Imagine having to cut off a pinky finger because 1) it’s unnecessary, 2) it might get injured during your lifetime, and 3) a four-fingered hand is the height of beauty. No? At least you have some choice in the matter.
Now imagine newborn children must have a pinky cut off within a few days of birth. With no anesthesia. Without pain medication afterwards.
Little imagination is required. Only 25 years ago, doctors performed surgeries on newborns without anesthesia, believing their nervous systems were too immature to sense pain. We don’t believe that today but persist in believing it true for other animals, such as puppies…even though the number of nerve endings may exceed those of an adult.
Over 130,000 newborn pups are subjected to unnecessary cosmetic surgery in the U.S. each year, including docking. When only two to five days old, their tails are amputated,removing nerves, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, sections of arteries, spinal cord, and a good portion of backbone (6 to 23 vertebrae) which comprises one-quarter to one-third of their total length.
Some bleed out or die of shock. Even if the docking is done “properly” (many aren’t done by veterinarians but by breeders and puppy mills), the pain may not diminish with time. As with any amputation, there is serious risk of infection and swollen growths of nerve bundles in scar tissue that may cause chronic pain for life. The compromised back muscles (that were attached to the tail and still anchor to the pelvic area) can lead to urinary or fecal incontinence and perineal hernias.
The loss of the tail affects the dog’s balance and agility too, as well as its means of expression with other dogs and humans, conveying its mood and intentions. A docked tail can’t clearly be seen tucking under when fearful or raised high when aggressive. Lack of a tail can lead to misunderstandings.
So why, oh why do it? Most developed countries (e.g., bulk of Europe, Australia, Israel, and Brazil) ban docking altogether or, in a few cases, permit with restrictions. Veterinary associations declare docking to be painful, unnecessary, and unethical. Many veterinary schools no longer even teach how to perform docking. However, in the United States, with the shameful influence of the American Kennel Club (AKC) mandating artificial breed standards for its canine beauty pageants, docking continues to be standard procedure for some breeds.
“Tradition” is one argument the AKC uses to justify docking, although the original reasons for amputation are antiquated. Docking fails to prevent rabies or increase a dog’s speed, as once believed. Since most dogs are pets now, docking is unnecessary to remove possible grips in dog fighting or when cornering a cougar during a hunt.
Some claim docking prevents tail injury. However, statistics do not support this. In multiple reviews of veterinary records, serious tail injuries are rare. In the largest study yet, the incidence of tail injury was 0.23%. Infection and mangled tails are more common with docking.
Even for working dogs supposedly “prone to injury,” the argument falls flat because of the inconsistency among breeds targeted for docking. For example, among the similar Pointer, German Longhaired Pointer, and German Shorthair Pointer, only the Shorthair is routinely docked. Plus, many hunting and working breeds, such as Labs, Border Collies, and Shepherds, keep their tails.
Others argue docking is hygienic, so hair won’t trap fecal matter. Again, the inconsistency among targeted breeds poo-poo’s this claim. Short-haired breeds (e.g., Dobermans) don’t have this issue, and many long-haired ones are undocked and proper grooming addresses hygiene.
Ultimately, the reason dogs continue to be mutilated is for cosmetic reasons, to fit some “ideal” propagated by the AKC since the mid-1950s for some breeds. Isn’t it time we caught up to the 21st century and recognized the blatant cruelty of chopping off dogs’ tails? Dogs should be able to wag more than a stub.
First published in Pets in the City Magazine, July 2013