Canine Tail Docking FAQ

Q:  Why did we start docking dogs' tails?

A:  Tail docking of dogs is believed to have arisen for three reasons at different points in history. In ancient times Romans believed that amputation of the tail tip and/or parts of the dog’s tongue could prevent a dog from contracting rabies.1.2  Because the tail was believed to help a dog in the chase, dogs were historically docked if they were owned by a poor person not permitted to hunt game.2 (Ironically, it is sometimes argued that docking increases a dog’s strength or speed.3) There is a continuing tradition of docking working dogs’ tails with the goal of preventing tail injury during activities such as hunting (see related question below). Early references, however, tended to suggest docking only in cases where the tail was overly long for the size of the animal and, therefore, might be prone to injury.4

Q:  When did tail docking for cosmetic purposes begin?

A:  Tail docking seems to have emerged for a variety of reasons, but for some breeds it was proposed primarily to improve appearance. Books from different periods openly refer to docking of some breeds to create a pleasing appearance (e.g. The American Book of the Dog, 1891, p. 619, 6695; also6). The most consistent anecdotal argument for preventive docking relates to hunting with pointers; even in this case, however, the purpose of increasing ‘beauty’ is mentioned.  Rules for pedigree dog shows in the United States established during the mid-1950s formalized the docking tradition within some breed fancies regardless of the origin of the practice. 
 
The history of veterinary opposition to cosmetic tail docking is long. One example from the United States being characterization of cosmetic tail docking as “indefensible” in The Dog by Youatt & Lewis (1854).8  Most veterinarians tend not to support routine, cosmetic tail docking as part of a breed standard,9,10,11  however, there is a lack of data relating specifically to the attitudes of veterinarians in the United States and there are dissenting opinions (just as some breeders have opposed docking in breeds where this is traditional, see12). 
 
The AVMA first suggested breed clubs remove cosmetic alterations from breed standards in 1976, although the presence and phrasing of this recommendation within the Association’s policy has varied over the years. Opposition to tail docking is also the stated policy of other veterinary associations (e.g., Canada,13 Australia,14 and the United Kingdom15).
 
Q:   What is the current basis for carrying out preventive tail amputation/partial amputation on working dogs?

A:  Some commentators consider a long tail to be a potential hazard for some breeds of working dogs. For example, it has been suggested that:

  • A guard dog could be seized by the tail to thwart its attack.7
  • Hunting dogs, such as pointers, may damage their tail tip in underbrush.8,4,16
  • Long-haired dogs may become more soiled if they have a hanging tail.17

These justifications for docking working dogs’ tails lack substantial scientific support. In the largest study to date on tail injuries in dogs the incidence was 0.23% and it was calculated that approximately 500 dogs need to be docked to prevent one tail injury.18 It has been suggested that certain breeds of dogs, or dogs used for specific purposes, have a greater incidence of tail injury. An uncontrolled study of German Shorthaired Pointers in Sweden suggested there might be a high level of tail injury subsequent to a ban on docking.19 Diesel et al18 reported that working dogs (predominantly gundogs) were not at significantly greater risk of tail injury than non-working dogs, but dogs that were kenneled were at increased risk. Differences between breeds that are docked and those that are not are often minor.  For example among the very similar Pointer, German Longhaired Pointer and German Shorthaired Pointer, only the German Shorthaired Pointer is traditionally docked.20

Q:  Why is tail docking currently carried out on non-working dogs?

A:  Tail docking of some breeds may be based on a belief that their non-working members experience risks similar to working dogs; more commonly, however, it is to conform to a distinctive breed appearance or standard. Survey data indicate that preventive tail docking of pet dogs is unnecessary.18,21  Therefore tail docking of non-working dogs, even if their breed was originally developed for working purposes, is considered a cosmetic procedure unless evidence exists to the contrary. In countries such as the United Kingdom where tail docking is legally prohibited (with a few exemptions) the breed standards of traditionally docked breeds have been amended.22

Q:  Do dogs need to have tails?

A:  It is natural for most dogs to have tails based upon their descent from a tailed species. However there is no strong evidence that naturally bobbed or surgically docked dogs are physically or psychologically disadvantaged. There is some early, but inconclusive, data that raises questions as to whether docking impairs communication with other dogs23 or may increase the risk of developing incontinence.24

Q:  Is tail docking painful?

A:  Tailing docking is painful.25 The intensity or duration of the pain under ideal or typical circumstances is difficult to quantify. Painful procedures conducted in the neonatal period when the nervous system is vulnerable can result in negative long-term changes which affect how pain is processed and perceived later in life.26,27 

Q:  Why does AVMA policy oppose cosmetic tail docking?

A:  The essential question is not “How harmful is the procedure?”, but rather “Is there sufficient justification for performing it?” 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.

Q:  What forms of tail removal would not be considered cosmetic?

A:  The naturally bobbed animal is not considered “docked.” Bobbed genetics exist in many pedigreed breeds (e.g., Old English Sheepdog, Australian Shepherd17) and have been introduced into others (e.g., Boxer28).  Some breeders, both historically and currently, would prefer problematic conformation to be corrected via breeding alone.

Removal of a dog’s tail for medical reasons is not referred to as “docking.” The most common reason for amputation or partial amputation of a dog’s tail is traumatic injury where repair of the entire tail is not possible or advisable. Amputation may also occur in the case of tail deformities that negatively impact a dog’s function or increase risk of injury. An argument might be made for removal of the tail of a dog on the basis of repeated prior injury.

Precautionary removal of the tail of a young puppy needs to be based on compelling evidence that the animal is at high risk of tail trauma due to congenital defect, breed and/or planned working activity. However, such a justification must be supported by evidence such as empirical data or impartial expert opinion based on extensive, directly relevant experience.

REFERENCES

1. Podberscek AL, Paul AS, Serpell J. Companion Animals and Us: Exploring the Relationships Between People and Pets. Cambridge University Press, 2000; 307.
2. Fleming. The wanton mutilation of animals. The Nineteenth Century, a Monthly Report, 1895;37:440.
3. Drury WD. British Dogs, Their Points, Selection, and Show Preparation. L.U. Gill: London. 1903. p. 165
4. Hallock C. The Sportsman's Gazetteer and General Guide. Forest and Stream: New York. 1877. p. 456.
5. Shields G. The American Book of the Dog. Rand, McNally: Chicago. 1891
6. almer, RM. All about Airedales: A Book of General Information Valuable to Dog Lovers and Owners, Breeders and Fanciers, Illustrated from Selected Photographs of Noted Dogs and Rare Scenes. The Airedale Terrier Reviewed. 3-A Publishing Co.: Seattle. 1916; 53.
7. Coren, S. How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind. Simon and Schuster, 2004; 106
8. Youatt W, Lewis EJ. The Dog. Leavitt and Allen, 1857 Available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=wxkPAAAAYAAJ  Accessed December 15, 2008.
9. Bennett PC, Perini E. Tail docking in dogs: can attitude change be achieved? Aust Vet J 2003;81:277-82.
10. Sonntag, Q. Cosmetic tail docking. Vet News 2004;Feb:4-5.
11. Noonan GJ, Rand JS, Blackshaw JK, et al. Tail docking in dogs: a sample of attitudes of veterinarians and dog breeders in Queensland. Aust Vet J 1996;73:86-88.
12. Lytton, N. Toy Dogs and Their Ancestors: Including the History and Management of Toy Spaniels, Pekingese, Japanese and Pomeranians. Duckworth & Co: London. 1911; 91.
13. Moissac, JE. The fight against cosmetic surgery. Canadian Veterinary Journal 2009;50:11231124.
14. Australian Veterinary Association: Surgical alteration to the natural state of animals: http://www.ava.com.au/node/1085 accessed January 31, 2013
14. RCVS Guide to professional Conduct: http://www.rcvs.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/guide-to-professional-conducts-for-veterinary-surgeons/r-tail-docking-dogs/ accessed January 31 2013.
16. Lee RB. A History and Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain and Ireland. H. Cox: London. 1897. p. 220-221.
17. Sasson-Brickson G. The bobtail trait in Australian shepherds – part I: a historical perspective and docking Regulations in various countries. Aussie Times 2005;March-April
18. Diesel G, Pfeiffer D, Crispin S, et al. Risk factors for tail injuries in dogs in Great Britain. Vet Rec 2010;166:812-817.
19. Strejffert G.  Tail injuries of shorthaired German point dogs born in Sweden 1989, 1992  http://www.cdb.org/countries/sweden.htm    Accessed June 28, 2010
20. Milne, E. The Truth about Cats and Dogs. Book Guild Publishing, 2007; 118.
21. Darke PG, Thrusfield MV, Aitken CG. Association between tail injuries and docking in dogs. Vet Rec 1985;116:409
22. Kennel Club: Breed Standard tail clauses – traditionally docked breeds: http://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/cgi-bin/item.cgi?id=1359 Accessed January 31st 2013
23. Leaver, SDA, Reimchen TE. Behavioural responses of Canis Familiaris to different tail lengths of a remotely-controlled life-size dog replica. Behaviour 2008;145:377-390.
24. Thrusfield P, Holt M. Association in bitches between breed, size, neutering and docking, and acquired urinary incontinence due to incompetence of the urethral sphincter mechanism. Vet Rec 1993;133:177-180.
25. Noonan G, Rand J, Blackshaw J, et al. Behavioural observations of puppies undergoing tail docking. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1996;4: 335-342.
26. LaPrarie JL, Murphy AZ. Long Term Impact of Neonatal Injury in Male and Female Rats: Sex Differences, Mechanisms and Clinical Implications. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 2010;31:193-202.
27. Vega-Avelaira D, McKelvy R, Hathway G et al. The emergence of adolescent onset pain hypersensitivity following neonatal nerve injury. Molecular Pain 2012;8:30. Accessible online at: http://www.molecularpain.com/content/8/1/30 
28. Haworth K, Putt W, Cattanach B et al. Canine homolog of the T-box transcription factor T; failure of the protein to bind to its DNA target leads to a short-tail phenotype. Mammalian Genome 2001;12:212-218.
 

Source: Staff research, AVMA Animal Welfare Division
Contact: Dr. Emily G. Patterson-Kane (800.248.2862, ext 6746) or Dr. Sheilah A. Robertson (800.248.2862, ext 6685) with questions or comments.

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