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Vet Talk

The Infinite Sadness of HappyTail
September 14, 2015 (published)

The name sounds like it could be a children’s book or the first installment of a Disney franchise – Happytail. Little anthropomorphic creatures cavorting gleefully in some wooded glade somewhere while they sing about the virtues of modesty, proper dental hygiene or hard work. But fairy tale full of wide-eyed childhood wonder it’s not. It’s a frustratingly pernicious medical condition and more of a nightmare than a fairy tale.

There’s sometimes no happy at the ending of happytail.

Happytail is another in those long line of ‘diseases they don’t warn you about in vet school that will make your life hell after you graduate’ since they don’t shoehorn into a neat discipline like surgery or oncology and there’s really no human counterpart. I don’t remember ever learning or hearing about it until one came rushing into the veterinary ER where I did my internship.

So what the heck is this unhappy tale all about? (You knew I had to do that, right? No one seriously thought I could get through this without one tail/tale pun, did you?)

Dogs wag. Some dogs really wag. Like, uber-level electro wag, so hard that they damage the tippity tips of their tails when the tips come into contact with the walls, doorways and other unyielding surfaces that our homes are made of. It’s kind of like what would happen if you went into a grocery store with a sock, grabbed a tomato and put it inside the sock and just started whacking random things and innocent grocery shoppers with it – go ahead, give it a try. I’ll wait.

Now that you’ve been bailed out of jail for deadly assault with a fruit (…or is it a vegetable?) you probably get the picture; the tail tip gets bruised and bloody, and to make matters worse, they wave and wag, wag and wave with gleeful abandon, spraying blood all over. Continuing the tomato analogy, it’s like you filled your shop-vac with tomato sauce and set it on reverse, spraying the otherwise tan walls of your house a lovely marinara red. Well, it’s not quite that bad, but some analogies are just too good to pass up.

It is amazing how much blood one little tail can hold. I’ve had vet ER exam rooms look like the inside of a slaughterhouse in about 45 seconds flat when a tail laceration or case of happytail come in for an exam. Same thing happens at home – only worse.

Picture the scenario, and remember: your dog loves it when you pay attention to him.

Me: What’s wrong with your tail, Rocco?

Rocco: He said SOMETHING to me! He LOVES ME! I am soooooo happy right now!!

wag wag wag *splat* WAGWAG *splat* wag wag waggity *splat* wagwag

Me: Rocco – stop wagging, I need to see your tail, and you’re getting blood all over!


Wag wag wagwagWAGWAG *splat* wag nose nuzzle shovel move wag WAG Wag WAG wagwagwag WAG WAIGGITY WAG WAG *splat*

See? Happy.

Of course, owners are freaked out and concerned for a) their pet b) their furniture and c) what the police might think if they should happen to stop by. It looks like a murder scene, and not one of your quiet, calm, introspective murder scenes, either.

So, how do you fix it? Beats me – I’ve tried everything. Sedatives, bandages, peyote, cauterizing it, herbs, ganja, human sacrifice, Night Train. Nothing works.

The tip of the tail is an amazingly difficult place to bandage or do surgery on. It’s pointed and narrows down, so most bandages just loosen and fall off. And, if you try and add something like a bandage to the end of the tail, the tail now hangs with more weight, and through some high school physics that I have long-since washed out of my brain on a veritable ocean of whisky and Zima, more weight equals more force when it wags, which all sums up to…more blood.

It seem like such a silly little thing, but this really is a hellishly difficult problem to fix. I know what you’re thinking – put a stitch in in, right? Wrong – a stich means more holes, through which more blood can come through, meaning you need a bandage again and we’re right back to a physics and a mushy, tomato-y sock. Cauterizing it? Aside from the fact that it usually requires heavy sedation or anesthesia, cauterizing it only creates a clotted crust over the damage. One whack against a wall at home and we’re right back to “murder scene” faster than you can say pasta puttanesca.

It even gets bad enough on occasion that some dogs have to have parts of their tail amputated. I am not making that up: a dog might need to have a part of its actual body surgically removed because of excessive wagging. That’s how utterly ridiculous this disease is.

The amputation works because of physics. A shorter tail means less motion, means less blood. And, the shorter part is bigger and easier to work with surgically; you can actually have some hope of tying off a blood vessel and stop the bleeding that way.

Not all cases have this much suck inherent in them. Plenty stop bleeding on their own, or the dog gets less happy and maybe watches a Nicholas Sparks movie or something. A PSA about pet overpopulation, I dunno. Something sad and wagless, maybe with a Sarah McLachlan soundtrack.

But there’s enough of them out there that I’m thinking of starting my own curriculum at the local vet school, just so the poor bastards aren’t taken by surprise on graduation day and know what to do when Rocco and I (or you) come through the door with a bleeding tail – assuming I’m not on duty that night, that is.

So if you have a slaphappy goofy dog (usually a Lab or golden, though any breed can be prone to tail-bashing bouts of manic joy) try and get them to tone it down and give it a rest on occasion – or at least cover every hard surface in your house with bubble wrap, since unlike tail bandages, house padding would stay put. If it does start bleeding, try and put direct pressure on it for a few minutes to see if it’ll stop on its own. If it doesn’t, head for the local vet ER and hope that the vet on duty has seen a case or three.


October 1, 2015

No doubt this is why wild dogs have evolved bushy tails - they all wag their tails at times. Too bad we bred bushy tails out of most of our domestic dogs...

October 1, 2015

One word: Elastikon. I have a Dane with happy tail and DCM and it holds a bandage and the holter. The only other thing that ever worked really well (not that I could repeat this) was when he got Liber tail from wagging so hard and couldn't wag for 3 days!

Donna Iler
September 30, 2015

Every Great Dane I have ever had, had this problem. Even had a couple that broke the tips of their tales. Never did find a good solution.

September 30, 2015

OMG thank you! Our oldest dane, Ellie had the worst case of happytail and our poor vet suffered with us.  She said that Ellie and an extraordinarily looong tail and that was the problem.  We could usually get the bleeding to stop fairly quickly.  Eventually, the bottom 1/3 of her tail basically died and was necrotic so we had to have her tail docked. $500 later, no more crime scenes in our house!  That was 5 years ago and I swear I still find blood in the weirdest places.

Sara Turk
September 30, 2015

My poor lab Bently not only got a bad case  of happy tail earlier this year, that it ended up getting infected. Not once but three times! We kept chopping off tail until he now looks like a rottie! Nothing like 3 emergency surgeries in a 2 week period to make you go wth? He had his first case of happy tail 2 years ago and we were able to protect it and heal. Not this time!

September 30, 2015

My most recent rescue is in danger from this disease. She is a Pitt/Greyhound mix with the longest tail I have ever seen...and she NEVER stops wagging! I have read many sad stories about the loss of tails from HTS, but I fear that I will soon be writing one such story myself if I cannot tame my girl's tail. This story was wonderful and well overdue. People have accused me of making the term "happy tail" up. Now I have proof of the reality of this sad situation. I appreciate all the suggestions, too. I intend to be prepared. Thanks.

Lita Wester
September 30, 2015

We had a dog that had a really bad case of happy tail at the rescue I volunteer for. The Vet taped an empty prescription bottle over it. Lightweight, and provides space when he was whacking it against anything. It worked wonders.

September 30, 2015

I had a foster dog with happy tail once.  I put an empty toilet paper roll over the wound and taped it to the tail.  It allowed the wound to heal and prevented further injury.

September 30, 2015

What about counseling?  Of course it wouldn't be for every dog, but it might be worth a try!

September 30, 2015

You haven't seen happytail until you've seen GREYHOUND happytail. These hounds are blood donors for a reason - they bleed a LOT.  Holy crap. He's broken candleholders, knickknacks, and drywall with that weapon of mass destruction!

September 30, 2015

Great story, and every word rings true!  We've had decent success bandaging (in this order) with padding, stretch gauze, appropriately sized syringe case, more padding, and vetwrap - all held in place with catheter tape stirrups of course.  Give this a try to help the healing, but I have no suggestions on prevention...

September 30, 2015

We had a black lab when I was a kid who would wag his tail so hard that he broke it a couple of times. (It's so sad to see a dog that wants to wag his tail so badly but can't.) After reading this, I count us (and him) lucky that he never had the bleeding problem written about here.

September 30, 2015

This is almost a chronic issue at the shelter where I volunteer. The cages are only as wide as the door...about 4 feet. I never considered it a disease, just an injury. Not many dogs have had to have amputation that I'm aware of...1 or 2 I think.

September 22, 2015

If there was a case of happy tail in a humane society, what could they do to help this?

Deborah Cottrell
September 22, 2015

Best story EVER about happy tail. I'm glad I'm not the only who's tried some of those ridiculous treatments. None of which work, of course.

Marta Gropper
September 21, 2015

As a teenager I had this problem with my Dane.  I took a 2 liter soda bottle and cut a hole in the bottom and covered the sharp edges with cloth tape.  I then taped this to his treated tail and removed the cap so he had exposure to fresh air.  Worked like a charm, just don't be in the line of fire when they wag their tail, lol!

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