What are the animal welfare issues with docking dogs’ tails?


Tail docking is the term given to the surgical removal of puppies’ tails for cosmetic purposes. The procedure was usually performed at 2-5 days of age; the tail is cut off using a pair of scissors or caused to drop off by occluding the blood supply using a tight rubber band. There are over 70 breeds of dog that traditionally have had their tails cut off a few days after birth. The reason some breeds and not others are docked is simply because of the fashion set for that particular breed. Each breed has an arbitrary standard for where the tail should be cut off.

The RSPCA is opposed to the cosmetic tail docking of dogs because the procedure is unnecessary and compromises the welfare of dogs. In 2004, tail docking for non-therapeutic reasons was banned across Australia. Since then it has been illegal to dock dogs’ tails unless there is a veterinary medical reason for the operation. Only qualified veterinarians are permitted to carry out the surgery, whereas before the ban, tail docking could be carried out by anyone classified as an ‘experienced breeder.’ All previously docked breeds can now compete at dog shows with full tails, so there is absolutely no reason for any dog’s tail to be docked unless they were born prior to 2004 or have damaged their tail in some way.

Unfortunately, there are some veterinarians and breeders who still advocate tail docking for cosmetic purposes.

Tail docking is painful

Advocates of tail docking claim that it does not cause pain or discomfort, as the nervous system of puppies is not fully developed. This is not the case; the basic nervous system of a dog is fully developed at birth. Evidence indicates that puppies have similar 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.

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Tail docking can also cause unnecessary and avoidable long term chronic pain and distress to the dog. For example, when a chronic neuroma forms at the amputation site. Neuromas are often very painful.

Tails are major communication tools

The dog’s tail serves a critically important role in canine social behaviour. The tail is a major communication tool between dogs. The tail’s position and movement can indicate friendliness, a desire to play, submission or a warning signal, among many other messages. Thus the tail also serves as a protective mechanism for dogs, part of the various strategies employed by dogs to communicate with one another; establish boundaries and to avert aggressive encounters.

The tail also communicates important messages to humans during human-dog interactions. The action of the tail can help humans to interpret a dog’s body language and to determine what sort of interaction is appropriate for a particular dog. Thus the tail plays an important role in public health and safety.

Removing the tail impairs a dog’s ability to communicate properly, leaving them highly vulnerable to being misunderstood by other dogs and humans and placing them at a distinct social disadvantage. Therefore tails must not be removed for any reason other than for therapeutic purposes.

Pro-docking claims

The few remaining advocates of tail docking give a range of unconvincing explanations to defend their views. For instance, they say that some heavy coated breeds need to have their tails docked for hygiene reasons (even though many undocked breeds have thick coats and regular care is all that is necessary to maintain good hygiene). Another explanation is that docking prevents tail damage in hunting dogs. But most docked puppies are kept as family pets and are never used for hunting and research has shown that docking does not reduce tail injury in the general dog population. Furthermore, many breeds of hunting dogs do not have docked tails, and the length of the tail in docked breeds varies according to the breed standard. The excuses put forward to support tail docking are plainly unfounded. There is simply no excuse for reviving this painful tradition.

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Is it legal in other countries?

Cosmetic tail docking has also been banned in a number of countries including Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, Germany and Denmark. Several other European countries including Cyprus, Greece, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Austria have also ratified a European Convention that prohibits the cosmetic docking of tails. In the United Kingdom tail docking can only be carried out by a registered veterinary surgeon. The practice is opposed by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons which describes it as an ‘unacceptable mutilation’.

Why do some dogs still have docked tails?

You may still see adult dogs with docked tails, as the docking may have been performed before the ban was introduced. But you should never buy a puppy with a docked tail. If you get a dog from a breeder, make sure that they do not dock tails. If you suspect that tail docking is still taking place, please phone your state or territory RSPCA. There are also a few breeds, such as the Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog, or the Australian Shepherd (which is actually an American breed) which carry a genetic mutation that means some individuals are born with short (stumpy) tails.

Other surgical modification of companion animals – ear cropping of dogs

Ear cropping involves the surgical removal of a portion of both of ears and is traditionally performed on specific breeds such as boxers, great danes, doberman pinschers or schnauzers. The practice was common in dogs bred for guarding, fighting, and hunting small animals and the historical reasons for ear cropping are similar to those for tail docking (owners said they wanted to reduce the incidence of ear injuries and make it harder for their dogs to be caught by the ears). Although few dogs are used for such purposes now, some breed fanciers argue that cropped ears are part of the historical breed standard. Others, including RSPCA Australia regard the practice of ear cropping as an unnecessary and detrimental to the welfare of the animals concerned. In many countries including Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, the practice is banned under prevention of cruelty to animals’ legislation.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>