Tail docking is the practice of removing a portion of a dog’s tail, usually within the first 14 days after birth. Years ago, there were several reasons why this was done, but today it’s mainly done for cosmetic purposes.
Tail docking has been banned or restricted in many parts of the world, but in the United States and parts of Canada, it’s still a fairly common practice. The procedure, which is performed without anesthesia because the puppies are so young, can legally be done by a veterinarian in a clinic, or by a dog breeder or dog owner at home.
Rarely, tail docks can be performed on adult dogs (at that point it’s considered a tail amputation), but only by a veterinarian and only under general anesthetic.
How Did Tail Docking Start?
The practice of tail docking began in ancient Rome, where shepherds believed that if you chopped off the end of a puppy’s tail, the tail would not grow and the dog would have a stronger back, more speed, and somehow be protected from developing rabies.
Years later, people docked the tails of dogs that were used for hunting, herding, and guarding to try to prevent injury (since they reasoned the tail was an appendage that could be grabbed or trampled by another animal). Others believed that docking tails could prevent dogs who worked in the underbrush from picking up burrs and foxtails.
However, the most bizarre reason for tail docking was actually related to taxes. In 18th-century England, there was a tax on all dogs except working dogs, who were exempt from taxation. So the way to show that your dog was a “working dog” (and consequently avoid paying extra taxes) was to cut off his tail.
This taxation law was eventually repealed, but tail docking continued – not for practical reasons, but for aesthetic ones. In the 19th century, tail docking (along with ear cropping, which is the removal of part of a dog’s ear to make it stand upright) became associated with the “proper” look of certain breeds. This look became heavily favored by judges in dog shows, a practice that continues today.
It’s interesting to note that one of the primary justifications for tail docking, preventing tail injury, has not been supported by research. A 2010 survey of over 138,000 dogs in Great Britain found the risk of tail injuries to dogs with undocked tails was a mere 0.23 percent. This means that 500 dogs would have to have their tails docked in order to prevent one tail injury.
There are also many breeds of working dogs with long tails that are not traditionally docked, including Foxhounds, English Pointers, Setters, and many breeds of herding dogs.
How Are Tails Docked?
There are 2 common methods currently used for docking tails in puppies.
The first is by using surgical scissors or a scalpel blade to cut off a portion of the tail (which also involves cutting through skin, muscle, cartilage, nerves, and vertebrae). This is typically done between the ages of 2 and 14 days, with no anesthetic or pain control. If the procedure is performed by a veterinarian in a clinic, the end of tail is usually sutured with a single stitch (but not always). If the tail docking is done at home by a breeder or owner (which is legal in the United States), tails are seldom stitched.
The second method involves placing a ligature, or tight band, around the puppy’s tail, preventing the blood from flowing to the end of it. After a few days, the end of the tail dies and falls off, and the ligature is removed.
There is another method I should mention that is used by some breeders and owners who dock tails themselves at home. It involves clamping the tail and then manually twisting the end of the tail until it eventually comes off. And let’s just leave it at that…I have no words.
All these procedures would cause extreme pain in adult animals. So this begs the obvious question – do puppies feel pain during the tail docking procedure? For years, the belief has been that puppies this young are too immature to feel pain. However, a 1996 study1 analyzed the behavior of 50 puppies during tail docking procedures at the University of Queensland Companion Animal Veterinary Hospital. The study found that all 50 puppies emitted distressed sounds during the procedure (which the authors describe as “shrieking”), then whimpered for a time period of 2 – 15 minutes afterwards. The study concluded that puppies this age are indeed capable of feeling acute pain.
Other researchers and scientists believe that young animals may experience even more pain than adults because the spinal cord extends further down the vertebral column in young animals than it does in adults.
Having witnessed several tail docking procedures while I was in veterinary practice, I can tell you firsthand that, with all due respect, the belief that puppies “don’t feel it” is utter hogwash. Every single puppy I observed, who was initially quiet or sleeping in the hands of the veterinarian, squealed, cried, and squirmed as hard as he could to get away once his tail was cut. (If you are so inclined, there are plenty of videos on YouTube, such as this one, where you can see a tail docking procedure for yourself and draw your own conclusions as to whether you believe the puppies involved are experiencing pain.)
Researchers are also studying whether traumatic pain might have long-term consequences. Studies on rats have examined the impact of neonatal nerve injury on pain sensitivity later in life, an area that is still being explored.
1 Study by GJ Noonan, JS Rand, JK Blackshaw, and J Priest.
Potential Complications From Tail Docking
The tail docking procedure can have several unintended negative consequences:
Neuromas are painful, swollen bundles of nerve fibers that attempt to regrow at the amputation site. These growths can cause severe pain, which causes dogs to lick and chew at the site, resulting in mutilation and infection.
Neuromas need to be surgically removed, but may recur if all the nerve tissue is not completely removed the first time.
Since dogs use their tails to counterbalance their weight on land and while swimming, removing part of the tail can affect the dog’s locomotion. Veterinarian Robert Wansborough, a strong opponent of tail docking, published a paper in the Australian Veterinary Journal in 1996 stating that tail docking can not only impair dogs’ movement, but could also contribute to both urinary and fecal incontinence.
Physical Stress of the Procedure
Neonatal puppies are fragile and tiny, with immune systems that are not fully developed. They are susceptible to a host of medical issues (including infections) if they are injured. Exposing them to an unnecessary physical trauma like cutting off most of their tail seems particularly ill-advised.
Some puppies have become so stressed during the procedure, they died from shock and/or blood loss.
Negative Impact on Communication With Other Dogs
Dogs communicate with each other by using their tails. Tail docking has a profound effect on a dog’s ability to communicate his intentions to other dogs. As you might imagine, this can cause stress and behavioral changes in a dog whose social cues are consequently consistently misunderstood.
One well-known study used 2 robotic dogs (one with a long tail, one with a short tail) to examine the behavior of dogs in a dog park. The study showed dogs were more likely to approach the robotic dog with a long, moving tail – which in dog language means an invitation to play and that the dog means no harm. It suggested it may be easier for dogs to read the signals from a dog’s tail when it’s long rather than when it’s short.
Also, research suggests that when dogs are stressed or fearful, they wag their tails to the left. When they encounter something pleasant and are relaxed, they wag their tails to the right. Other dogs read these cues and decide whether the dog with the wagging tail is a friend or foe.
Fortunately, routine tail docking is now falling out of favor with the majority of veterinarians and the general public. Many people are foregoing the docked tail and cropped ear look for natural long tails and floppy ears (which personally I think are more attractive anyway).
Tail docking is considered mutilation in many countries, and has been banned across Europe and in Australia, South Africa, Norway, Iceland, Israel, Brazil, and the Virgin Islands. It’s also restricted in many other countries, although currently it’s still legal in the United States.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), opposes tail docking, and states:
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.
In the U.S., the American Kennel club (AKC) continues to encourage tail docking by claiming the procedure is “integral to defining and preserving breed character and/or enhancing good health.” Although the AKC has no rules specifically requiring docking, the message is clear: an undocked show dog is not likely to score highly for conformation since several breed standards recommend that an undocked tail be “severely penalized.” Dog owners who want to show their dogs often feel tremendous pressure to have their dog’s tails docked in order to compete.
However, if you have an undocked dog that you are interested in showing, you might consider becoming involved with the United Kennel Club (UKC), an organization that actively supports the participation of dogs who have not been surgically or cosmetically altered.
And if you’re looking to purchase a puppy from a breeder, it’s your prerogative to search for one who does not dock tails. If the breeder does tail docking, ask if you can choose a puppy to remain unaltered before the rest of the litter is docked.
Tail Docking: Outdated and Unnecessary
Tails are not a useless appendage, and there’s a reason why dogs are born with them. Who are we to “improve” upon what nature intended?
Tail docking is an outdated, painful practice that is inflicted every day on thousands of newborn puppies, all for the sake of appearance. As a result of this procedure, some dogs may be consigned to a life of chronic pain and other complications.
Tail docking is not “healthy” and it doesn’t prevent injury. So why do we let dog show judges from 150 years ago dictate what our dogs should look like, especially if that “look” involves painful and unnecessary surgery?
What are your thoughts on tail docking in dogs, or other aesthetic procedures in animals? Please share them with us in the comments below!