This article and my position may upset some people. Tail docking should not be an animal rights issue, it is a medical issue. I encourage everyone to read completely before forming an opinion.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and several well-known veterinarians oppose the practice of tail docking and deem it simply as a cosmetic procedure. Many veterinarians will not even perform the procedure out of principle and potential risk. Several countries around the world have outlawed the practice. I agree that it is a medically unnecessary procedure and the supporting arguments are mostly antiquated and tenuous.
When the AVMA released a strong statement in 2008 stating that tail docking should be eliminated and encouraged the practice to be removed from breed standards, the American Kennel Club (AKC) reacted defensively. I applaud the AVMA for not backing down from its position. While the practice appears to be falling out of favor for some breeds, the battle remains for others. So, I think it is imperative to come to a middle ground; and will provide suggestions later on in this article. Before that, however, I want to explain my rationale and reasoning.
Over 2000 years ago, the Romans thought that tail docking prevented rabies. We know that is untrue. Supposedly, people continued the practice to prevent injury by dogs that were bred for specific purposes to help out with guarding, herding, catching rodents, hunting, etc.
This begs two questions. Are the majority of dogs actually doing what they were bred to do these days or are they mostly house dogs? Secondly, we have been able to transform dogs so much – and not always for the good of the breed, I might add – why have we not been consistently able to breed short tails?
Dogs do need their tails for wafting their scents about, balance, coordination, swimming, communication with us and other dogs, and so much more. Indeed, a study by Leaver and Reimchene demonstrated that:
Dogs responded more positively to long/wagging tail compared to the long/still tail, but did not differentiate between the short/still and short/wagging tail. Our results, thus, provide evidence that the signal communicated by tail motion is most effectively conveyed when the tail is long…The reduced ability to interpret social cues signaled by a short tail’s motion could have behavioural implications for dogs with docked tails. Although there are visual signals in addition to the tail that indicate motivational state, our results are consistent with the hypothesis that docking a dog’s tail may impair intraspecific communication.
Granted, certain breeds like the Australian Shepherd have a bobtail due to a gene mutation called C189G, which was promoted through breeding. It is believed by some that these dogs might be at a psychological disadvantage because they cannot convey signals.
Tail docking is performed one of two ways. Breeders will place a ligature on 2 to 10 day-old puppies to cut off the blood supply so that the tail eventually falls off. The other method is to remove it with surgical scissors or a scalpel without anesthesia. Noonan et al. studied the vocalizations of 50 puppies undergoing the latter procedure. All 50 puppies shrieked. They concluded that the pain was short-lived based on the shrieking, but as we have all experienced, pain can still continue without vocalization.
We also have to consider the risk of infection, excessive bleeding or necrosis. So, to stop infection, we give young puppies immunosuppressing antibiotics. If a mother obsesses about her puppy’s injury, she may lick the wound and cause it to not heal properly.
Chronic health issues may ensue as well. A simple internet search revealed several caregivers experiencing issues that they believe resulted from tail docking. Studies have suggested that docked dogs may have underdeveloped muscles around or in the pelvic musculature or can have a higher incidence of incontinence.
I am really unsure why the AKC is reluctant to encourage breed parent clubs to remove tail docking (ear cropping and dewclaw removal too, for that matter) as standards for certain breeds such as the Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Boxer, Doberman Pinscher, Yorkshire Terrier and Cocker Spaniel. Pointing to potential tail injury is a rather weak argument since dogs are barely used for the purpose they were bred these days.
A study by Diesel et al. surveyed more than 138,212 dogs from 2008-2009. Only 281 dogs (0.2%) of all breeds – even breeds not typically docked – were reported to have tail injuries: 36% were reported to have injuries sustained in the home; 14% were due to a tail being caught in the door; and, only 17% were outdoor-related injuries. Overall, the statistics proved that 500 dogs would need to be docked to prevent one injury. In my opinion, the risk of infection, pain, physical abnormalities and behavioral issues that may ensue from docked tails are insufficient justification for continuing this practice.
My colleague, Dr. Andy Roark, pointed out that we are seeing less docked tails than before. Indeed, several breeders are no longer docking tails by choice and want the AKC’s breed standards to change. That’s great news. The majority of reputable breeders have their litters placed before the puppies are even born. In my opinion, the puppy’s new home caregivers should be involved in making the decision after being informed of both sides of the argument.
Additionally, some breeders have contracts stating that certain dogs cannot be bred and must be spayed or neutered by a certain age. These breeders could also include clauses that the dogs will not be docked (or the ears cropped as well). So, if these pet dogs cannot be a show dog, then there is no reason to meet the current AKC conformation standards.
“Canine Tail Docking FAQ.” American Veterinary Medical Association, n.d. Web. 08 May 2016. https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/FAQs/Pages/Frequently-asked-questions-about-canine-tail-docking.aspx.
Diesel, G., D. Pfeiffer, S. Crispin, and D. Brodbelt. “Risk Factors for Tail Injuries in Dogs in Great Britain.” Veterinary Record 166.26 (2010): 812-17. Web. 8 May 2016. http://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/citmgr?gca=vetrec%3B166%2F26%2F812.
“Ear Cropping/tail Docking.” American Animal Hospital Association, n.d. Web. 08 May 2016. https://www.aaha.org/professional/resources/ear_cropping_tail_docking.aspx.
Leaver, S.D.A., and T.E. Reimchen. “Behavioural Responses of Canis Familiaris to Different Tail Lengths of a Remotely-controlled Life-size Dog Replica.” Behaviour 145.3 (2008): 377-90. University of Victoria. Web. 8 May 2016. http://web.uvic.ca/~reimlab/robodog.pdf.
“Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of Tail Docking-Dogs.” American Veterinary Association (n.d.): n. pag. 29 Jan. 2013. Web. 8 May 2016. https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/LiteratureReviews/Documents/dogs_tail_docking_bgnd.pdf.
Noonan, GJ, JS Rand, JK Blackshaw, and J. Priest. “Behavioural Observations of Puppies Undergoing Tail Docking.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 49 (1996): 335-42. Michigan State University. Web. 8 May 2016. http://expeng.anr.msu.edu/sites/animalwelfare/files/Tail_Docking_2_(Noonan,_et_al._1996).pdf.
Smith, Stephen. “Issue Analysis: Dispelling the Mythos of Cropped Ears, Docked Tails, Dewclaws, and Debarking.” American Kennel Club, 07 Mar. 2011. Web. 8 May 2016. http://www.akc.org/news/issue-analysis-dispelling-myths/.
Soukiasian, Karen A. “Dog Health: Docked Tails.” Dogs Best Life, 13 Feb. 2015. Web. 08 May 2016. http://www.dogsbestlife.com/home-page/dog-health-docked-tails/.