“Got your tail in a crack,” or “grabbed a tiger by the tail,” or even, “as happy as a dog with two tails,” all describe one of the most expressive parts of cat’s anatomy. So, what happens when it’s injured?

An injury to a cat’s tail can be very painful and result in serious medical complications. For those reasons alone, it is important to not take a tail injury lightly.

So just what is the tail? In most direct terms it is a series of additional vertebrae called the caudal (meaning tail) vertebrae. It works through a series of voluntary muscles, tendons, and ligaments all wrapped around some extensions of important nerves.

The tail attaches to the body at an area called the tail head. The first caudal vertebra attaches to the spine at the sacrum. The low back is just above that.

The spinal cord itself usually ends at about the fifth lumbar vertebrae. So a tail injury does not directly affect the spinal cord. There are important nerves in the tail in an array similar to a woman’s ponytail in her hair. This is called the cauda equina, or translated means horse’s tail.

These nerves all branch off the spinal cord higher up. They are important for providing control and sensation to the tail, hind legs, urinary bladder, large intestine and the anus.

A tail pull injury shows up in a variety of ways. A tail that drags or is never held high is one sign. A cat that otherwise starts dribbling urine is another. Sometimes the animal can have an anal sphincter that looks large because it is flaccid. Occurring with that may be fecal incontinence and perhaps diarrhea, too. An inability to have coordinated walking with its hindquarters is cause for concern, too.

Once at your veterinarian’s practice, they may look for other signs. They may find a distended bladder from the nerves controlling expressing of urine being knocked out. The bladder can be expressed easily, and the condition may be temporary.

Of course, bloody urine is a cause for concern at all times.

Pain at the tail head and a loss of sensation in the tail itself are all signs needing attention.

Radiographs, better known as x-rays, of the tail may or may not reveal fractures or dislocations.Sometimes subluxation occurs, meaning a partial dislocation, and when the tension of a tail pull is released the bones return to their proper place. Swelling and tenderness may still be present.

Back in 1985, a classification index for tail pull injuries was published. They see the injury in five different categories based upon the clinical signs observed.

Group 1 represents cats with pain at the tail head only. They are most likely to gain full recovery, but they may or may not have chronic pain at the tail head.

Group 2 are cats with immobile tails and a lack of tail sensation. They will likely recover well, too.

Group 3 cats with a lack of tail function, diminished sensation and urine retention — while close to having permanent problems — will likely recover well with time.

Group 4 represents cats whose injuries cause a lack of tail mobility, no tail sensation, and diminished anal tone. About 75 percent will recover.

Group 5 are cats with no tail movement, no tail sensation, a wide open or limp anal opening and no anal tone in the muscles that control elimination. Sadly, only about half those will recover, and the recovery time could be quite long.

Now you know.

Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service.

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