life.
- Preserves traditional breed standards.
- Tail docking is often performed without pain medication.
- Signs of acute pain (shrieking) are observed immediately after the procedure and signs of chronic pain (whimpering) are observed during the recovery period (Noonan et al., 1996).
- Potential complications such as bleeding, infection, delayed healing, necrosis, or the development of neuromas may occur (AVMA, 2013).
- There is the potential for chronic health issues later in life such as underdeveloped muscles (Canfield, 1986 ) or incontinence.
- Removing a dog’s tail inhibits their ability to communicate.
- Tail docking may also affect balance and movement.
In summary, tails help dogs move safely, balance, and swim, and are critical to their ability to communicate with other dogs and the humans they live with.
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