The ubiquitous wagging tail that all dogs sport is more than just a signal of a happy animal. Tails that work properly help dogs to maintain their balance and to communicate other emotions, such as nervousness or submissiveness. So it’s no wonder that a disease common in large working breeds called “limber tail” causes significant distress in both dogs and their owners. When dogs are stricken with the condition, their tails sag and are often painful.
Now scientists at the University of Edinburgh are unlocking the causes of limber tail disease, in the hopes of finding effective therapies. They recently published a study in the journal Veterinary Record reporting that key demographic risk factors for the disease.
The team compared 38 cases of limber tail with 86 dogs that were not affected by the disease. They found that the condition is most prevalent in northern regions, which lends credence to anecdotes on the Internet reporting an association between limber tail and cold climates, according to a press release announcing the study. They also found that Labrador retrievers who had suffered from limber tail were likely to be related to each other, suggesting there may be genetic factors at play.
“We have been able to add evidence to a lot of Internet speculation about risk factors and the new findings relating to geographical region and family links give us avenues to pursue in understanding and avoiding the condition,” said lead author Carys Pugh of the school’s Roslin Institute and Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.
The study was conducted as part of the Dogslife project, which is tracking the health of more than 6,000 Labradors in the U.K. The researchers report that they initially did not intend to study limber tail, but so many of the dog’s owners were reporting the condition that they decided to launch a detailed investigation.
Population-based studies such as the Dogslife project are becoming more popular in animal health. In 2012, the Morris Animal Foundation launched a similar program in the U.S. called the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, which is tracking 3,000 dogs over 15 years. Last summer, the group declared that one of its major goals would be to elucidate risk factors for cancer, which is highly prevalent in the breed. The foundation also reported that its surveys of dog owners revealed widespread use of joint-health supplements like chondroitin and glucosamine to treat osteoarthritis in their pets.
The University of Edinburgh researchers hope to identify genes associated with limber tail disease, according to the release. That could help breeders identify which dogs are most likely to be affected, which could lower the prevalence of the disease over time.