Tail problems are one area that vets do not share with human doctors: most animal have tails, while very few humans possess this appendage.
In fact, we humans do start out with tails, when we are embryos. Around eight weeks after conception, our tiny tails shrivel up and disappear. Exceptionally rarely, this shrivelling doesn’t happen, resulting in babies being born with vestigial tail-like structures. This is shocking to parents when it happens, and a swift surgical operation ensures that tailed adult humans are almost never seen. However humans do possess the remnant of these lost tails: the three or four vertebrae that make up our coccyx, or tailbone, at the base of our spines.
Animal tails vary from species to species, from the prehensile muscular tails of some monkeys (they can grasp and hold objects), to the feathery tails of birds (they help birds steer when flying), to the muscular, active tails of dogs and the calmer, sensitive tails of cats, to the droopier tails of cattle and horses (they still have the ability to flick and whip, as anyone who works around these animals will tell you).
Dogs and cats use their tails to balance when exercising, as well using them to communicate. A timid dog presses their tail down between their legs, a curious or friendly dog wags their tail from side to side, an angry cat swishes their tail rapidly, and a friendly cat droops their soft tail against you with affection. The language of tails could make up an entire article.
Tails are made of a central core of bones and cartilage, surrounded by interconnecting ligaments and muscles, a rich supply of blood vessels and nerves, covered by a layer of haired skin. The best human analogy is our little fingers.
There was an age-old tradition to chop the tails off certain breeds of dogs while they were puppies: tail docking was carried out on specific breeds, including terriers, Boxers, Dobermanns, Rottweilers, and certain Pointers and Spaniels. This procedure was carried out on young puppies (less than three days of age) using scissors, without anaesthesia. The pups squealed, just as babies would cry if their little fingers were snipped off.
Tail docking was only carried out for cosmetic reasons: people were used to seeing these breeds without tails. Fortunately, tail docking by lay people was criminalised under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2014; vets are still allowed to dock tails, using appropriate pain relief, in a few, specific circumstances, but this is rare. Most vets refuse to do it when asked, viewing docking as cruel and unnecessary.
Tails are particularly prone to being injured, because they protrude behind the body, making them the last part of the animal to be left behind when trying to escape from a hazard. Tails tend to get run over by cars, caught in slamming doors, trapped when an animal is jumping down through a narrow area or running through dense undergrowth, or bitten when an animal is fleeing from a fight.
There are two problems. First, the blood supply to the tail tip only comes from one direction, compared to most parts of the body which are supplied by multiple blood vessels from several directions. Second, the tail tip is a moving object that sticks out from the body, making it prone to damage by coming into contact with objects around the animal.
The classic example is a Labrador with a cut on the end of the tail. Labradors love wagging their tails, and this means that the injured area is likely to be bashed off everything within reach, including the walls and furniture.
Vets try to protect a healing tail tip using bandages, plastic frames, and even by tying the tail to the dog’s back leg using hobbles, but it isn’t easy. Every time I see a waggy-tailed dog with a tail tip injury, I warn the owner that healing may be complicated and slow. Sometimes repeated operations are needed, gradually making the tail shorter and less likely to be subjected to the repetitive trauma of hitting off the animal’s surroundings.
If a dog has a severe tail tip injury, vets may suggest immediate amputation of the tail: this seems radical, but it’s likely to heal more rapidly than an intricate repair of the sensitive and mobile tail tip.
While dogs are prone to tail tip injuries, cats are more likely to suffer from tail paralysis, caused by a tail-pull injury. This happens whenever a cat’s tail is forcibly pulled violently, in road accidents, when a cat jumps from a height and the tail gets lodged somewhere, or sadly, when cruel individuals swing cats by their tails. In these instances, the base of the tail is separated from the spine: when x-rays are taken, a clear gap is seen between the spinal bones and the tail bones.
While the physical damage to the tail base may heal in time, the main problem is the fact that the spinal nerves leading to the tail are also pulled violently. This means that the tail loses its nerve supply (it hangs limply), and worse than that, the nerve supply to the bladder is often damaged. Such cats are unable to pass urine, despite the fact that their bladder is over-full. Some cats recover bladder function with time, but many have to be euthanased: a functional bladder is a critically essential part of life.
Long or short, tails are an important part of animal anatomy that need to be cherished.