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Take a few moments to picture a happy dog. What comes to mind for you? Some people might imagine an energetic dog charging through the yard with their favorite toy. Other people might imagine a dog calmly sitting by their owner with a huge doggy smile on their face. Regardless of the specific scene, all happy dog visualizations are sure to have one thing in common—a wagging tail.
Tail wagging is one of the most well-known indicators of canine joy. Even people who don’t own dogs can identify when a happy hound is passing by on the street by that wildly wagging tail.
When your canine companion is no longer wagging, you may worry that he is depressed. Is that really the cause? Or is there a different explanation why your dog doesn’t wag his tail?
Your dog doesn’t wag his tail because he either has a tail injury, has experienced a stress-inducing change recently, or just doesn’t come equipped with a waggable tail. Dogs with curly and stubby tails (natural or docked) can have trouble wagging due to the shape of their tail.
Now, let’s explore these reasons in more depth to determine which one is affecting your dog.
Reason One: Certain Tails Just Can’t Wag
While some dog breeds wag so much they may as well have a helicopter attached to their rear end (I’m looking at you, golden retrievers!), the opposite side of the wag spectrum also exists—some breeds barely wag at all.
This explanation for why your dog doesn’t wag should be the easiest to determine by simply taking a peak at your dog’s tail.
Dogs that naturally come equipped with shortened tails, such as the Australian stumpy tail cattle dog, have trouble wagging because there isn’t much there to wag. They’re stuck in sad, tail-less state of existence just like you. If you wanted to pretend to wag a tail, you could get a good butt wriggle. But at the end of the day, actual wagging is impossible. This too is the case for dogs with stumpy tails too short to wag.
Many dog owners have strong opinions on tail docking. While it is not within the scope of this article to delve into the reasons behind the practice, you can check out this article about tail docking in rottweilers if you are curious about the subject.
When a dog’s tail is docked, different amounts of tail can be left after the procedure. Some dogs have just enough tail remaining to continue expressing themselves through wagging. Other dogs with a more tightly docked tail will never wag effectively again. However, they can still communicate that they are happy through the use of other body language cues.
While curly tails on dogs sure are cute, that kinked shape can interfere with wagging. Some curly tailed dogs (like English Bulldogs) can still manage the occasional wag during super exciting occasions if they try with enough force. But for other curly tailed dogs, wagging is off the table completely.
Curly tails are more common than you might think and there are dozens of dogs with tails so curly that wagging becomes less obvious- including some large breeds too.
What About Breeds That Naturally Hold Their Tail Down?
The internet is full of rumors, and the idea that whippets and greyhounds can’t wag is one of them. While these doggies naturally hold their tail gently curled under their legs, they are still perfectly capable of wagging. So much so that some breed resources warn that whippets can leave welts on unfortunate bystanders from wagging!
Where does this rumor that they can’t wag stem from? Some dogs wag less because they have a more reserved personality. Just as some people prefer a peaceful day reading in the garden compared to a wild night on the town, reserved dogs exist in a state of calm contentment without needing all of the excitement of a tail-wagging frenzy every time someone new enters the room. Outside of playtime, whippets are known for being gentle and quiet. Their calm demeanor is why people don’t see whippets wag often, leading them to falsely believe that they can’t.
Reason Two: Tail Injuries and Other Health Problems
If your dog was known for being a excellent tail-wagger before he suddenly stopped wagging, you should examine his tail for any sign of injury. A painful tail will sap all of the fun out of wagging. Some injuries can also lead to tail paralysis, making wagging downright impossible!
You can check your dog’s tail for injury by applying gently pressure from the base to the tip while watching for any signs of discomfort such as flinching, tensing, or becoming suddenly quiet.
If your dog is indeed injured, we recommend you take her to the vet for the speediest tail-wagging recovery! With that in mind, below are three of the most common injuries that can prevent your dog from wagging.
Arthritis is when a joint experiences inflammation. While a dog’s tail has anywhere between 6 to 23 vertebrae in it with joints between each, tail arthritis is more common at the base of the tail.
The most common cause of arthritis is that as your dog ages, normal wear and tear degrades the protective cartilage. This results in bones painfully scraping against each other and surrounding tissues in the joint. This form of arthritis is called osteoarthritis. It is common for dogs with osteoarthritis in their tail to begin carrying their tail at a weird angle to help keep pressure off of their angry joints.
Many dogs develop arthritis in other areas of their body first, such as their knees and hips. If your furry friend is older and already showing some stiffness when he parades around the house, arthritis is the most probable culprit for his tail pain.
Thankfully, your veterinarian can prescribe your dog an anti-inflammatory drug to reduce pain and get that tail moving again!
Limber tail is a condition of many names. Other dog owners may call it “swimmer’s tail” while your veterinarian will call it “acute caudal myopathy” on their exam notes. All of those terms are just fancy ways of saying, “your dog strained a muscle in his tail.”
If your dog has limber tail, his tail will hang fully or partially limp. This is because moving the tail from side to side causes discomfort in the strained muscle. This also explains why your poor pooch isn’t in the mood for tail wagging. Some dogs even become so bothered by the soreness that they obsessively lick and chew their tail!
Limber tail happens when your dog overexerts their tail muscles. This most commonly happens when your dog takes an extended swim in cold water, as dogs use their tail as a rudder to keep them swimming in the right direction.
The good news is that in most cases of limber tail, it will heal by itself if you can keep your dog resting for a week or two!
Spinal Cord Injury
If your dog’s tail appears to be paralyzed, a spinal cord injury is the likely cause. This is because the nerves that control the tail run through the spinal cord. If those tail nerves are compressed or severed, Fido will have a lot of difficulty with moving his tail, let alone wagging it!
If the damage to the nerve isn’t bad, there’s a decent chance your dog will be back to wagging after treatment! However, if the nerve is completely severed, your dog may have already wagged her tail for the last time. If that’s the case, you can learn other ways to tell when your pup is feeling good, such as by her facial expressions.
Reason Three: Stress/Anxiety
If your dog has wagged in the past and you already ruled out a physical injury, that leaves one other explanation: Your dog is too stressed to wag.
Not only will a stressed dog not wag her tail, but she’ll show some other behavioral changes that can help you feel confident in labeling stress as the cause. Keep in mind that similar to how different people respond to stress in different ways, not all dogs will show the same signs when stressed. Below is a short list of some of the more common signs of stress:
- Hiding around the house
- Tucking tail between legs
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Change in sleeping patterns
- Destructive behavior
- Apprehensive/wary demeanor
- Scanning the room
- Frequent yawning
Stress is typically caused by a change to the dog’s routine or environment. Some pups are very resilient to stress while other dogs will think that the world is ending just because you rearranged the furniture! In any case, it should take your dog anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks to adjust and resume wagging once again.
If your dog is still showing signs of stress a month after the new change was made, you should consult your vet to rule out any other underlying health problems that may be happening simultaneously to cause your dog stress. Once your dog has a clean bill of health, your vet can help you come up with a plan to reduce your dog’s stress.
When Should I Worry About My Dog Not Wagging His Tail?
It can be scary to notice that your dog’s wild tail has become suspiciously calm after years of sweeping every breakable object off of the coffee table.
Something might be seriously wrong if:
- Your dog is in pain
- Your dog’s tail is paralyzed
- Your dog is becoming aggressive towards you or others
- Your dog is not eating or drinking
- There is blood in your dog’s urine or feces
If your dog is showing the above signs, you should take him to the vet.
Is My Dog Unhappy?
A dog can still be happy even if he isn’t wagging his tail. Don’t forget that his tail is only one tiny part of how your dog communicates. Take a look at his whole body to see the big picture of how your dog is feeling.
A happy dog will have a calm or playful demeanor, even if they stop wagging when you pet them. His ears may be perked up, curiously paying attention to the world around him. Or they may be relaxed, hanging loosely by his face. Speaking of which, his face should look soft and relaxed. He may even hold his mouth open in a big doggy smile!
In contrast, an unhappy dog will seem reclusive, apprehensive, or aggressive. He will flatten his ears against his head. He will either stare stiffly ahead of him or scan the room nervously. His nose may be wrinkled into the beginning of a snarl, or he may puff out his cheeks and lick his lips nervously.
As dog owners, we love to see our dogs wag their tails. Some breeds will simply never wag because of the tail they were born with. Other dogs can wag but are too reserved to do it often. However, when the waggiest dog in the house suddenly stops wagging, we know something is wrong.
Usually, the cause is a super small change to their environment that you never thought they would have even noticed. After a few days, your furry friend will adjust and get right back to wagging!
However, if they take more than a month to adjust or you suspect an underlying health problem, it never hurts to take your dog to the veterinarian for professional care to get them wagging once more.