Cumberland Times-News

January 26, 2013

Here’s all you wanted to know about tails

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Okay, here’s something I have wondered about for a long time.

Why do animals have tails?

I have been blessed with eight dogs in my lifetime, and they all had different temperaments. Among them, Ginger was especially feisty, Spot especially protective, Piper and Lexie especially loving. They all had personalities of their own — but they shared one thing in common — surprise — they all (originally) had tails!

Nowadays, Rusty has to represent all the others, and his tail is hardly up to it. Every one of the other seven had better tails than he does, all because, for some stupid reason, it is required that every small poodle has to have its tail docked. So his is a sorry excuse for a tail — it’s a little hairy knob on his rear end that looks like a big walnut fell off our tree out front and got stuck there. When he’s happy, it trembles a bit, when he’s friendly, it trembles a bit, when he’s mad, it trembles a bit. Now I ask you, what good to a dog is a tail that can’t even let the world know exactly how he feels.

I may have mentioned some other time, Jeep, my cocker spaniel, He also came from a breed that was automatically listed for tail docking, but, bless his heart, this was back during World War II and people were thinking of other things. I got him before the dastardly deed was done, and he lived to nine or ten proudly expressing himself with a long, feathery, eloquent tail. (Poor guy, I let the screen door close on him a mite early one time, and, to my horror, I later found a bloody little slice of tippy tail on the back porch. The wound healed quickly and made not one bit of difference in his general attitude, which was always a bit over the top, bless his furry little heart.)

Anyway, when you consider all the feelings that have to be repressed and all the emotions that have to be imperfectly signaled without a tail, you’ve gotta wonder why dogs are so often deprived of them. How can they be real dogs in every way without them?

Let’s examine for a moment exactly what they (and we) may be missing. Communicating and receiving generalized love and good will to all the world, that’s what. When a dog wags his tail and rubs against you, he’s showing you he loves you. When a cat waves his tail and rubs against you , he’s probably marking you with scent glands announcing that you are, “mine, mine, mine — I have chosen you to do my bidding! Be appropriately proud!” (I read somewhere that dogs have owners, cats have staff.) More than anything else, a dog’s wagging tail offers either full-blown love, or the promise of it.

In a Washington Post article a while ago, Howard J. Bennett gives us an idea about just how important tails are. The world would not be the same without them.

Just so you know, primates (not counting people) have either prehensile tails, that can more or less act as another arm, or non-prehensile ones that are used to swing, climb and jump. Can you imagine how docking tails like that would make a difference? Rattlesnakes have a rattle at the end of their tails that can warn intruders of danger. (I advise against docking this.) It’s made of the same substance as fingernails, which can lead a brain like mine to imagine a rattlesnake who wants to express herself with pink nail polish.

Birds steer with their tail feathers; woodpecker types brace themselves on their strong tails to peck out food from the bark of trees.. Sea creatures use their tails to propel and steer. Bet you didn’t know that fish tails move side to side and sea mammal tails move up and down.

Some deer flash the white undersides of their tails to warn other deer of danger. And then we have elephants, giraffes, and zebras whose long thin tails seem a little inappropriate to the rest of their dignity — with tufts on the end that serve the purpose of — you guessed it — fly swatters! (That’s Mother Nature for you, a laugh a minute.)

Foxes curl their bushy tails up like blankets to stay warm on cold days, and here’s one you’ll like — male hippos use their tails to spread their feces around so that other males stay out of their territory. Can’t imagine why.

All of us humans had tails as embryos, which works well for mermaids. For the rest of us, the tail moves inside by the time we are born where it serves the very useful purpose of balancing us as we sit. This tailbone at the end of the spine is called the coccyx (cok-siks) Or you can call it your tailbone, if you like. When it gets sore, it gets very very sore, so I advise you to put some moxie into your coccyx and keep it happy and healthy all your life.

This is all I know about tails. If it’s more than you wanted to know, stop reading now.

Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears in the Times-News on alternate Sundays.