Tail Docking: Necessary or Cruel?

Tail docking in dogs and cats has been a subject of intense debate when it comes to deciding if the practice is necessary or cruel.

Tail Docking: Necessary or cruel?

Plenty of controversy surrounds tail docking of cats and dogs. While there may have been reasons in the past for the procedure, those are considered by many to be outdated and cruel.

Some tail dockings are still being performed today even though a number of organizations and countries have banned the practice.

What Is Tail Docking?

Tail docking is the amputation of all or a portion of the tail, which is most commonly seen in dogs. Methods vary depending on the person performing the procedure.

Normally, puppies are docked by placing a band at a certain location on the dog’s tail within hours or a few days of birth. The band restricts the blood flow, and the remaining portion will fall off in a few days from the lack of blood flow.

Other methods include surgical removal.

Why This Practice Started

In 18th century England, a tax was implemented on working dogs with a tail. Many owners docked their dogs’ tails to avoid this tax, and I shudder at the image of herders and pet owners with knife in hand as they took to the task. The tax was later removed, but tail docking continued.

In addition, working dogs were more susceptible to tail injury because of their jobs. Herding dogs would have their tails docked so that livestock would not trample it, or so it would not get caught in a gate or fencing for containing the animals. Others docked the tails for dog fighting purposes; if a dog didn’t have a tail, an opponent couldn’t bite it.

Another reason for tail docking comes down to appearances. Tails are docked to conform to an expected breed standard or even to conform with the rest of the litter when a genetic abnormality prevents some of the puppies from having normal tails.

Most Manx cats are born without a tail. Those that do have a tail are usually docked.

Wondering about cats? The tails or stumps of Manx cats are often removed to conform with the rest of the litter, usually born without the appendage. Breeders claim that certain behavioral or medical problems can appear if the tail remains. Meanwhile, Japanese bobtail cats are not altered; their tails naturally look like rabbit tails.

Keep in mind that occasionally there are medical reasons considered sufficient for tail docking in dogs and cats (usually called amputation in these cases) — such as isolating an injury, preventing further injury in serious cases of “happy tail,” or minimizing the spread of a disease that has affected the tail.

Is Tail Docking Painful?

The apparent amount of pain inflicted depends on whom you ask.

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association asserts strong evidence that puppies and kittens have a fully developed nervous system and can sense and feel pain by the biological markers that have been observed. Other organizations or groups, such as the Council of Docked Breeds, offer many reasons and doctor-provided assertions on why tail docking in pets less than four days old is not painful (even without anesthesia). The group further asserts that pets docked within two to seven days experience only minimal discomfort.

Animal rights group PETA calls cosmetic tail docking a cruel and “outrageous” practice.

Current Practices

In some countries (including the United States), tail docking is still being performed.

Hearteningly, a number of countries (including Britain) and organizations have banned the procedure for routine, preventive or cosmetic purposes. Most changes to this practice do not allow for tail docking based on the expected future work of the puppy. Britain does allow an exception for some categories of working dogs to have their tails docked within the first five days of life if certain requirements are met.

Many people have looked to the AKC for its stance on tail docking (and ear cropping). The kennel club’s position remains that docking is an acceptable practice for defining and preserving breed character or enhancing good health. I can’t say that I agree chopping off my dog’s tail would do much for her character, and I would have a hard time determining whether she was happy about it.

Most working and herding dogs have been repurposed over the past few centuries, and are now seen more often as show dogs or companion animals. While I understand the hygienic concerns about the tails of long-haired dogs, this is where grooming should take importance instead of cutting off all or a part of a dog’s tail.

I could never consider cutting my own dog’s tail unless it was an absolute medical necessity.

Additional Resources

Photos: tobyotter (top), Helena Jacoba/Flickr

Kristine Lacoste

View posts by Kristine Lacoste
Kristine Lacoste, editor in chief of Petful, has been researching dog and cat breeds for nearly a decade and has observed the animals up close at dog shows in both the United States and the United Kingdom. She is the author of the book One Unforgettable Journey, which was nominated for a Maxwell Award from the Dog Writers Association of America, and was host of a weekly pet news segment on the National K-9 Academy Radio Show. In addition, she was the New Orleans coordinator for Dogs on Deployment, a nonprofit that helps military members and their pets, for 3 years. Kristine has researched and written about pet behaviors and care for many years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, another bachelor’s degree in English and a Master of Business Administration degree.

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