Clinic Stories

Hail To The Tail

One thing most animals have on people is a tail, and we may be the worse for it. Tails can serve many functions:

  • Mood – any dog or cat owner can tell something about how their pet is feeling by their tail
  • Communication – animals have a language all their own that signals to others their feelings and intentions – dominance and submission, aggression, fear, cooperation
  • Grasping – some animals such as possums have prehensile tails allowing them hold on to branches
  • Balance – cats among others use their tail to keep their balance
  • Food Storage – reptiles and sheep are some animals that store fat in their tails
  • Insect Control – cows and horses swat flies away with their tails
  • Display – peacocks are an extreme example of tail displays
  • Decoy or Survival – some animals such as iguanas have breakaway tails that leave predators with a non-vital piece of them while they escape. In some cases the tail will continue to move after it is separated providing even more deception.
  • Pheromones – dogs have a scent gland on the top of their tail a couple of inches from the base
  • Entertainment – dogs chase their tails for sport
  • Locomotion – fish, snakes and alligators all use their tails to get around
  • Flight – without a tail, birds cannot fly well

Despite its many functions, the loss or lack of a tail is not critical in dogs and cats. Some dog breeds such as Pugs and Australian Shepherds are born without tails and manage quite well. Of course many breeds have a convention of docking, or shortening, the tail when they are a few days old. In some countries tail docking has been outlawed and its prevalence is deceasing in the US.

Human embryos have tails at four weeks of gestation that are then resorbed and becomes our “tail bone”. Occasionally a person is born with a tail but we and our ape cousins have gotten past the need for a tail, replacing tail communication with facial expressions and language.

Dogs have six basic tail signals–aggression, uncertainty or confusion, recognition, caution, pursuit and everyone's favorite–joy. Sometimes dogs have too much joy and wag their tail so much their tail bleeds from hitting walls. Known as "happy tail," it can heal if the dog is kept outdoors or in a large area where he cannot hit his tail. Sometimes we have to shorten the tail surgically if it is too happy. I have also had to remove the tails of a few dogs whose owners were on blood thinners and the wagging tail caused bruising on the owner's legs.

Cat tails are a bit less expressive than dogs having four basic signals–aggressive, fearful, defensive and friendly. There is an urban myth that cat tails were the inspiration for question marks and exclamation points. While cats do tend to point their tail up when they are excited and bend it around like a question mark when uncertain, punctuation evolved from written Latin during the spread of the Roman Empire. The question mark comes from a shortened version of the Latin word for question, qo but with the q on top of the o. The exclamation point is from the Latin word for joy, Io, with the I over the o.

There are times I wish people had tails but we would have to walk on all fours and redesign our trousers to make it work.

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