Between the tail’s purpose in expressing feelings and controlling essential functions, tail injuries are a big deal - and can happen anytime. Less than two months ago, my cat Daenerys had her tail caught by a door and the last inch of tail ripped off to the bone. It was a terrifying and traumatic injury - tail degloving - that put her in danger of spinal infection and more. She’s okay, but I learned so much that day.
CAT TAILS: JUST THE FACTS
Not every tail is created equal, as any Manx cat will tell you with a cool stare and a wiggle of the little nubbin where another cat’s tail would be. With the exception of those short-tailed (or no-tailed!) cats, you’ll find that 10% of the total bones in a cat’s body are in their tail. Tails are formed of around 22 to 23 vertebrae linked together and covered by ligaments, tendons, nerve endings, skin, and fur.
Taken altogether, this complicated organ averages out around 10 to 11 inches long depending on breed and sex of the cat in question. Tails are used to help counterbalance your friend Crookshanks when he’s making quick movements, and allow Princess Carolyn to express her playfulness with a question mark-style curve.
Your feline friend can live without their tail - but that doesn’t mean tail injuries are something you don’t need to worry about. The many pieces of your cat’s tail link into their spine, making a tail injury potentially as serious as a spinal injury. With these type of injuries being surprisingly common, it’s important to understand the possible repercussions.
CAT TAIL INJURIES
Thanks to cats doing ridiculous things like running under our feet when we’re half-asleep or choosing the last minute to run into the bathroom when we’re closing the door, tail injuries happen. They happen more often to outdoor cats - careless cars and hostile animals, good reasons to keep your cats indoor-only - but they still happen anywhere.
Tail injuries tend to break down into several major types:
- Abrasions - Scrapes or small cuts, often requiring minimal treatment as long as there’s no infection. May be treatable at home.
- Skin Irritation - Hot spots, food or flea allergy, or even over-grooming can result in irritated or damaged skin, which you may see as an open sore with pus or red skin.
- Wounds - Lacerations caused by animal bites, accidents, or self-mutilation; may expose muscle or even bone. Vulnerable to infection and require vet care.
- Burns - If Heathcliff’s been burned, you’ve got more to worry about than the smell of singed cat hair! Get to a vet.
- Breaks - Tails are vulnerable to fractures and dislocations, which you may observe as kinks in the tail, tail swelling, or by noticing your kitty holding their tail stiffly. Breaks aren’t always visible and may require x-rays for diagnosis.
- Nerve Damage - Visible trauma to the tail often precedes nerve damage; nerve damage may be present if the tail is broken, there’s swelling at the base, or your cat has difficulty walking or controlling their urination and bowel movements. See a vet!
- Degloving - Traumatic injury in which a significant amount of skin and/or flesh is ripped off your cat’s tail, exposing muscle or bone. Requires immediate emergency vet treatment and probably amputation.
TAIL INJURY DO’S & DON’TS
If your cat’s been injured, follow that first golden rule of life and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: DON’T PANIC.
Now that you’re not panicking, assess the damage to your cat’s tail.
If your cat’s just gotten a scrape or a minor cut, clean the wound and keep an eye on it. Very minor injuries of this type most likely don’t require a trip to the vet, but it’s important that you watch out for any infection. If you’re concerned, call your vet for guidance.
You can treat some skin irritation at home as well, depending on the cause - but hot spots might require your vet shave the area to let your kitty’s skin breathe, and you might need some kind of medication to relieve itching. You might even need to deploy an Elizabethan collar (AKA the Cone of Shame) to keep your cat from messing with the affected area so it can heal.
For more serious injuries, don’t hesitate to visit your vet immediately. Bite wounds from other animals may need to be flushed out and your feline may need antibiotic shots. Burns may need assessment and special salves. Breaks need to be diagnosed and treated carefully to prevent nerve damage, and nerve damage needs to be assessed for how it may affect your cat - in certain cases, nerve damage can be fatal.
For degloving? Take it from someone who’s seen an inch of white bone emerging from the end of her cat’s mangled tail: EMERGENCY VET CARE IS REQUIRED IMMEDIATELY.
Injuries that deep could lead to a fatal infection of the spine among other complications; it’s also a wound that will never heal on its own. Amputation is almost always required up to the point of healthy tissue, and a full recovery is possible. My cat Dany’s tail may be an inch or so shorter, but she’s as expressive with it as she ever was!
When it comes to your cat’s health, don’t let them down by not watching out for their tails. Whether their tail is caught in a closing door or they get hot spots on their luxuriously bushy tail, they need our care and our help to keep everything right in their feline fundament.
Has your cat ever suffered from a tail injury? Tell us the tale (sorry, not sorry) in the comments below!
Written by Deborah Brannon