Tail Docking: Painful and Cruel
Have you ever hurt your pet by accident?
In my first job, I accidentally shut my own cat’s tail in a heavy fire door.
Skate was a dockyard rescue cat and obsessed with food. He heard me in the kitchen and walked in as the door was closing.
The end result?
A tail with a right-angle bend.
Poor Skate. Some sedation and a brief procedure later, and his tail was back to its former flagpole glory.
No permanent harm done, thank goodness.
But not all cats are so lucky.
Tail Pull Injuries — When Tail Amputation Becomes Necessary
A while back, I saw a spike in tail pull injuries in cats.
This type of injury can happen when a tail gets trapped and the cat struggles to get free.
Unfortunately, the number of cases indicated a far more sinister cause, that of deliberate harm done by some malicious idiot grabbing hold of cats by their tails.
The severity of the injuries varied.
The tail is an extension of the backbone made up of ever-smaller bones held together by ligaments and small muscles. It requires a nerve supply to move the tail, and traction on a tail can shear the fine nerves, resulting in a “dead” tail.
The “fortunate” cats had dead tails that dragged along the ground.
Of course, not knowing where your tail is makes it a liability, and when the nerve sensation hadn’t returned after a couple of weeks, these poor kitties had to have their tails amputated.
But worse still were those cats with severe nerve damage affecting the supply to the bladder and/or bowel.
One particularly heartbreaking case, despite weeks of nursing, was not able to poo or pee for himself, and with great sadness we eventually had to let him go.
All of which is a comment on the inhumanity of some humans.
No one was ever caught or brought to justice for this rash of crimes. One day these awful cases stopped as suddenly as they had started. One can only wonder why.
Tail Wag Injuries
Dogs are a different story.
The most common tail problem I see are wag injuries (sometimes called happy tail).
This is where an exuberantly happy Labrador Retriever repeatedly thumps his tail against a brick wall and scrapes away the fur and top layer of skin.
Heaven knows why Labradors don’t feel the pain and stop, but they continue to wag, which results in the colorful redecoration in red of the room they are wagging in.
Wag injuries are tricky to treat.
There’s something about tail tips that makes them bleed and bleed and bleed.
Whether you bandage the tail tip or make a fancy protective cover with a syringe case, the extra weight merely adds momentum to the problem.
In addition to protecting the tail, people have carpeted the walls of brick passageways to cushion the thumping of the tail in a confined space.
The worst case I ever saw was a Great Dane with a long whip of a tail.
His self-inflicted injuries were so severe that partial amputation was in the cards, but his dedicated caretakers covered most of the house walls with down comforters up to tail level to save their big boy’s tail.
Tail Docking: Cruel and Painful
Tail amputation, when necessary, is one thing.
Docking tails at birth of certain breeds — well, that is all the more bizarre. And cruel.
In the United Kingdom, docking is now an illegal procedure unless the dog has a special occupation, such as the puppy is bred specifically to work rather than be a pet.1 (How to tell which newborn puppy has the potential to be a good worker is beyond me.)
This Papillon can’t seem to get enough of the yellow Lab’s wagging tail:
I’ve had people come in with their new (docked) puppy, proudly clutching a certificate of dispensation supplied by breeders abusing the system.
It makes my blood boil.
Would these people think it was OK to cut off their newborn baby’s little finger (without anesthetic) for the sake of fashion?
I think not.
What Is Tail Docking?
Tail docking is the amputation of all or a portion of the tail, most commonly seen in dogs.
Methods vary depending on the person performing the procedure.
- Surgical removal is one method.
- Other puppies are docked by placing a band on the tail within a few days of birth. This banding restricts the blood flow, and the remaining portion of the tail will fall off in a few days from the lack of blood flow.
Doberman Pinscher breeder Judy Pritchard says, “Banded tails do not heal and cover as quickly as docking, but it’s just so much easier on both puppy and breeder.”2
Why Tail Docking Started
In 18th century England, a tax was implemented on working dogs with a tail.3
Many people docked their dogs’ tails to avoid this tax, and one shudders 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.
Wondering about cats?
The tails or stumps of Manx cats, for one, used to be commonly removed4 to conform with the rest of the litter, who are usually born without the appendage.
But Don’t You Have to Prevent Injury?
If you’re thinking, “But wait a minute — it sounds reasonable to dock tails to prevent injury,” think about this: Hand on heart, I have never in 28 years seen a dog injure a tail while working.
Really, the No. 1 problem has been Labradors and their wag injuries.
But do we routinely dock Labs at birth? No.
Would we consider doing this? No.
Why? Because a Lab wagging her tail is a joyous thing.
So why mutilate other breeds at birth?
Is Tail Docking Painful?
The apparent amount of pain inflicted depends on whom you ask:
- The World Small Animal Veterinary Association has asserted that “there are biological markers that show pain is occurring” in puppies.
- Australia’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has written that “puppies have similar, if not increased, sensitivity to pain as adult dogs. Docking a puppy’s tail involves cutting through muscles, tendons, up to seven pairs of highly sensitive nerves and severing bone and cartilage connections.… Puppies give repeated intense shrieking vocalisations the moment the tail is cut off and during stitching of the wound, indicating that they experience substantial pain.”5
- 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 4 days old causes no “serious pain.”6
- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) calls cosmetic tail docking a “cruel,” “outrageous” and “disfiguring” practice.7
Many people have looked to the American Kennel Club (AKC) for its stance on tail docking (and ear cropping, which we’ll get to below). The kennel club’s position remains that docking is an acceptable practice for defining and preserving breed character or enhancing good health.8
The AKC further states that:
“Mislabeling these procedures as ‘cosmetic’ is a severe mischaracterization that connotes a lack of respect and knowledge of history and the function of purebred dogs.”
And the kennel club’s position statement adds, “Appropriate veterinary care should be provided.”
Ear Cropping: Painful and Cruel
Every time I think a controversial topic for veterinarians is truly on the downturn, what happens? A client makes a controversial request.
“Will you crop my pit bull’s ears?”
Oh boy. Here we go again.
“No, we don’t crop ears — any ears.”
“Do you know who will?”
Happily, I don’t.
The great news is that a majority of vets in America do not crop ears anymore. As Dr. Mike Paul, DVM, has written, “Many veterinarians, including myself, have long opposed cosmetic ear cropping in dogs and increasingly oppose tail docking as well. For a number of years, the procedure has not been part of the veterinary education.…”9
The bad news is that cropping the ears of certain breeds is still highly popular in the United States — and, like tail docking, the AKC supports ear cropping, too.
History of Ear Cropping and Reasoning
I took a quick, nonscientific poll of veterinarians across the country.
Here’s what I got:
- Does ear cropping in pet dogs benefit the dog in any way? No. (A minority tried to make a case for hunting dogs.)
- Do you crop ears? No. (98%)
- Why is it still done? People like the look of cropped ears in certain breeds. The AKC supports ear cropping in 20 breeds.8
- Where did ear cropping originate? Unknown, but it may date to ancient Turkey.
- Why did they crop ears back then? To prevent ear injuries during wolf attacks, dog fighting and fly strike of injured ears during hot months.
- Does this apply today? No.
Pain and Suffering
Although there are veterinarians out there who still crop ears and dock tails — procedures all supported by the AKC — the tide is turning against these procedures.
Most veterinarians I polled hope we can follow Europe and ban ear cropping.
There is a huge disconnect between the general feeling of veterinarians who are asked to perform these procedures and the AKC’s official position. The United States and the AKC are so behind the curve on this issue.
In Europe, ear cropping is prohibited in all countries that have ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals.
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons considers docking of dogs’ tails to be an unjustified mutilation and unethical, and in 1998 the practice was banned.3
The AKC’s View on Ear Cropping
The world generally calls procedures like ear cropping, tail docking, dewclaw removal and debarking “convenience” surgeries — meaning they are convenient for the human or they fulfill an aesthetic appearance for the human.
The general veterinary consensus is that all these procedures carry a certain degree of pain and suffering for the animal.
The AKC disagrees with this opinion.
It wants to “dispel the myths” about any pain, suffering or convenience, supporting all these procedures. It does not consider them surgeries of convenience:10
- AKC: “Tail docking and dewclaw removal are performed shortly after birth, when the puppy’s nervous system is not fully developed … the puppy feels little to no pain.…”
- What I know: They scream. They cry. There is medical evidence to suggest lasting neurologic and psychological damage can occur.
- AKC: “Many believe these procedures are painful, performed purely for convenience or cosmetic reasons. This is completely false.… Each of these procedures is a safe, humane standard practice … and in the case of ear cropping preserves a dog’s ability to perform its historic function.”
- What I know: Nothing could be farther from the veterinarian’s perspective.
In fact, here’s what puppies go through when their ears have been cropped:
- Metal rods are attached to large amounts of tape and tampons are stuck in puppy ears to make sure the ears will “stand.”
- Puppies want to be puppies, but instead they are coming to the vet for bandage changes and having ears taped up for most of their puppyhood, inhibiting playful behavior and joy of living.
- Adhesive tape is stuck to open wounds on the edges of the ears. Removing the tape from the open wounds can be difficult. Puppies can whimper and scream.
- Incisional infections, non-healing wounds and fishing line are used to suture the ears.
These pups lose weeks of happy puppy life because they have gone through a cosmetic surgery of having their ears cut off.
And the final insult?
Sometimes people are “unhappy” with how the ears look. They would like the ears “redone.”
On the Street
I walked the streets of New York this week searching for people walking dogs with cropped ears.
“Wow, what a nice dog,” would say. “Did you have his ears done?”
“No,” was the almost universal answer. “He came that way.”
So who did the surgery?
This is another problem with ear crops, tail docks and dewclaw removal. If your local ethical veterinarian is not performing these procedures anymore, who’s doing these surgeries?
The College of Veterinarians of British Columbia has also banned ear cropping:
The AKC and breeders are at huge fault when it comes to continuing ear cropping.
The American public is at fault as well.
Anyone who buys a dog with cropped ears or a docked tail is guilty of perpetuating an artificial idea of how the breed is “supposed to look.”
All breeds were born with their ears and tails and dewclaws. It’s up to veterinarians and dog lovers to change America’s views on how a certain breed should look.
I don’t think the veterinary community or the American Medical Veterinary Association11 have done enough yet.
If you support the banning of these procedures, it looks like the AKC is actually your biggest enemy.
- “Tail Docking.” The Kennel Club. May 2018. https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/our-resources/media-centre/issue-statements/tail-docking/.
- Quoted in “Tail Banding.” Doberman Pinscher Club of America. https://dpca.org/BreedEd/tail-banding/.
- Sinmez, Cagri Caglar, et al. “Tail Docking and Ear Cropping in Dogs: A Short Review of Laws and Welfare Aspects in Europe and Turkey. Italian Journal of Animal Science, 16:3, 431–37. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1828051X.2017.1291284.
- Barton, Frank Townend. The Cat: Its Points: and Management in Health and Disease. Everett. 1908. 31. https://books.google.com/books?id=2yBIAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=snippet&q=manx%20short%20tail%20peculiar&f=false.
- “Why Is the RSPCA Opposed to the Tail Docking of Dogs?” RSPCA. Aug. 23, 2014. Archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20180414145556/http://kb.rspca.org.au/Why-is-the-RSPCA-opposed-to-the-tail-docking-of-dogs_135.html.
- “Do Puppies Feel Pain?” Council of Docked Breeds. https://www.cdb.org/puppy_pain.htm.
- “Ear-Cropping and Tail-Docking.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. https://www.peta.org/issues/animal-companion-issues/cruel-practices/ear-cropping-tail-docking/.
- AKC Communications. “AKC Statement on AVMA Crop and Dock Policy.” American Kennel Club. Nov. 26, 2008. https://www.akc.org/press-releases/akc-statement-on-avma-crop-and-dock-policy/.
- Paul, Mike, DVM. “Are Ear-Cropping and Tail-Docking Ethical? One Vet Weighs In.” Pet Health Network. Sept. 16, 2015. http://www.pethealthnetwork.com/news-blogs/a-vets-life/are-ear-cropping-and-tail-docking-ethical-one-vet-weighs.
- AKC Staff. “Issue Analysis: Dispelling the Myths of Cropped Ears, Docked Tails, Dewclaws, and Debarking.” American Kennel Club. May 22, 2013. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/news/issue-analysis-dispelling-myths/.
- “History of Policy on Ear Cropping and Tail Docking of Dogs.” American Veterinary Medical Association. https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Reference/AnimalWelfare/Documents/tail_docking_history.pdf.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and contributing authors were Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, and Petful editor in chief Kristine Lacoste. This article was last reviewed for accuracy and updated Aug. 15, 2018.