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Dog Tail Illnesses

Updated November 21, 2016

Many dogs will experience problems with their tails at some point in their lifetimes. Some are related to allergies and illness, others from behavioural tics, such as chewing out of boredom. Treating the underlying cause--along with the tail--is important to keeping dogs healthy and active.

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Tail Illnesses

A variety of illnesses reveal themselves on a dog's tail. This can be as serious as cancer, as bothersome as a simple allergy, and a myriad of things in between. Tail gland hyperplasia is one of the more noticeable problems. Dogs have a sebaceous gland near the base of their tail, and when that gland becomes infected and enlarged, the skin becomes obviously irritated. In some cases the gland must be surgically removed. Hyperthyroidism is another illness that can manifest on the tail. This results in crusty skin, bald patches and discoloured skin. Tail dock neuroma shows itself as crusty nodules at the site of where the tail had been cut off. Often dogs make this worse by constant itching and biting. Veterinarians can provide remedies for these three conditions.

Parasites on the Tail

Parasites can live on a dog's tail, where it's harder for the dog to reach them and gnaw them away. Culprits include fleas, lice, ticks and mites, all of which can not only make the dog itch and chew, but can transmit diseases. Fleas, which are tiny, dark brown specks are often found at the base of the tail. If the fleas are not visible, their dots of black excrement might be. Some dogs are allergic to flea saliva, which causes more discomfort. Ticks, besides causing small wounds on a dog, also transmit diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Lice are minuscule white parasites that favour the base of the tail, though they travel all over the dog. Obvious signs of lice include rough, dry coat, scratched skin, and the dog constantly biting at itself. Treatments for these parasites are available at pet stores, online retailers and through veterinarians.

Injury Leading to Illness

A dog with an injured tail--whether it was bitten by another dog, caught in a car door or yanked by a child--can turn into a skin-damaging wound. Such wounds, without treatment, become abscessed, and then must be treated with antibiotics and drained.

Pythiosis, a Serious Problem

Aquatic moulds can infect dogs with pythiosis, which appears as nodules on the base of the tail, and sometimes elsewhere on the body. The dog might try to constantly itch the area, and the nodules can appear ulcerated and look like they are draining. The infection reaches into the dog's gastrointestinal tract and often is fatal. Veterinarians surgically remove the nodules.

Cold-Water Tail

Sporting breeds, particularly medium and large dogs, can suffer from limber tail syndrome or cold-water tail. It commonly strikes Labrador retrievers, fox hounds, English setters and English pointers. When the condition arises, an affected dog appears to have either a partially paralysed or wholly paralysed tail. The syndrome is caused by overexertion and by swimming or playing in water that is unusually hot or cold. It happens most often in the Midwest where hunting dogs kept inside during the winter are out of shape or "unconditioned" for spring hunting season. Dogs with tails that are set higher seem to be more susceptible. Cold-water tail tends to heal itself in one or two weeks. Treatment includes rest, warm packs placed at the base of the tail, and sometimes anti-inflammatory medication is used to quicken the recovery.


Alopecia reveals itself as bald patches, and it can be caused by the dog licking or chewing as a response to fleas and other parasites. In addition, it can be a hair follicle disease that simply causes the hair to fall out. Veterinarians will examine the area, scrape the skin, check for parasites and perhaps run a fungi culture or a skin biopsy. The treatment will depend upon the cause of the alopecia.


Many types of problems that manifest themselves around a dog's tail are lumped into "dermatitis." The problem can be simple or extensive and chronic. Itching and biting at the tail can cause dermatitis and is a sign the dog is bothered by bacteria, parasites, allergies, a drug reaction or nutrition deficiencies. Cancer can also cause a dog to itch excessively. One type of skin problem is pyotraumatic dermatitis, or "hot spots," which look like red, wet sores and are usually caused by bacteria. Dogs with long hair and thick coats are more susceptible to hot spots. A fairly common condition is canine acral lick dermatitis, where the dog constantly licks at its tail or other site and eventually causes an infected wound. Some dermatitis is caused by reactions to flea collars, medication, fertilisers in the garden or lawn, and carpet cleaners. If the dermatitis is caused by an allergy, the best treatment is to remove the allergen from the dog's environment. Sometimes antibiotics are needed to clean up the infected area.

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About the Author

Jean Rabe has worked in journalism since 1979, serving as a reporter, bureau chief and magazine editor. She has written 27 novels, including "The Finest Creation" and "The Finest Challenge," while her true-crime book, "When the Husband is the Suspect," was written with F. Lee Bailey. Rabe has a Bachelor of Science in journalism from Northern Illinois University.

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