Posted on February 8, 2016
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.
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.
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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