Tail Docking and Ear Cropping in Dogs

Medically unnecessary surgeries are addressed in an article within the most recent edition the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Tail docking is discussed at length (pun intended) as is ear cropping.


The article begins by stating, ”In ancient Rome, during the First Century CE, Lucius Columella wrote that it was proper to remove the tails of puppies to prevent their growth to an ‘abominable length’ and to prevent madness which is presumed to refer to rabies.” While such interesting notions have long since been abandoned, tail docking remains a common practice for certain breeds as does ear cropping. Both of these medically unnecessary surgeries are discussed below.

Tail Docking Puppies

What is tail docking?

Tail docking is the surgical removal of the end of the tail. When performed for cosmetic purposes, the natural tail length is reduced by at least 50 to 75 percent. Historically, tail docking has been justified as a means of preventing tail injury in hunting and fighting dogs. It continues to be performed on a variety of dogs, particularly those of working and hunting breeds.

Veterinarians and nonveterinarians (primarily breeders) perform tail docking typically during the first week of life. The end of the tail is removed with a scalpel blade or scissors and the skin over the stub is stitched. Alternatively, an elastic band is placed around the tail at the desired length. The band acts as a tourniquet resulting in the gradual death of the end of the tail.

Not all dogs with short tails have had surgical docking to create this appearance. Some breeds are genetically programmed to be this way including: the Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Australian Shepherd, Pyrenean Shepherd, Polish Lowland Sheepdog, Australian Cattle Dog, Spanish Water Dog, Brittany Spaniel, Jack Russell Terrier, Schipperke, Boston Terriers, Swedish Fallhund, Braque du Bourbonnais, and French Bulldog and English Bulldog. (A few of these breeds are new to me.) Four breeds in which natural bobtails occasionally occur are the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Parson Russell Terrier, Miniature Schnauzer, and Rottweiler.

Is tail docking painful for puppies?

According to one study, only 10% of veterinarians provide anesthesia or analgesia (pain medication) for the tail docking procedure. This is an older study (published in 1996), so it is very likely that the percentage has increased. There are no newer studies that I could find. I assume that nonveterinarians who perform tail docking do so without anesthesia.

There is disagreement as to how much pain tail docking causes in puppies. When asked about this, 82% of breeders sampled indicated only “mild pain” or “none.”

In a study of 50 puppies whose tails were docked at three to five days of age, all of them vocalized intensely at the time of docking and was thought to be associated with pain. The pain appeared to last approximately three minutes. In this study, 76% of veterinarians reported feeling that they believe the pain associated with tail docking is “significant” or “severe.”

Those who don’t use anesthesia/analgesia when tail docking puppies would argue that it is unnecessary for such a short duration of pain. Having performed this procedure myself way back in the day (I’m embarrassed to confess this), I feel confident that these babies experience pain when their tails are docked. If you want to decide for yourself, have a look at any of the many You Tube videos demonstrating this surgical procedure.

Arguments for and against tail docking

Folks who favor tail docking in working and hunting breeds argue that it is required to prevent future tail injury. One study documented that, indeed, working dogs do have a significantly higher risk of tail injury compared to nonworking dogs. However, the overall injury rate was quite low, and it was determined that 500 dogs would need to have their tails docked in order to prevent one tail injury.

Tail injuries in docked and undocked hunting dogs were reported in a more recent study. The researchers found that the number of injuries for both docked and undocked dogs was higher than previously reported. For example, 54.7% of undocked spaniels and 20.8% of docked spaniels experienced at least one injury during the shooting season. However, only 4.4% of any of these dogs required veterinary attention.

Tail docking may impact the way dogs communicate with one another. In a study examining the behavioral responses to dogs with different tail lengths, researchers used a remotely controlled life-sized dog replica in a park setting. Large dogs showed more caution when approaching a short-tailed dummy dog compared to when it had a long tail. Small dogs were equally cautious regardless of tail length. The study concluded that tail docking might impair social communication.

Ear Cropping

What is ear cropping?

Ear cropping is a surgical procedure that reshapes the natural appearance of a dog’s external ear flap. Compare the appearance of the Doberman Pinschers in the attached photos. Ear cropping is typically performed when puppies are between nine and twelve weeks of age. Following the surgery, the ears are taped for several weeks to maintain an upright shape that will hopefully be sustained after the tape has been removed. This surgery is performed using general anesthesia (at least that’s the way I’ve seen it performed in veterinary hospitals). Post-operative pain medication may or may not be prescribed.

Is ear cropping painful for puppies?

While I’ve never witnessed ear cropping performed without general anesthesia, I’ve no doubt that, without it, the dog would experience significant pain. I strongly believe that ear cropping should never be performed without the use of general anesthesia. This means that a veterinarian must be involved.

Ear cropping is not longer being taught at veterinary schools within the United States. This is worrisome only from the perspective that, the fewer veterinarians performing ear cropping the greater the likelihood that nonveterinarians will begin doing so without access to appropriate facilities, anesthestic drugs, and pain medications.

There are no published studies tracking whether or not ear cropping is associated with chronic pain. As with most surgical procedures, ear cropping has the potential to cause post-operative pain, and appropriate pain medication is warranted.

Arguments for and against ear cropping

Ear cropping was historically performed to prevent ear damage during hunting or fighting. There is no clear evidence that supports such claims. Additionally, many breeds with pendulous ears, such as spaniels and retrievers, are commonly used for hunting.

Some believe that ear cropping reduces the risk of ear infections by preventing the trapping of moisture and debris in the ear canal. Evidence indicates that the propensity for infection has more to do with the breed than the shape of the ear. One study found that ear infections were more common in Poodles, German Shepherds, and Cocker Spaniels. Another study pinpointed Golden Retrievers and West Highland White Terriers. Amongst all of these breeds, ear conformation varies from erect to pendulous.


Both the American and Canadian Veterinary Medical Associations have issued position statements opposing tail docking and ear cropping when done for cosmetic purposes. While some breed standards in Canada and the United States now allow showing of dogs that have not been cosmetically altered, neither the Canadian Kennel Club nor the American Kennel Club specifically discourage tail docking and ear cropping.

As for me, I’ll stick with my belief that ear cropping is never warranted and tail docking is justified only when it serves a medical purpose (growth on the tail, trauma, severe infection, etc.).

While I totally get that some people favor the look of docked tails and cropped ears, particularly for certain breeds, my primary allegiance is always to the health and well being of the dog. Performing surgery purely for cosmetic purpose is out of the question. If asked to perform tail docking or ear cropping on a puppy I would respectfully decline. And, if the door is open to educating my client, I would certainly attempt do so.

How do you weigh in on the topics of tail docking and ear cropping? I invite conversation with breeders who work with dogs that have traditionally had cropped ears and/or docked tails.

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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21 Comments on “Tail Docking and Ear Cropping in Dogs

  1. I have an English Springer Spaniel that does not have a docked tail. We hunt, swim, hike and work together. I have found that it is easier in the field while hunting to see if he is on to a bird by the position of the tail and he also raises it up like a flag before he flushes. It also allows me to understand his moods better. The only downside I have found is the tail can act like a burr magnet, but I just keep the hair shorter during burr season. I love the tail, the dog and the breed! Thanks for a great article Dr. Kay!

  2. The entire idea of tail and ear docking just makes me sick to your stomach. How could you willingly do that to an animal that you love? If you would, maybe you shouldn’t have a pet at all…

  3. The interesting thing to me is that in America ear cropping and tail docking is now falling out of favor because it’s “cosmetic” and because the procedures do cause pain. However removing a dog’s reproductive organs which can have lifelong health and behavior consequences and also cause post-surgical pain, are considered the sign of responsible dog ownership. Spaying and neutering is in most cases done for owner convenience, they hope it replaces training and they won’t have to be responsible about managing their dogs’ reproductive instincts. Countries in Europe who ban docking and cropping also do not support removal of reproductive organs.

  4. Tail docking without anesthesia reminds me of the time, not long ago, when surgical procedures on newborn humans were done without anesthesia under the belief that human newborns did not really feel pain. Prick a baby with a diaper pin and you will see a pain response. Imagine doing surgery on a baby without anesthesia. Barbaric, and tail docking is also barbaric, IMHO.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree that the docking of tails and cropping of ears for cosmetic purposes should be banned. It’s funny that there are now programs to desensitise puppies to handling and grooming procedures starting from a few days of age and people believe that that has a positive impact on their lives. At the same time the trauma of having parts of their bodies cut off is not thought to have an impact on them later in life? I don’t believe that for a second. Hopefully research on early trauma and how the hormone “household” is influenced by it will eventually provide a final argument against these procedures.

    On a side note, not all Australian Shepherds, Pembroke Welsh Corgis and Swedish Vallhunds are natural born short-tails. In Corgis it’s only about a quarter. The rest are docked. Often the natural bobtails are docked as well because the tails can be anything between a stub and three quartets lentgh. The stubby look is preferred. In Australian Shepherds and Vallhunds, I’m not certain about the percentage of natural short-tails. Note that in Germany people have gotten so used to the thought that docking is bad that as an owner of a naturally short-tailed dog, one is sometimes subject to weary questions and even insults by people asking how you could do such a thing to your dog. It’s the other extreme compared to the US. Australian Shepherds are nearly always selectively bred with long tails in Germany, because people just don’t like the “docked” look, even if it’s natural.

  6. Great post, thank you for your wisdom! I have to agree with Dagmar’s reply. There is something far more important than ridiculous breeding & show standards, & that is compassion. We do no such procedure on ourselves & should never do it to a defenseless animal unless it is medically necessary.

  7. We breed Clumber spaniels and have decided not to dock the tails of our puppies. One individual from our 2011 litter hunts with his “Dad” and has never experienced injury to his tail. We have found that our puppies and adults can maneuver much easier with their tails undocked compared with those dogs, whom we have from other breeders, who have docked tails. The dew claws are removed when the pups are about 2 to 3 days old. In the show ring individuals with either docked and undocked tails are acceptable. I am glad to learn that the veterinary profession have taken a stand against performing tail docking and ear cropping. It is best for the dogs these “procedures” are not performed!

  8. The article on tail and ear docking was informative, though in my opinion it did not go far enough.

    Last year, because it was the thing about breeding that I dreaded most, I stopped docking tails and amputating dew claws on my Standard Poodle pups. The difference in these babies -compared to former pups who endured the procedures – was remarkable. Whoever thinks baby puppies don’t feel pain should hear them scream in agony, and later, witness their frantic nursing to soothe away the hurt and fear. Their misery lasts a whole lot longer than any three minutes!

  9. I don’t know about all Jack Russells, but the breeders I have heard of or seen all dock tails. maybe some lines have shorter tails genetically, but not all…..
    I am against all tail docking and ear cropping…..

  10. I lived in Germany 20 years ago and even then you would be hard pressed to find a vet that would be willing to dock ears or tails. As of 1998 it is illegal in Germany to perform these procedures. I don’t understand why it is taking North America so long to follow suit.

  11. I breed and show Standard Poodles. We dock the tails at home when the puppies are 2-3 days old, and only remove the last 1/5 of the tail. The longer tail helps to balance the poodle’s topknot when shown in the adult continental trim. Personally, I would be fine if docking were outlawed. Certainly it hurts the puppies when it is done– but I think it is less stressful to do it at home rather than risk taking very young puppies to a vet who is an hour away. They cry when it is done, but stop almost immediately and return to nursing when put back with their dam. (We take the dam out of the house by car so that she doesn’t hear the puppies crying.) After reading Chris Zink DVM’s piece on the subject, I no longer remove front dewclaws. In poodles, tail docking is purely cosmetic. We’re starting to see dogs shown with natural tails (even some bred in the US) and when the tail is correct, it looks lovely. What is worse than docking, though, (at least in my opinion) is the surgical intervention by non-veterinarians to correct the carriage of the tail in an older puppy or adult show dog. I know many would disagree with me, but I would never let another breeder or handler perform this procedure on my dog, and no veterinarian would agree to do it. It’s blatant cheating for cosmetic purposes, and subjects the dog to the risk of infection or other complications of a poorly done procedure.

  12. As a small breeder of Cane Corso’s I have docked the tails of my puppies These dogs never stop wagging their tails It’s like a legal weapon If struck by it is very painful That being said I’m still on the fence about the tails As far as the ears go I will admit the look is more guardy but I don’t believe it should be done I have a bitch that I bought with her ears cropped She has a hard time in the rain and in the summer the schad flies bit her ears to death I have her daughter and did not crop her ears I can say that her daughter does get more ear conditions then her Mom but I still think it should be outlawed When the Itallians did this years ago it was because the wild animals were taking down these digs by grabbing their ears and tails Since these dogs are hardly used to protect livestock I see no need to crop any ear
    Until the American Kennel Club takes a stance against this (as countries in Europe have )it will continue unfortunately Dogs are silent suffers let’s not add to this unnecessary ( good for looks) Pain

  13. I did a small amount of breeding in the early 90s. My pups would get their tails docked when they were one to two days old and would simply sleep through it, and only reacted if dewclaws were also removed at the same time. Ear Cropping, however, was a whole different thing and the pups would take several days to recover from that. In hindsight, I should have brought home pain meds for them along with the pain meds they received from the vet. I would not do any ear cropping if I were to breed today.

  14. I feel so strongly about ear cropping and tail docking that I would never own a breed that customarily has this done. One of my veterinarian friends has stated that she would never wish to sever part of the spinal cord, a procedure which she considers tail docking to be. My hope is that the breed standard will some day change for the breeds that are currently shown with docked tails or cropped ears.

  15. I am so glad that both – tail docking and ear cropping – is now illegal in Australia!

    It is one of the most cruel things to do to an innocent animal. And people claiming it would not hurt – please go ahead an cut off one of your fingers, but please without anesthesia! Then pain won’t last long, maybe 3 minutes, but that is nothing right?

    What I will never understand is why it is so important at all? Do people really love the tail/ears or the dog?

  16. I have to laugh when I hear the argument about tails being docked because of “work related injuries” (ex. cows stepping on tails, sheep nipping, tails getting slammed against tree stumps, etc.). I’d LOVE to get a percentage of how many of these docked/cropped dogs actually work at their intended jobs??!! The historical reasons behind tail docking and ear cropping should be just that: history. When we know better, we do better. As for ear infections, there are a number of floppy eared dogs that live and thrive outside these so-called infection-probe cropped dogs. Furthermore, my suspicion is that ear infections have a lot more to do with diet and overall nutrition than the shape of the ears. My last point would be in regards to body energy and taking a holistic view of animals in our care. As we chop and reshape body parts, what happens to their bodies’ ability to ward off disease or to remain in a calm and balanced state?

    No doubt, there are examples of tails that need to be medically docked. This is NOT what I’m speaking of. It’s the choice a breeder makes for aesthetic reasons alone. Because it’s the “breed look” or because “judges don’t like unaltered (insert breed here)”. I say PHOOEY!!! The CKC, AKC and other similar organizations in the world need to take a stand on this. I’m hoping that, at some point in the future, we’ll look at pictures of cropped/docked dogs and wonder how past generations could do such a thing to their best friends.

    Thank you, Dr. Kay, for writing this article!

  17. The American Boxer Club amended its standard years ago to allow boxers to be shown with uncropped ears. We in Middle Tennessee Boxer Rescue rarely get a boxer any more with cropped ears.

    However, undocked tails are becoming more and more common. Some boxer rescues will automatically dock tails if they haven’t been done already, since it is much more difficult to find homes for such dogs. We have found that to be indisputably true. However, rather than docking the tails, we promote the dog as having a “stylish European tail”. It’s still harder to get them adopted, but we are hoping that – just as the public became used to (and even prefers) floppy ears – they will finally accept a long tail on a boxer as normal.

    We have found, however, that some dogs do injure their long tails in a kennel situation with cement block walls, which our kennel has. Once a tail is bleeding, it is virtually impossible to get it to heal, since a bandage just won’t stay on. Every time the dog wags its tail, the force of the wag starts the tail bleeding again. We have felt the need to amputate the tails on those dogs, but they are a minority of the dogs we get in with long tails.

    We will be very happy when all dogs can be accepted as nature made them!

  18. Many of the breeds you mentioned in the section on dogs that have naturally occurring docks are surgically docked as well. Natural tail lengths vary and many, if not most, are surgically cropped to create a uniform length.

    I learned this when researching Australian Shepherds and was talking at length to breeders.

  19. Dr. Nancy, I agree with you, especially about ear cropping. We are one of the most active Doberman Pinscher Rescue groups in the country, having placed 6,000-7,000 of them in the past 29 years. We still see a huge preference among our adopters for perfectly-cropped ears. It’s sad that 20 people will apply for one dog with “the look,” while no one will apply for most of the other lovely Dobies in our program. Unfortunately, at least 2/3 of the cropped dogs’ ears do not stand properly, so they are typically less desired than the natural-eared dogs. If and when we get puppies, we will not place them with people who intend to crop the ears. When people complain about this, we liken it to doing a “nose job” on their 2-year-old baby girl because the parents don’t like the shape of their daughter’s nose. Do they think that surgery would be acceptable? Of course not! Then why, we say, is it acceptable to take the knife to another young family member for cosmetic purposes?

  20. My late husband and I went to Crufts 11-12 years ago and it certainly was surprising to see Boxers with floppy ears etc. – they do look totally different! One of the reasons I chose the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, was that it is a fog shown “naturally” – no flicked tail and no trimming of the coat. To see that plume of a tail constantly in motion, personifies the happy and gay nature of the breed.

    The AKC needs to catch up with the times and ban docking and cropping. Yes, it will take some time to get used to- our eyes must be retrained – but we will and its in the best interest of the dogs.

  21. Dr. Kay: I have owned and showed Great Danes for more than 25 years. I have also had other breeds with natural docks (Bulldog) and surgical ones as well (Rottweiler). While I agree 100% with many of your above statements, I would just add the below.

    Great Danes will sometimes split their ear tips just from shaking their heads too often or vigorously. Then they are left with bloody, painful, infection prone ears which take forever to heal. Often the ear tips have to be taped under their chin to allow enough margin of time and rest to properly heal. Regarding their tails, these are active, vibrant dogs. They fly joyously around corners to greet their loved humans, and will too frequently break them. I’m sure you’ve seen many examples of “happy tail” as well.

    Although I have never had to dock a Dane, some of my friends have. I can see where it might be medically necessary. I agree that ear crops are primarily done for cosmetic purposes, the benefit to the dog I think is there. I have not seen any of my kiddos react in any way to having their ear edges stroked or their ears loved on once they heal from the crop. I liken it to circumcision in a baby – one and done – based on the preference of the “parents”.

    Thank you for posting your perspective. I actually changed my mind about prophylactic gastropexy after reading and considering Dr. Becker’s article on same. Keep putting it out there, education is powerful and welcomed.

    Norma Newcomb

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