August 24, 2012
Cats with broken tails

First, an Anatomy Lesson

Tails are wonderful, expressive body parts used by cats for communication purposes, as well as for balance. The tail consists of a varying number of vertebrae (called caudal vertebrae), voluntary muscle, and ligaments and tendons to hold it all together.{{more}} The tail attaches to the body at an area called the tail head. The first caudal vertebra attaches to a backbone called the sacrum, which connects the tail and lower back (lumbar) vertebrae.

The spinal cord itself does not extend down this far (it typically ends at the level of the fifth lumbar vertebra), which means that injuries to the tail do not damage the spinal cord. Unfortunately, injuries to the tail can still cause serious nerve damage.

Cats get their tails pulled or broken through an assortment of traumas: A child might pull a tail or a tail might get caught in a closing door. A tail can get bitten during a cat fight and, of course, automobile accidents can easily lead to dislocated or broken tails. One might think a tail break would involve an obvious external wound, but usually this is not the case; instead, signs of nerve damage are often the only tip-off.

What Might be Noticeable at Home

Cats with broken tails might show any of these symptoms:

  • A tail that drags or is never held high.
  • Involuntary dribbling of urine.
  • A dilated, flaccid anal sphincter with or without diarrhea or fecal incontinence.
  • Incoordination of the rear legs.

Any of these symptoms might lead the cat into the vet’s office for an evaluation. Some additional findings the veterinarian might notice include:

  • A distended bladder that is relatively easy to express manually (in other words, the bladder is full, but can be emptied with careful squeezing).
  • Bloody urine (if the tail trauma is recent).
  • Painful tail head.
  • Loss of sensation in the tail.

An X-Ray will often show a break in the tail or a dislocation. In some cases, like the one I saw yesterday, it is quite obvious, the tail being paralyzed, and the area of the breakage easily palpable. I amputated it quite successfully.

How permanent these signs are largely depends on whether the cauda equina nerves have been over-stretched or actually torn. In many cases, if a trauma is severe enough to break the tail, there may be additional injuries as well.

Should the tail be amputated?

If the tail is not expected to recover mobility or sensation, there are some reasons to consider amputation. If the cat cannot lift his tail, he may soil it regularly, creating an infection issue or simply an odour issue. Further, the weight of the tail dragging may further stretch the cauda equina nerves. Whether or not tail amputation is helpful or speeds recovery is controversial, but certainly amputation could solve a soiling problem.

Recovery Time

Nerves heal notoriously slowly. It has been said that a good six months must pass before one can say the maximum recovery has occurred and no more positive progress can be expected. Most cats who are going to recover function do so in a one-week period, and most cats who do not recover urinary control after a month probably will remain incontinent. Tail function and sensation tend to take longer.

For further information, contact: Dr Collin Boyle
Unique Animal Care Co. Ltd.
Tel: 456 4981