A cat's tail expresses her mood, assists her balance and distracts prey as she swishes it about. It's a vulnerable piece of equipment, always trailing her, making it prone to injury such as getting caught in doors or being stepped on. Tail trauma is fairly common in cats, and occasionally a cat may develop stud tail, a skin disease at the base of the tail.
Tale of a Tail
Your cat's tail contains up to 20 caudal vertebrae, surrounded by muscle, and is able to move in a variety of ways, from small little tips of the tail to sweeping, side-to-side glides. The tail muscles run down her back to her sacrum, connecting to her tail vertebrae via tendons. Muscles from the rectum, anus and pelvic diaphragm also are associated with the tail, as well as a series of paired nerves. Besides muscles, tendons, vertebrae and nerves, the tail also has a network of blood vessels as well as cushioning disk pads and tiny joints between each vertebra.
On the surface, the tail looks like a rather frivolous, furry piece of business, but if injured, it can have major impact on a cat, depending on the type of trauma. Signs of tail trauma include:
- Limp or paralyzed tail
- Pain at the tail's base
- Urinary and/or fecal incontinence.
A cat can experience three types of tail trauma:
- Abrasions: smalls cut or scrapes, often with bleeding and hair loss. A cat can experience an abrasion if her tail gets caught up in something.
- Fractures: ranging from simple fractures at the end of the tail, to more serious injury where the tailbones are crushed or separated. Fractures can occur if the cat's tail gets stepped on or stuck in a door, or if shetakes a tough tumble.* Nerve damage: severe pulling of the tail, known as avulsion injury, can affect the tails nerves and muscles, potentially causing the tail to hang limply or loss of movement. Nerve damage can impact a cat'sability to urinate or defecate.
Treating an abrasion is routine: Clean with soap and water and apply some antibiotic ointment unless the tail is bleeding or has extensive skin or hair loss, a condition requiring veterinary treatment. If skin damage is severe, the vet may need to remove the damaged portion of the tail.
Fractures vary in treatment according to severity. A simple fracture toward the tip of the tail often heals on its own with no complications, maybe leaving a telltale kink in your cat's tail. More severe fractures, such as crushed or separated tail bones, may require amputation.
Nerve damage has to recover on its own; depending on the extent of the damage a cat may need assistance relieving herself.
Stud tail is much easier to remember than its formal name, supracaudal gland hyperplasia. As the name implies, it's typically a disease found in unneutered male cats, but altered males and females can develop this condition. Symptoms include:
- Hair loss at the base of the tail
- Matted and/or greasy fur at the base of the tail
- Infected skin at the base of the tail
- Blackheads on the skin at the base of the tail
- Waxy material on the skin and fur at the base of the tail
- Foul odor
The condition is caused when the sebaceous glands at the base of the tail excrete too much sebum. Treatment includes using medicated shampoos to keep the base of the tail clean and antibiotics if a skin infection is present. Clipping and combing the hair at the affected area can help keep it free of debris and excessive oil.
Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome
Also called rolling skin disease, pyschomotor epilepsy and neurodermatitis, feline hyperesthesia syndrome is considered a behavioral disorder more than a disease of the tail. A cat with this condition may:
Feline hyperesthesia syndrome doesn't have a specific cause and it's a condition that is diagnosed through a process of elimination. After ruling out other conditions related to skin, muscular and nervous system involvement the vet often will settle on the diagnosis of feline hyperesthesia syndrome. Treatment usually combines behavior modification and medication.
If your cat can't move her tail or urinate or defecate, or has significant hair loss or skin damage on her tail, she should see her veterinarian.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.