Hot Dog! This Is A Tail Worth Telling

Dr. John Kaya
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Wednesday - September 15, 2010
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Animals communicate with many nonverbal signals. A rabbit that thumps its hind leg is usually aggravated and trying to warn other rabbits of impending danger. A tortoise that retreats into its shell is fearful of the ongoing ruckus around him. And a dog wagging its tail is often expressing unbridled happiness.

But what if a dog stops wagging his bushy tail? What does it mean? I was presented with just such a dilemma when Max, a healthy young Labrador, strolled into our hospital on a busy Monday morning.

“Doc, something’s wrong with Max’s tail. When he woke up this morning, it was limp like a wet rag. He normally greets me with a loud woof and that killer tail of his slaps me silly. I hope it’s not broken,” said Mr. Bentley.

I proceeded with the physical exam and after a few minutes, presented my findings to Max’s owner.

“Mr. Bentley, Max seems perfectly fine. He doesn’t even flinch when I gently manipulate his tail. Now dogs can be quite stoic, so I recommend we take X-rays to see if there might be a small fracture that escaped my notice.”

As Chris our veterinary technician escorted Max out of the room, I couldn’t help but notice the worry on Mr. Bentley’s face. “Do you have any questions?” I asked.

“Well, Doc, if nothing shows up on the X-rays, could Max be depressed? I mean, could it be psychological instead of physical? I know that dogs usually wag their tail when they’re happy. I hope I didn’t do anything to offend my best bud,” muttered Mr. Bentley.

As I jotted down notes from my exam, Mr. Bentley continued his monologue. “We had a really fun time yesterday. We went to a cookout at the beach with a bunch of friends, two-legged as well as four-legged, if you know what I mean. Max played all day long and swam for hours on end. I wonder if he’s mad because I would-n’t let him eat the hot dogs off the grill ...”

Hmmm, Max played all day and swam for hours. Now that bit of information may be crucial to what’s going on.

Soon Chris returned with Max and a set of X-rays that revealed a healthy tail. No obvious fractures were evident on the film. I shared the good news but got a startling response.

With a deep sigh, Mr. Bentley rambled on. “That proves it. Max is mad at me because of the hot dogs. I should have given him at least a little bite. He looked at me with those eyes ... Why didn’t I give him a hot dog?” Mr. Bentley slumped in his chair and covered his face with both hands.

“Mr. Bentley, don’t worry, it wasn’t the hot dog. I think I know what’s wrong with Max. Being the friendly dog that he is, he probably wagged his tail all day long as he socialized at the beach. You also mentioned that he swam for hours. Some dogs use their tail as a rudder to steer as they swim. Max is suffering from a strained tail, that’s all. A little anti-inflammatory medication and some rest will do the trick.”

Mr. Bentley called me over the next couple of days asking if he can give Max some hot dogs. I asked him to be patient and to resist the temptation. Sure enough, Max’s tail eventually got better even without the wieners au jus.

Interpreting body language in animals can be a little tricky. Without our help, Max’s tuckered tail may have gotten him a handful of hot dogs. Would that have helped his tail? I guess it’s possible. A mouthful of salty morsels even makes me want to wag my tail, if I had one.

Sounds strange, but anything’s possible on the wild side.

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