By. DR. LESLIE ROSS D.V.M. B.Sc
Tails are wonderfully expressive body parts put to a great array of uses by the many creatures blessed with them. These uses can widely vary, from enabling elaborate courting displays, as is the case of many birds, to serving a role as visual decoys, equipped with imitation “eyes” to create more favorable odds for survival, as is the case with some species of fish; and, even further, to a much more down-to-earth function as a handy dandy fly swatter for many hoofed creatures.
Most tails of mammals have a clearly defined shape or color boundary such as a darker, lighter or different colored tip. Many tails sport a lighter underside. These variations are helpful to species of the same kind to identify gender and to provide courtship cues.
Tail function vocabulary is quite complex in the animal world. A rather surprising finding from recent research indicates that in dogs there is a consistency to what is being messaged by a wagging tail. In particular, recent research indicates that tail movement, position and even direction of wag are often very significant, acting as an indicator of a dog’s feelings at the time. These emotions may range from feelings of happiness and friendliness to insecurity and anxiety or intense fear. Of course, within any dog population, there will be some individuals who present mixed messages such as a wagging tail along with other subtle body language cues that precede an aggressive action. This behavior is most often associated with intense insecurity and often is hard to read. Fortunately, much more commonly, anxious dogs present an unmistakable message of this emotion with a tucked tail posture, often accompanied by a low growl, which would indicate to another dog as well as a person a warning of their fearfulness and readiness to bite.
According to reliable research studies, (please see below for reference credits) the position of a tail in relation to a dog’s body, speed of the wag and sweep of the wag can communicate generally consistent information to the observer Apparently, when dogs feel positive about something or someone their tails wag more to the right side of their rear ends and when they have negative feelings their tail wagging is biased to their left. Also, the breadth of the tail wag arc means something as well. For example, a slight wag indicates tentativeness while a broad wag indicates friendliness and happiness. Further, a slow wag at a half-mast position is less social and indicates insecurity while tiny high-speed vibrations are an active threat, especially if the tail is held stiffly high.
Of course, as with people with different accents, different breeds have tail anatomy variations resulting in differences of normal tail carriage so these need to be taken into account when interpreting a dog’s tail language. For example the natural low-slung tail carriage of Whippets contrasts with the nearly vertical carriage of many terriers and Beagles. Also, some tails are stubby, some tightly coiled like a corkscrew and some are kinked, making tail language a little more difficult to translate.
The tail message of a tail-wagging cat is, for the most part, almost the opposite of the tail message of a tail-wagging dog. When a cat flicks or lashes its tail he or she is most definitely not happy. In fact, as a general rule, it best to back off at the flicking stage because the intensity of his or her emotions can escalate to violent action in a surprisingly short period of time! A cat that is thumping his tail is very frustrated as it will often be seen when a cat is chattering at a bird just out of reach.
Tail disorders are fairly frequent reasons to require the attention of a vet. One relatively common medical condition is called “swimmers tail, also known as limber tail, or cold tail. Dogs equipped with very thick, long, and muscular tails like labs and duck-hunting retrievers who use their tail as a rudder when splashing about in the water are particularly prone to develop this painful condition. A dog presenting with “swimmer’s tail” generally won’t wag his tail, instead preferring to allow it to hang straight down. When his tail is lifted the dog will often express a lot of pain. X-rays are generally recommended to help to rule out tail fractures and other causes of an abnormal tail carriage. Rest and anti-inflammatory medications for a few days are common and effective treatments for “swimmer’s tail “.
Split Tail tip injuries can be particularly challenging for vets since tails are often difficult to securely bandage. These are often slow to heal and can be messy, especially for dogs with very muscular tails since a strong tail wag force can create a shower of blood all over a house. In some cases, veterinarians will secure a dog’s injured tail temporarily to one of his hind legs to avoid tail motion.
Again, acupuncture or laser therapies are also medical considerations in some select cases. There are anti-tail wag harnesses available for the very difficult cases. In very severe, untreatable cases, amputation of the tail at a length suitable to treat the condition is the last resort option.
Another common tail problem affecting cats are well as dogs are wounds sustained during a battle over territory, food or self-defense. Cats seem more prone that dogs to develop tail abscesses from tail wound bites. Also, cats get their tails pulled or broken through an assortment of traumas. For example, a child might pull a tail or a tail might get caught in a closing door. Also, of course, automobile accidents can easily lead to dislocated or broken tails. It is important to be aware that a tail break doesn’t always involve an obvious external wound therefore x-rays are routinely advised.
Tail-sucking behavior, which is basically excessive licking and/or chewing of the tail, can occur in dogs as well as cats. Like thumb-sucking children, it often, but not always, has an underlying emotional cause, with the tail-sucking act helping to soothe the disturbed animal. The act occurs more frequently when the pet is experiencing tumultuous emotions. It may even be started just as a playful chase- the- tail pastime and then eventually become more and more of an entrenched habit over time. It can lead to tissue changes of the tail so this behavior is not considered to be harmless, instead it is considered to be a medical condition requiring diagnostics to determine if there is a physical cause then appropriate medical or surgical treatments. In some cases Laser or acupuncture therapies are effective
A similar condition that can affect cats is “RATS”, or Restless Angry Tail Syndrome. This is a very perplexing condition where the cat seems to get “mad at his tail” rather than just playful with it. With this condition a cat may keep his tail moving back and forth endlessly never stopping its motion whether the cat is happy, angry, eating and sometimes even when sleeping. For those cats that carry this behavior to the extreme, even causing the mutilation of their tails, mood-modifying medications or medications that treat nerve-based pain can be effective. Generally, these medications are required to be administered on a long-term basis. Therapeutic laser therapy or acupuncture may be effective as well,
Finally, wrapping up this brief discussion, it is worth noting that tail tumors and cysts are not uncommon in pets as well. Depending on the type of tumor or cyst treatments differ, but generally require some form of surgical excision of the abnormal tissue.
So, I will end this brief discussion (pun intended) with the hope that the next time you see a strange dog approaching you at a fairly rapid pace, you will have time to read his tail language and react appropriately to his message as either a friend or foe!
Giorgio Vallortigara a neuroscientist at the University of Trieste it Italy and two vets Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siscalchi at the University of Bari published a paper in the journal Current Biology.
Modern dog magazine summer 2012. By Stanley Coren
Laterality. March 2011;16(2):129-35.
K A Artelle1; L K Dumoulin; T E Reimchen
1University of Victoria, BC, Canada.