By Dr. Becker
It has been over four years since I last wrote about the cruel practice of tail docking for cosmetic reasons, and sadly, it remains a standard procedure in the U.S. for certain dog breeds.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) January 2013 Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of Tail Docking-Dogs, routine tail docking is considered unacceptable by the majority of veterinarians and general public.1 The procedure is highly restricted or banned in many countries, including across Europe, Australia, Iceland, Israel, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, and the Virgin Islands.
In the U.K., tail docking is illegal except in the case of certain working dogs and breeds, but owners who receive an exemption from the law must be able to supply a certificate completed by the veterinarian who performed the procedure, and the dog must be microchipped. In addition, any dog docked after the 2007 ban cannot be shown at any event where the public pays an entrance fee.
In the U.S., both the AVMA and the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) officially oppose tail docking for cosmetic purposes. However, the American Kennel Club (AKC) remains a staunch advocate, declaring that the practice is "integral to defining and preserving breed character and/or enhancing good health."2 Thankfully, other more progressive organizations, such as the United Kennel Club (UKC), are supportive of including animals in their events that have not been surgically altered.
It's hard to comprehend why tail docking continues as an accepted, routine practice in the U.S. given what is known about the procedure.
Tail Docking Is Painful
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 2 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 disagree. They assert that puppies, just like human babies, have a fully developed nervous system and do indeed feel pain. They point to biological markers that show pain is occurring during and after a procedure such as tail docking. And according to Australia's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA):
"Evidence indicates 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.
Tail docking is usually carried out without any anaesthesia or analgesia (pain relief). 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. Inflammation and damage to the tissues also cause ongoing pain while the wound heals.
There is also the risk of infection or other complications associated with this unnecessary surgery."3
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.
The Tail Is a Primary Canine Communication Tool
Until recently, many of us assumed that a wagging tail was nothing more than an indicator of a happy dog. But recent research suggests that when dogs feel stress, they tend to wag their tails to the left as a reflection of what's happening in the brain.4 Activation of the left-brain causes the tail to wag to the right; activation of the right-brain produces a wag to the left.
The research shows that dogs wag to the right side when they encounter something pleasant. When they see something threatening, for example, a strange dog exhibiting dominant behaviors, they wag more to the left side. These results suggest that dogs notice another dog's tail wagging and use the information to decide whether the dog with the wagging tail is friend or foe.
The researchers concluded that dogs aren't intentionally sending signals with their tails, but rather the tail wagging is a consequence of the inner workings of the canine brain. Tail-wagging behavior results from the way in which different emotional signals activate different parts of a dog's brain.
So now we understand that removing a dog's tail is not only painful, but can also significantly impair his ability to communicate with other dogs, as well as humans.
Discrediting the 'Tail Injury' Argument in Favor of Tail Docking
One of the primary excuses given for "preventative" tail docking is to avoid tail injuries. However, according to the AVMA's Literature Review, tail injuries are rare, ranging from .0021 to .0039 percent in dog populations per year.
Interestingly, one study found that Lurchers, Whippets and Greyhounds had the greatest risk of tail injury – three breeds whose tails are not traditionally docked.5 The same study reported that working dogs (primarily gundogs) were not at significantly greater risk of tail injury than non-working dogs.
According to the AVMA, there is no evidence to suggest that dog breeds whose tails are traditionally docked have a significant risk of tail trauma that would justify cutting off their tails. Further, based on the most current data available, around 500 dogs need to be docked to prevent one tail injury.
The Remaining Argument: Tail Docking Is Necessary to Maintain Breed Standards
Tail docking supporters make the point that most breed standards do not allow for 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 in order to compete in the ring.
In my opinion, the ideal standards for the appearance and function of our canine companions are quite evident at birth. Their tails were created exactly the way they were meant to be – not as excess appendages that need to be lopped off.
And as the AVMA points out, the central question is whether there is sufficient justification for prophylactic (preventative) tail docking:
"Performing a surgical procedure for cosmetic purposes (i.e., for the sake of appearance) implies the procedure is not medically indicated. Because dogs have not been shown to derive self-esteem or pride in appearance from having their tails docked (common reasons for performing cosmetic procedures on people), there is no obvious benefit to our patients in performing this procedure.
The only benefit that appears to be derived from cosmetic tail docking of dogs is the owner's impression of a pleasing appearance. In the opinion of the AVMA, this is insufficient justification for performing a surgical procedure."