Tail docking has become a widely controversial issue condemned as cruel and unnecessary by animal rights advocates and defended as necessary for working dogs or dogs prone to tail injuries.
We talked to the founder of The Pet Wellness Academy, Dr. Katie Kangas, and holistic vet Dr. Patrick Mahaney to get the facts behind modern-day docking. We also heard one pet owner’s true story of emergency tail amputation due to injury, and how other dog owners react to their dog now lacking a tail.
Tail docking has some interesting roots. Historically, it was thought to decrease the risk of rabies and strengthen a dog’s back. The most common reason to dock in recent history is to decrease injury risk to working dogs—dogs who hunt, herd, or otherwise work in the field.
“The reasoning behind it is these dogs have long, strong tails that get beaten up and bloody in fieldwork or hunting,” Dr. Kangas explains. “Since certain breeds have a smooth, short coat, there is not a lot of protection on the tail.”
The practice is banned or restricted in many countries throughout the world, including in the UK:
In 2007, docking was banned completely in Scotland, unless the procedure had to be carried out for medical reasons. These regulations were, however, changed in June 2017 so that certified working dogs can now have their tails docked.
Tail docking was banned in England and Wales in 2006, and in Northern Ireland in 2010, with exemption of certified working dogs such as those used by the police force, the military, rescue services, pest control, and those used in connection with lawful animal shooting.
The exemptions apply only when the procedure is carried out by a registered veterinary surgeon.
Docking is either performed on a newborn puppy before they are five days old without anesthesia, or when the dog is old enough to undergo general anaesthetic, usually around 8 weeks of age. It is deemed to be a painful procedure and is opposed by the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) and the British Veterinary Association (BVA) for cosmetic purposes.
Anywhere between 50 and 70 breeds are known to have their tails docked, including:
- German shorthaired pointers
Many people don’t see a need for docking anymore, other than for controversial cosmetic purposes. Dr. Mahaney says there are a few benefits to having a shorter tail, even if they don’t apply to the majority of dogs.
“There are less body tissues—skin, muscle, vertebrae, blood vessels—and hair to potentially become damaged or dirty,” Dr. Mahaney says. “But most dogs don’t have mobility problems that prevent them from standing or walking and having normally functioning bowels, so they’re able to maintain a clean tail.”
While legally docked dogs can be shown at Kennel Club events in Scotland, in England and Wales “legally docked dogs may not be shown at events to which members of the public are admitted upon payment of a fee. Docked dogs from overseas may also not be shown at events in England or Wales to which members of the public are admitted upon payment of a fee, if they were born after the date that the law came into force (April 6th 2007 in England and 28th March 2007 in Wales). However, dogs docked before April 6th 2007 may continue to be shown at all events throughout their lives, as can all puppies born with naturally bobbed tails.”
In Northern Ireland even dogs which have had their tails amputated in the best interests of their welfare are not allowed to appear in dog shows.
Tail amputation for medical reasons is technically not considered docking.
“There are definitely medical reasons to amputate tails,” Dr. Kangas says.
American couple Ben and Ashley Wade found out how scary tail injury requiring amputation is first-hand. They loved their Australian cattle dog Wiley’s bushy, raccoon-like tail, but a case of severe anxiety during a recent move left Wiley repeatedly attacking his tail to the point he needed it amputated.
“At first, it was just a puncture and we thought we could clean it and take care of it,” Ashley Wade recalls. “But every opportunity he got, he would find a way to get at it. He would whack it against things on purpose—we even put a Bitter Apple bandage on it and he would fight through it, gagging to keep chewing to get at his tail. He bit it through to the bone and the end of his tail was necrosed.”
Indeed, the pictures are too gory to share here. Wade had a difficult time finding a vet who would help.
“I called multiple vets and they said they didn’t perform cosmetic surgeries, even though I told them I could see the bone and tissue was falling off,” Wade recounts. “I tried to tell them it wasn’t cosmetic and many of them hung up on me.”
As a former vet assistant, Wade knew what she was talking about. She eventually found an emergency veterinary clinic to perform the procedure and now Wiley is thriving.
“At first, he was more clumsy and he tried to lick it, but once he realised he could not chew his tail anymore, he relaxed,” Wade adds.
One thing the Wades are still trying to get used to are the dirty looks and nasty comments from other pet parents who assume they got Wiley’s tail docked for looks.
“We get a lot of negative feedback on Wiley’s tail,” Wade says. “People need to realise every dog is different. Don’t be negative and nasty to someone else when you don’t know them or the situation.”
Though docking for cosmetic purposes is banned throughout the UK, there has also been a decline in the number of dogs who need their tails docked for functional or medical purposes.
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