The Cruelty of Tail Docking Dogs

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Picture the following breeds: the springer spaniel, the German short haired pointer, and the Rottweiler. Was the tail a part of your image? Dogs belonging to these, and many other breeds worldwide, are subjected to painful tail docking procedures just a few days after birth, often leading to lifelong physical and psychological damages. The practice of tail docking has gone on for so many centuries that many docking supporters incorrectly claim it’s pain-free, normal, and even beneficial to the dog. We now know this to be false, so why is it still happening?

Scotland, which had originally elected to ban tail docking in a groundbreaking 2007 decision, has recently voted to reintroduce the practice. The new ruling includes a paltry stipulation in an attempt to mollify the many opposed: now puppies in Scotland can legally have their tails docked only if they will be used as working dogs later in their lives. Legislators have ignored the argument that it is unreasonable to predict whether or not a puppy will eventually become a working dog when they are only a few days old. Lawmakers seem equally unfazed that not a single animal protection or veterinary organization has voiced support for either the practice of tail docking or the new legislation. The British Veterinary Association is “appalled.”

Some have postulated that Scotland’s decision to reintroduce tail docking leaves puppies as collateral damage in the wake of a fractured political system. The issue falls under the jurisdiction of the Environment, Climate Change, and Land Reform Committee. The seven out of ten committee members who favored the decision, all of whom are members of either the Scottish National or Conservative Party, defended their vote by citing Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham. Cunningham, herself a member of the Scottish National Party, claims that she has seen evidence that tail docking protects dogs from injury. Whether or not she is sincere in these assertions, the fact remains that this legislation was passed in the face of vehement opposition from animal groups, veterinary organizations, and other animal experts.

Tail docking for dogs is banned, or at least seriously restricted, in eleven countries of the European Union, in addition to Australia, Iceland, Israel, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, and the Virgin Islands. Tail docking is legally defined as mutilation, “interference with sensitive tissues or bone structures of an animal.” The procedure is performed on puppies between two and five days old. It is carried out using scissors, nail clippers, or even a tightly wound rubber band that cuts off blood flow to the tail until it falls off. While most countries require docking to be done by a veterinarian, these laws are rarely enforced and unlicensed, untrained individuals perform the procedure without supervision. Anesthesia is not used.

A common argument made in favor of docking is that the puppies are too young to remember the pain. Many docking supporters believe that the young nervous systems are not sufficiently developed to understand what is happening. In fact, experts say that very young animals tend to actually feel pain more acutely than adults. Recklessly damaging nerves, as is done with tail docking, can result in later complications such as neuromas. Neuromas are swollen and often chronic bundles of regenerating nerve fibers that cause the individual to experience pain more drastically than is normal. There is also a link between neuromas and long term behavioral problems due to the heightened perceptions of pain. Docking has been shown to lead to atrophy of the pelvic muscles, causing fecal and urinary incontinence and perineal hernias.

The crucial process of puppy socialization is disrupted by the intense pain inflicted by tail docking during an important period in the maturation process. Puppies are unable to build the necessary relationships with their litter-mates and mothers. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior explains that “incomplete or improper socialization during this important time can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression.” The trauma from having their tails docked then puts them at a disadvantage when the time comes to socialize with humans and may prevent bonding with their future owner.

The practice is not new. It was first used by the Romans, who believed that removing the tip of the tail and tongue would prevent rabies. Later, it served as a means to hinder the dogs of belonging to people banned from hunting by stripping them of an essential tool — the tail.  Eventually docking was used to prevent injury, but only then if the tail was disproportionately long. Today, the reasons are almost entirely cosmetic.

Proponents of docking argue inaccurately that it protects the dogs from injuries later in life. But, tail injuries occur only in 0.23% of dogs. For an estimated 500 dogs whose tails are docked, only one has been preemptively spared from later injury. Veterinarians assert that almost all tail injuries in dogs can be remedied with basic first aid. If amputation is required after an injury or illness, the relatively simple procedure can be performed in a vet’s office on an adult dog, with anesthesia. In essence, tail docking prevents the extremely slim chance of injury by forcing dogs to undergo a much more dramatic tail injury. We wouldn’t amputate human limbs just to avoid the possibility of later injury, so why are we subjecting dogs to the same logic?

For many breeds, the American Kennel Club breed standards require surgical alterations of the dogs’ natural form, whether it is tail docking, ear cropping, or both. How is this anything but completely contradictory to the AKC’s obsession with purity? Tail docking is condemned by veterinarians as unnecessary cosmetic surgery. Humans may elect to have cosmetic surgery, however, the American Veterinary Medicine Association explains: “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 the 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.”

For those who wish to maintain the aesthetic or function of a docked tail, there is an alternative. The natural bobtail (NBT) is an autosomal dominant gene in dogs resulting in the appearance of a docked tail. Dogs who have the gene include the Australian shepherd, Jack Russell terrier, Pembroke Welsh corgi, and Savoy sheepdog. Dr. Bruce Cattanach, a British geneticist and boxer breeder, responded to concerns over docking by crossing a boxer with a corgi to achieve the NBT gene. By the fourth generation of NBT boxers, his dogs were accepted into the Kennel Club in England as purebred. However, it is worth remembering that dogs, like humans, deserve to be loved no matter how they look, and that breeding dogs takes away from the millions of existing dogs that already needs homes. Furthermore, as with human children, the best pet parents are the ones who will love their dog regardless of conventional “breed standards” or “beauty norms.”

All arguments in favor of tail docking have been refuted by reputable veterinary and animal protection organizations. There is even a way to introduce the natural bobtail gene into dogs. So why are some people still stubbornly in favor of this barbaric procedure?  It is a practice rooted in ignorance, defended by faulty explanations from ancient eras (rabies prevention) to today (evading tail injuries).

While Scotland has taken animal care standards a significant step backwards, more and more countries are leading the way by placing comprehensive bans on an archaic practice.  Meanwhile, there is plenty we can do to keep fighting this horrific practice. The biggest advantage we have against tail docking is the scientific evidence that it is cruel and unnecessary.  Many proponents simply refuse to accept the facts, but that isn’t any reason to give up on them. Share the science with your family, friends, co-workers, and social media. Contact your local legislators. Don’t support veterinarians or breeders who perform tail docking procedures.  Celebrate your dog’s tail and most importantly, love him or her just the way they are!

*For All Animals is against the intentional breeding of dogs for profit or sale.

Kim Herbert

Cornell University: College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Candidate for Bachelor Science Degree in Animal Science, May 2018. Guardian to Phoebe, a Brittany Pointer, and Chester and Harley, two tuxedo cats.  

“I am so excited to be interning at For All Animals because I want to become a more effective advocate for animals and help others to do the same!”