Our fuzzy feline fur babies are notorious for hiding their pain. Cat parents know all too well how suddenly illness and injury can spring up out of nowhere, simply because cats hate showing signs of weakness and will hide it until they can't anymore.
One kind of injury they generally find a lot harder to hide is an injury to their tail. That's because cats use their tails constantly to express all kinds of body language; if their tail isn't working properly or hurts when they move it, they won't act quite right, and it'll be pretty obvious.
Cats can injure their tails in a bunch of different ways, and those injuries can be visible – or not – in different forms. So today we’re going to talk about some of the different types of injuries, what symptoms to look for, and when it’s time to see your vet.
The average cat's tail is seemingly always in the way. It's underneath you when you walk, so you risk stepping on it, it's swishing back and forth beneath a rocking chair, it's snatched out of danger at the last second, seemingly before the feline even knows it's in danger.
Yet they aren't always so lucky; these tails can get caught in all kinds of pinches and crunches and other situations that, to put it lightly, aren't pleasant for anyone involved. Some injuries aren't as obvious as a break, though, so let's talk about what can go wrong.
These are pretty common in cats, particularly outdoor cats. These cats are likely to get into scraps with various critters out and about. Predators going after your cat are going to chase and nip at them, and sometimes, they'll catch a stray tail before that tail can be pulled from danger.
Unfortunately, while bite wounds can be small and not look too bad, animals – especially wild animals – don't generally brush their teeth. That means those bites are pretty dangerous and can easily get infected.
"To minimize the risk of infection, it's best to have a cat with a significant bite wound treated by a veterinarian. DiGiacomo explains that vets will often sedate a cat with a serious wound in order to "flush" the area completely. The cat will then likely be prescribed antibiotics and possibly pain medication. Depending on the situation, [the vet] adds that pet owners may have to clean the tail at home to prevent infection. Outdoor cats should be kept indoors while healing, to prevent fly larvae from growing in wounds." - PetMD.
In their joys of exploring and let’s be honest inspecting places they shouldn’t be, your cat may accidentally burn their tail.
Whether it’s on a hot stove while you’re cooking or with the swipe of a tail over a lit candle. Burns can do serious damage, and if you’ve ever burned yourself, you know how painful they can be.
A second common cause of tail injury is abrasion, or a common scrape, cut, or other injury. Cats that go out wandering outside having their own little adventures are bound to run into things they shouldn't. Thorn bushes, sharp bits of metal from a fence, and bee stings; there are all sorts of different reasons why a cut, scrape, or another small injury can crop up.
These are, obviously, a lot less dangerous than something like an animal bite or a broken tail. We all get cuts and scrapes and bumps all the time, and they're generally going to heal without issue. Just keep an eye on it, and your fur baby will likely be just fine.
It’s important to bear in mind that any break of the skin can lead to infection.
Broken Bones and Dislocations
The third category is a mixture of breaks, fractures, and dislocations. Cat tails are an extension of the spine, just more flexible; it's a series of small bones connecting and protecting things like nerves and blood vessels, surrounded by the muscles that let it move. While they're relatively resilient, they are still bones, and they can break.
Cats who get their tails run over by a vehicle, pulled on by a young child, stuck in a door that gets closed on them, or even stepped on can end up with damage to their tails that falls into this category. Tail bones can be broken, dislocated, or crushed, and that damage makes it very painful to move the tail or have it moved.
Minor tail breaks and fractures can sometimes heal on their own, but other times they're serious enough to warrant amputation. The problem is that cat tails are sensitive to injury, and if they don't heal right, it can cause more problems than not having a tail at all. In rare cases, a tail cast (think bandage wrap and not hard cast) can be used, but most of the time, it's on to surgery.
With any type of serious injury to the tail there may also be nerve damage. This nerve damage can be minimal with the potential for full recovery to permanent.
These are the main injuries that cats can get to their tails. There are a few others, like a degloving injury, but they tend to be a lot more obvious, and you don't need my tips on recognizing them.
How to Spot a Tail Injury
So, what should you look for if your suspect your furry feline friend has an injured tail? How can you recognize it? If they're acting strange, how can you tell if the tail is the culprit?
Look for signs of a break.
A broken tail is generally pretty obvious. It will droop, sag, or have a strange bend or kink in it. This is for severe breaks, the kind where the bones are completely broken, shattered, or separated. Your fur baby probably won't want to be touched, they may not eat, will likely be reluctant to play, and they'll probably even try not to move much because it hurts to do anything. Your fur baby may also start hiding.
Other possible symptoms, particularly of less visible breaks, can include:
Reluctance or inability to wag, swish, or move the tail around.
Inability to move their back legs at all. The tail has a lot of important nerves in it, and depending on where the break is, the damage can trickle "up" to the hind legs.
Loss of bladder/bowel control. Those same nerves in the tail are used to control the bladder and, to an extent, bowel function. If your fur baby can't hold it in, this may be a culprit.
If the tail doesn't seem to be broken, it can still be fractured or injured in other ways.
"If your cat can't urinate on its own, you can express it by hand three to four times a day. This involves gently squeezing the bladder to push urine out—your veterinarian can demonstrate how to safely do this and may also prescribe medication to help. Some cats also need stool softeners and enemas." – Daily Paws.
Look for signs of other injuries.
Signs of injury in a cat's tail that aren't as obvious as a break include:
Bald patches where hair (or skin) has been rubbed off, torn off, cut off, or otherwise removed. Note that a rare issue in some cats, called feline hyperesthesia syndrome, results in cats picking at their own skin because it bothers them, and this often happens on the tail and base of the spine. There are treatments, but you'll need to talk to your vet.
Swelling. If an area of the tail is swollen, it might be anything from an infected cut or insect bite to a fracture in the area. The affected area may also be hot to the touch.
Blood. Obviously, anything that cuts deep enough can bleed, so if your fur baby is leaving blood spots where they sit, do a full body check including their tail.
There are also the usual signs and symptoms of pain, like lethargy, a lack of appetite, a desire to not move or to hide away, and so on. Cats react differently; some will hide, some will be angry or defensive, and some might even come to you for comfort.
How to Treat a Cat's Injured Tail
For minor injuries like cuts and scrapes, you may be able to do some treatment at home, then asses if a vet visit is needed.
Simple first aid for an injured tail is pretty much the same as it would be for any minor injury.
Clean the area with warm water and soap. You don't need any of those fancy disinfectants! No alcohol, no hydrogen peroxide, no iodine. Most of these don't actually do any better than plain old soap and water for keeping a wound disinfected, and because they can dry out an area, they can actually lead to worse infections.
Appy a cool cloth. In the event of a burn, running your kitty’s tail under cool water or wrapping it with a damp cloth can help soothe a minor burn. Major burns must be treated by a professional, not only to enable healing, but to treat their pain.
Use a simple bandage to keep the area protected. There are special bandages for cat tails you can get, or you can use self-adhesive wraps. Don't use tape or a sticky bandage, as it will just get tangled up in their fur.
Use an e-collar. The "cone of shame" is obstructive and harsh, but a softer e-collar can help prevent your fur baby from gnawing away at a bandage and aggravating an injury.
You'll also want to keep an eye out for bleeding or other discharge. Colored discharges can indicate an infection that needs to be treated with antibiotics, and that means a vet trip. Bleeding might not be bad, but if it doesn't stop or if it's excessive, bring them in.
What Can the Vet Do for an Injured Tail?
First and foremost, your vet can evaluate to see exactly what's wrong with the tail. If it's an infection, they can identify what it is, why it's there, and how to treat it. If they suspect a fracture or break, they can take X-rays and figure out where, how extensive, and how much of the tail is damaged. A common issue, particularly in injuries caused by cars, is a single larger break hiding another smaller break.
"If the fracture is located at the tip of the tail, it usually heals well without any treatment, although, the tail may have a bump or kink at the fracture site. If the bones in the tail are crushed, part of the tail may have to be amputated. Injuries near the base of the tail often involve nerve damage and are more serious." – VCA Animal Hospitals.
Generally, a vet will evaluate your fur baby and come up with an appropriate treatment plan. This can be:
Cleaning, bandaging, and waiting. For simple lacerations and very minor fractures, particularly to the tip of the tail, this is all you need.
Antibiotics. In the case of an infection, either oral antibiotics or an antibiotic ointment may be prescribed, along with instructions on how to use it. You'll want that e-collar if you're putting on a cream, just to make sure they don't lick it away.
A splint or cast. In some rare cases, a tail injury may need support to heal properly, the same way we might heal our own broken bones with splints or casts. If this is the case, your vet will determine the best kind of cast to put into place and any other support or instructions you'll need to follow at home.
Amputation. A cat's tail may need to be amputated, either partially or fully. On the plus side, amputation for one of our furry friends isn't nearly as "bad" as it is for us people. We have a self-image that relies a lot on our appearance and function; cats and dogs, meanwhile, just live their lives the best they can. The loss of a tail (or an eye or a limb) just means they need to adapt, and they'll adapt. Most cats do just fine without a tail.
Depending on the cause of the tail injury, your vet will also want to give your fur baby a complete once-over and may recommend additional imaging.
This will help them determine if there are any other injuries or causes for concern like broken or fractured toes, legs, or ribs or internal damage or bleeding.
Minor tail injuries usually improve fairly quickly with no lingering damage. Serious tail injuries can take months to fully heal, especially when nerves have been involved. Talk to your vet about your kitty’s prognosis and what you can expect for at home care and healing time.
As always, if you ever have any questions about anything I go over in our articles, please feel free to let me know. As a pet parent and lover, I'm always more than happy to help you out however I can.
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer (https://www.amazon.com/author/kmariealto), and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 45K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).