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. The jury is split in the Rover’s Q&A Community on tail docking. Half the respondents think it’s cosmetic and the other half see instances where it might be necessary.
We talked to the founder of The Pet Wellness Academy, Dr. Katie Kangas, and holistic veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney to get the facts behind modern-day docking. We also heard one pet parent’s true story of emergency tail amputation due to injury, and how other dog owners react to their dog now lacking a tail.
Why Dock a Dog’s 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 beat 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 36 countries; in the United States, docking must be performed by a licensed veterinarian but some vets are voluntarily refusing to perform this procedure, as it is believed to be largely cosmetic in this day and age.
Docking is either performed on a newborn puppy before they are a week old without anesthesia, or when the dog is old enough to undergo general anesthesia, usually around 8 weeks of age. It is deemed to be a painful procedure and is opposed by the American Veterinary Medical Association for cosmetic purposes.
Anywhere between 50 and 70 breeds are known to have their tails docked, including:
- Pit bulls
- German shorthaired pointers
Decline in Docking
Many people don’t see a need for docking anymore, other than for controversial cosmetic purposes.
Dr. Kangas sees two primary reasons why docking is not as common as it used to be:
- Purebred dogs are not being used as traditional working dogs, but serve more as companion pets. “They are more like family members that don’t necessarily have the same lifestyle that would require docking,” Dr. Kangas explains.
- Changing views on minimizing surgery. “More people are skipping surgery on things that could be considered cosmetic rather than functional,” Dr. Kangas says.
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.”
Dr. Mahaney also thinks docking in the modern era is largely for aesthetic purposes.
“With purebred dogs, tail docking is done to suffice the standards for the breed as established by an organization like the American Kennel Club,” Dr. Mahaney explains.
Tail amputation for medical reasons is technically not considered docking.
“There are definitely medical reasons to amputate tails,” Dr. Kangas says. “There may be reasons to dock preventatively, too. Tail amputation is far more dangerous than tail docking when the dog is a newborn.”
Southern California couple Ben and Ashley Wade found out how scary tail injury requiring amputation is first-hand. They loved their Australian cattledog 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 realized 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 realize every dog is different. Don’t be negative and nasty to someone else when you don’t know them or the situation.”
The Bottom Line
Docking for cosmetic purposes is a hotly contested topic, with many dog owners and vets staunchly opposing the practice and even advocating outlawing the procedure. Although there is a decline in the number of dogs who need their tails docked for functional or medical purposes, those cases still exist. As the Wade story explains, it’s risky to assume every dog with a docked tail had it done purely for looks.
Top image via Flickr CC/Carol Von Cannon
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional veterinary help.