A tail is one of the most prominent, important physical features of a dog. Dogs use their tails for everything from balance to communication, and sometimes these incredibly mobile appendages may seem to be too independent to have as much feeling as other parts of the body.
Though a dog’s tail is not as sensitive as other parts of its body, it can still feel pain. Tails are comprised of vertebrae, muscles, and nerves, which is why dogs are physically aware of this important appendage. It is also why dogs are able to use their tails for a wide variety of purposes.
Because dogs can feel their tails, owners and animal lovers often wonder how aware dogs are of their own tails, and how keenly they may experience certain sensations. Read on to learn more about why dogs chase their tails, the controversy of surgical tail removal, and how our canine companions are evolutionarily wired to use this unique body part.
How Do Dogs Feel Their Tails?
A tail is a direct extension of the spine or the vertebrae, sometimes called a caudal terminal appendage, meaning that it continues down the back of a mammal and extends away from the body. Among canines, tails are made up of anywhere from 6 to 23 separate, mobile sections of vertebrae.
This segmented system of bones allows dogs to have a wide range of movement in their tails. Dogs’ tails are so mobile that it may seem like they do not have the same level of sensitivity or structure as other parts of the body, but tails consist of more than merely linear sections of bone.
Because the bones in a tail are surrounded by muscles, nerves, and tendons, a dog can feel its own tail. This is why a dog may yelp when someone accidentally steps on its tail, or whimper when its tail gets caught in a door. Though tails are not quite as anatomically substantial as limbs or more sensitive areas of the body, they are an important physical feature in many mammals’ nervous systems and serve a variety of fundamental purposes.
Why Do Dogs Wag Their Tails?
Dogs have a long evolutionary history of using their tails to communicate with one another, very similar to the way that human beings gesture with their hands to communicate feelings and ideas. Dogs’ eyes are naturally sensitive to movement; anything moving nearby will immediately catch their eye. (i.e. a squirrel) By moving its tail in certain ways, a dog can catch the attention of other dogs and communicate certain ideas or feelings.
For example, a rapidly wagging tail can indicate that the dog is feeling excited or friendly toward a recognized dog friend or a favorite human caregiver. A tail lowered or tucked between the legs can indicate that the dog feels fearful, uncertain, or unsafe.
A tail held high and rigid can indicate that the dog is alert, feels threatened, or is fixated upon an object of interest. When a dog is wagging its tail slowly, that typically means that the dog is interested in a person or an object, but has yet to develop any certain feelings beyond mere curiosity or amiability.
Beyond being tools for social and emotional communication, dogs’ tails are also useful as physical tools. For instance, a dog may use its tail as a sort of rudder when swimming or may use it for balance when running, jumping, making sharp turns, and so on.
Tails are incredibly versatile, key components of a dog’s body. The more time you spend with your dog, the more readily you will be able to recognize the messages your dog may be trying to communicate to you, how your dog may feel and behave in certain situations, or how it is using its tail to help meet its own physical needs.
Why Do Dogs Chase Their Tails?
Dog lovers everywhere will undoubtedly recognize one comedic form of behavior in dogs: the rambunctious, whirling, futile pursuit of attempting to catch its own tail. This ironic behavior is a mystery that has stumped many dog owners, especially considering that tails are primarily used as communication tools. So why do dogs do this? There are several reasons.
First, tail chasing is actually a common behavior among predatory species. Biologists believe that this is because, unlike herd animals that are constantly preoccupied with the survival instincts that prevent them from becoming prey, predators have time to relax and play without being worried.
Descended from wolves and other wild canines, dogs fall into this category of independent, playful animals. And, in domestic settings where food is constantly provided and there are few creatures to hunt or chase, the biological urge to pursue moving objects is fulfilled through play.
Second, tail chasing or biting might be an indication that your dog is experiencing some sort of physical irritation. Fleas, for instance, tend to thrive around the tail area, and the itching can drive a dog mad. Skin irritations or hot spots have a similar effect; unable to scratch themselves or get rid of fleas, dogs resort to using their teeth.
Third, neurological factors may be involved. For example, a dog chewing on a bone will often be territorial, growling at other animals or humans that attempt to take the bone away (or appear to be doing so). Sometimes, the threat a dog perceives out of the corner of its eye may simply be its own tail.
Videos of dogs growling at their own tails have gone viral on social media platforms countless times, and it is easy to dismiss this behavior as odd or amusing. In reality, the behavior may actually indicate an underlying neurological condition, such as anxiety or paranoia, similar to the human condition of OCD. Compulsive behaviors in animals can be common and harmless, but if you are worried about your dog, consult with a local veterinarian.
Is Tail Docking Humane?
Tail docking is the surgical removal of a dog’s tail for either cosmetic or medical reasons. Unless there are medical reasons to dock a dog’s tail, cosmetic tail docking is generally considered inhumane.
Some historians indicate that tail docking originated in ancient Rome when it was believed that amputating the tips of a dog’s tail, tongue, or ears could prevent it from contracting dangerous diseases.
Others believed that removing a dog’s tail enabled the dog to be faster in a hunting chase. Today, tail docking is a controversial issue among dog owners and animal lovers, as it has become primarily cosmetic and is an extremely painful experience for dogs, even as puppies.
There are a variety of proposed justifications for removing a dog’s tail. Some consider a long tail to be hazardous for a guard dog, as the antagonist could seize the dog’s tail in an attempt to thwart its attack. Hunting dogs can also damage their tails in the thick underbrush of common hunting areas.
Regardless of proposed justifications, it is important to consider that it is natural for most dogs to have tails and that painful procedures conducted even in the early stages of a dog’s development, when the nervous system is vulnerable, can have negative long-term effects on how the dog processes pain for the rest of its life.