On November 26, 2008, the American Veterinarian Medical Association (AVMA) took the following official position on ear cropping and tail docking of dogs:
"The AVMA opposes ear cropping and tail docking of dogs when done solely for cosmetic purposes. The AVMA encourages the elimination of ear cropping and tail docking from breed standards."
The AKC (American Kennel Club) disagrees:
"We recognize ear cropping and tail docking, as prescribed in certain breed standards, are acceptable practices integral to defining and preserving breed character, enhancing good health, and preventing injuries," according to the AKC.
"These breed characteristics are procedures performed to insure the safety of dogs that on a daily basis perform heroic roles with Homeland Security, serve in the U.S. Military and at police departments protecting tens of thousands of communities throughout our nation as well as competing in the field. 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."
The practice of tail docking and ear cropping has come under much closer scrutiny in the U.S. recently. We’re late to the game, as these procedures have been restricted or banned entirely in many European countries for years.
Opponents question the necessity for these cosmetic alterations and voice concern for the pain and suffering of the puppies and dogs that undergo the procedures.
In response to the public’s concern -- and coupled with the fact that docking and cropping for cosmetic reasons is neither medically advisable nor beneficial to dogs -- the AVMA formally denounced the practice in 2008.
As you can see from the AKC statement above, breeder groups continue to stand firmly behind the practice.
How Tail Docking is Performed
Tail docking is the intentional removal of a portion of a dog’s tail.
The tail is docked in one of two ways. One method involves putting a rubber band-type ligature around the base, which cuts off the blood supply and causes the tail to fall off in a matter of days. This is the method used by many breeders.
The other method is amputation with either surgical scissors or a scalpel.
Tail docking is generally done on two- to 10-day-old puppies, without anesthesia. The cut goes through skin, cartilage, nerve endings and bone. Proponents believe very young puppies do not feel pain during docking. They believe canines are less developed than other animals at birth, with less sensitive nervous systems.
Opponents of tail docking, including the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA), disagree. They maintain puppies, just like human babies, have a fully developed nervous system and do indeed feel pain. They point to biological markers, which show pain is occurring during and after a procedure such as tail docking.
The rubber ligature method, in which the blood supply to the tail is cut off by strangulation, very likely also causes considerable pain to the puppy.
Envision wrapping a rubber band tightly around your toe and leaving it there until you’ve lost all blood flow and sensation. It’s not hard to imagine the extreme discomfort you would feel.
Ear cropping is typically done when a puppy is eight to 10 weeks old.
The procedure is performed under general anesthesia. A dog’s ears have lots of nerve endings, and the pain this surgery would cause without anesthesia is extreme.
Cropping involves the surgical removal of around two-thirds of the ear. The remaining tissue is then tightly taped into an upright position. Pain medication is not routinely given after a cropping procedure.
Over the next several weeks or even months, the altered ears will be taped and re-taped in an effort to get them to stand up straight. This process may or may not yield the intended result. Many cropped puppies, even after weeks or months of taping, still have floppy ears.
Cropping can also disfigure the ears, leaving them scarred or bent.
What is the Purpose of These Procedures?
Historically, tail docking and ear cropping were done for a wide range of often questionable purposes, including to:
- Increase a dog’s speed
- Strengthen their back
- Prevent rabies
- Avoid injury while animals were engaged in once acceptable practices like dog fights
- Avoid an ancient tax once levied in the U.K. against owners of working dogs with undocked tails
- Give guard dogs a more ferocious look (via ear cropping)
Today, arguments in favor of tail docking generally fall into two categories:
- To prevent injury and infection in hunting, herding and other working dogs
- To maintain kennel club breed standards
Breeders and many owners of working dogs believe docking reduces the risk of tail injuries caused from hunting and herding activities carried out in fields, wooded areas and heavy vegetation. Injuries cited include collecting burrs and foxtails, which if ignored can turn painful and cause infection.
One obvious problem with this reasoning is that working breeds without docked tails, among them retrievers, setters and foxhounds, seem to do just fine with their tails intact.
Another problem with this argument is that whether or not a dog will be used to hunt or herd has no bearing on whether it will lose its tail. The vast majority of docking is done dependant on a puppy’s breed alone -- not on its future as a working dog, show dog or the family pet.
The injury argument also turns how spaniels are handled into a complete contradiction. The tails of spaniels are docked, but not their ears, which are long, heavily coated, and prone to frequent, severe infections. Their ears would seem to pose more of a hazard outdoors than their tails, wouldn’t they?
The only argument (other than appearance) for tail docking in non-working breeds seems to be that dogs that enthusiastically wag their tails a lot are apt to injure them, even at home. If this is a real concern, it’s news to me.
Proponents also cite hygiene problems in long-haired breeds as a reason for tail docking.
The argument for ear cropping, beyond making certain dogs appear menacing, is a reduction in ear infections due to increased air flow to the ear canal. There is virtually no scientific evidence to back up this claim.
The Breed Standard Debate
Docking and cropping proponents make the point that most breed standards do not allow for uncropped or undocked animals.
The AKC, while it has no rules specifically requiring docking, is not likely to score an undocked show dog highly for conformation. Breed standards for docked animals establish severe penalties for undocked dogs.
Dog owners who want to show their animals can feel pressured into docking and cropping in order to compete in the ring.
Is Tail Docking and Ear Cropping Harmful?
Just as there is a use and purpose for every organ and appendage you were born with, so it is with your dog.
If tails weren’t important to dogs, they would have been born without them.
Your dog uses his tail for balance. He uses it to communicate – with you and with other dogs. Your dog can convey fear, aggression, playfulness, curiosity and tension with the movement and position of his tail.
Certain breeds also use their tails to good advantage when they swim, run and engage in other energetic activities. A docked dog that is active might be at a disadvantage compared to his playmates with intact tails.
All docking and cropping methods cause suffering for the animal, and many dogs go on to experience the phantom pain of a missing appendage much like human amputees do. There is also a risk of formation of painful neuroma (nerve tissue scarring) in the stump of a docked tail.
Finally, the AVMA has this to say:
"Ear cropping and tail docking in dogs for cosmetic reasons are not medically indicated nor of benefit to the patient. These procedures cause pain and distress, and, as with all surgical procedures, are accompanied by inherent risks of anesthesia, blood loss and infection.
Therefore, veterinarians should counsel dog owners about these matters before agreeing to perform these surgeries."
I‘m not in favor of tail docking or ear cropping for cosmetic or prophylactic (preventative) reasons.
My personal and professional opinion is that the ideal standards for the appearance and function of your canine companions is quite evident at their birth. Their ears and tails were created exactly the way they were meant to be.