Tail Docking (or is it really mutilation?)

‘Cosmetic tail-docking is banned throughout Australia and in numerous parts of Europe. In North America, things look a bit different. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) oppose these procedures, with the AVMA stating that these procedures “are not medically indicated nor of benefit to the patient,” and “these procedures cause pain and distress, and, as with all surgical procedures, are accompanied by inherent risks of anesthesia, blood loss, and infection.”

-Julie Hecht, Scientific American, 2016

‘Docking’ is a nice way of saying ‘mutilating.’ When you cut off a dog’s tail, one of their primary means of communicating, you are mutilating them, plain and simple. The primary reason for doing this is because a fashionista in 1891 said that it was ‘pleasing to the eye.’

Tail docking and ear cropping cause unnecessary pain, suffering and/or injury to a dog when the procedures are not medically necessary to treat injury or disease.

Recent studies (Mellor, 2018) demonstrate that dogs who have had their tails docked display signs of chronic pain and heightened pain sensitivity. The tail and ears also play a significant role in communication for canines, both with other dogs and to humans. Docked tails have been shown to result in more frequent aggressive encounters with other dogs. Tail and ear activity are closely linked with other dog behaviors and allow dogs to signal both negative and positive emotions, moods and intentions.

In Canada, Ontario is the only province that does not ban tail docking. Considered mutilation, it carries a $5000 fine if it is discovered. Ontario is leaning towards implementing this ban soon, as well.

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), the regulatory body for veterinary surgeons in the United Kingdom, has stated they consider tail docking to be “an unjustified mutilation and unethical unless done for therapeutic or acceptable prophylactic reasons.”[18] In 1995, a veterinary surgeon was brought before the RCVS disciplinary council for “disgraceful professional conduct” for carrying out cosmetic docking. The surgeon claimed that the docking was performed to prevent future injuries, and the case was dismissed for lack of evidence otherwise. Although cosmetic docking is still considered unacceptable by the RCVS, no further disciplinary action has been taken against vets performing docking.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 makes the docking of dogs’ tails a criminal offence, except for working dogs such as those used by the police force, the military, rescue services, pest control, and those used in connection with lawful animal shooting. Three options were presented to Parliament in March 2006 with Parliament opting for the second:

  • An outright ban on docking dogs’ tails (opposed by a majority of 278 to 267)
  • A ban on docking dogs’ tails with an exception for working dogs (supported by a majority of 476 to 63)
  • Retention of the status quo.

Those convicted of unlawful docking are liable to a fine of up to £20,000, up to 51 weeks of imprisonment, or both.

But what about America?

We called seven veterinarians in our area to ask about docking tails and removing dewclaws. All declined to perform this procedure, stating that it is unnecessary and cruel. One admitted that they will do it, but went on to state that they didn’t have time to schedule the procedure. Many breeders perform this procedure themselves, and we certainly could have done so, it’s not difficult except when it goes wrong and causes additional mutilation, which does happen. We chose not to do this.

From the American Veterinary Medical Association

The history of veterinary opposition to cosmetic tail docking is long. One example from the United States being characterization of cosmetic tail docking as “indefensible” in The Dog by Youatt & Lewis (1854).8  Most veterinarians tend not to support routine, cosmetic tail docking as part of a breed standard,9,10,11  however, there is a lack of data relating specifically to the attitudes of veterinarians in the United States and there are dissenting opinions (just as some breeders have opposed docking in breeds where this is traditional, see12).    The AVMA first suggested breed clubs remove cosmetic alterations from breed standards in 1976, although the presence and phrasing of this recommendation within the Association’s policy has varied over the years. Opposition to tail docking is also the stated policy of other veterinary associations (e.g., Canada,13 Australia,14 and the United Kingdom15).

Q:  Why did we start docking dogs’ tails?

A:  Tail docking of dogs is believed to have arisen for three reasons at different points in history. In ancient times Romans believed that amputation of the tail tip and/or parts of the dog’s tongue could prevent a dog from contracting rabies.1.2  Because the tail was believed to help a dog in the chase, dogs were historically docked if they were owned by a poor person not permitted to hunt game.2 (Ironically, it is sometimes argued that docking increases a dog’s strength or speed.3) There is a continuing tradition of docking working dogs’ tails with the goal of preventing tail injury during activities such as hunting (see related question below). Early references, however, tended to suggest docking only in cases where the tail was overly long for the size of the animal and, therefore, might be prone to injury.4

Q:  When did tail docking for cosmetic purposes begin? A:  Tail docking seems to have emerged for a variety of reasons, but for some breeds it was proposed primarily to improve appearance. Books from different periods openly refer to docking of some breeds to create a pleasing appearance (e.g. The American Book of the Dog, 1891, p. 619, 6695; also6). The most consistent anecdotal argument for preventive docking relates to hunting with pointers; even in this case, however, the purpose of increasing ‘beauty’ is mentioned.  Rules for pedigree dog shows in the United States established during the mid-1950s formalized the docking tradition within some breed fancies regardless of the origin of the practice. 

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