Dogs of different breeds and types come in a huge range of different shapes and sizes, and individual breeds often have huge differences between the appearance of the individual dogs within them.
One area of the dog’s body that is particularly prone to a lot of variance from breed to breed is the tail – and we’ve all seen a wide range of different types of tails on individual dogs from long and curved to short and straight, as well as more unusual varieties like bobtails and tightly curled corkscrew tails too.
Dog tails that are short and curled or twisted in appearance like a corkscrew are quite common today, as many of the breeds that can exhibit this trait are hugely popular in the UK as a whole. These include some dogs of the English Bulldog, Pug and French bulldog breeds among others, all three of which fall within the top ten list of the most popular dog breeds overall in the UK.
Whilst not all dogs of such breeds have a corkscrew tail, a significant number of dogs do – but what not all owners of such dogs (or prospective puppy buyers of dogs of these breeds) know is that a corkscrew tail is more than just a unique shape and appearance, and can actually come accompanied by specific problems with the conformation of dogs that exhibit them.
Corkscrew tails in dogs can be caused by a condition called hemivertebrae, which is a malformation of the bones of the spine itself. This results in the tightly curled tail such dogs exhibit, but many dogs with corkscrew tails are perfectly healthy and don’t suffer from any issues as a result of this trait.
Others, however, may suffer from a range of complications with the back and spine caused by hemivertebrae, which means that a corkscrew tail can be an early warning sign of issues that can affect the dog’s wellbeing and quality of life.
In this article we will discuss the types of problems that a corkscrew tail can cause in dogs, what hemivertebrae is, and what it means for affected dogs. Read on to learn more.
One fact that not all do lovers are really aware of is that the dog’s tail isn’t just a remote appendage tacked onto their butt – the tail is actually a part of the dog’s spine itself, containing bone, cartilage and vertebrae. Pulling a dog’s tail can damage their spine, and accidental harm or damage to the tail is actually damage to the spine itself, which makes tail injuries potentially very painful and damaging for dogs that incur them.
Dogs who have a corkscrew tail exhibit this unusual physical trait due to a hereditary conformation defect that results in the spine itself being partially twisted or fused in an unusual position, which results in the signature curl or twist that displays in the tail itself.
How acute the corkscrew tail is in any dog that exhibits it can be highly variable – some dogs with corkscrew tails have a loose, gentle curl to the tail and the ability to straighten it to a certain degree, whilst for other dogs, the tail is very short, tightly curled, and immobile, with little to no ability to flex the tail or straighten it.
Hemivertebrae is the cause of the corkscrew tail in all dogs that exhibit it, and this condition can cause problems for some such dogs in its turn. Hemivertebrae is not caused by a corkscrew tail – rather, a corkscrew tail is caused by hemivertebrae.
So, what exactly is hemivertebrae itself? This is a medical term used to refer to a malformation of the vertebrae of the dog’s spine, resulting in the vertebrae developing in an unusual construction or shape that leads to a level of twisting along the spinal column. How acute this twist is can be variable from dog to dog.
For some dogs, hemivertebrae only affects the vertebrate towards the very end of the dog’s spine in their tail itself, and in this case, may not result in any problems. However, dogs who have significant deformities of the vertebrae further up in the spine might suffer from a range of issues including pain and discomfort due to the vertebrae pressing on the spinal nerves, and this can result in neurological issues as well as problems with normal mobility and of course, pain.
Some dogs with hemivertebrae might even exhibit a noticeable curvature of the spine itself, which is known as scoliosis, as well as more acute issues such as hind limb weakness, incontinence, an unusual gait, and pain when moving.
The tightness of the curl itself and the inability of many dogs with hemivertebrae to straighten or move their tails also means that the indentation in which the tail sits can become sore and irritated, which can result in issues of its own if the dog’s owner is unable to keep it clean and healthy.
For some dogs with extreme hemivertebrae, they won’t even be able to pass faeces without getting their tail and tail pocket in a mess, which is of course something that has a lot of implications for the dog’s owner in terms of their care and management.
As mentioned, hemivertebrae is not necessarily problematic for all dogs that exhibit it, but when it does cause issues, your vet may recommend a variety of different approaches to make things easier, reduce pain, and improve the dog’s quality of life.
In some cases, oral medications such as anti-inflammatories and pain killers can be used to treat hemivertebrae and keep the dog mobile and comfortable. However, this generally only applies to mild hemivertebrae causing only mild problems.
In extreme presentations of hemivertebrae in dogs, surgical correction is the only option to enable the dog to enjoy a reasonable quality of life. This is a very complex surgery that cannot generally be performed in an everyday small animal clinic, and which usually requires referral to a specialist veterinary orthopaedic surgeon, which is often prohibitively expensive. Additionally, such surgeries tend to have a higher than normal rate of post-operative complications too.
Ultimately, the best approach is to choose a dog or puppy whose tail is normally constructed and ergo, whose spine is not subject to hemivertebrae. The issue has become so widely spread in some breeds that certain breed clubs recommend that breeders partake in hemivertebrae testing schemes on parent stock before deciding on a mating match, such as the scheme that is in place for the pug dog breed.
Choosing a puppy from a litter whose seller undertakes the relevant pre-breeding health screenings and that breeds for health and improvement – and not for conformation exaggerations – is important for many reasons, and in order to make a good choice, you need to do plenty of research first.
A significant number of owners of dogs with hemivertebrae were unaware of the issues that can arise with corkscrew tails at the time they chose their dog, but by learning in-depth about the health of the breed you are considering buying and any breed-specific health issues they may face, you can make a well informed, healthy choice about your next dog.