March 15, 2009


 Ear crop, tail dock policy not a radical departure, AVMA says

Science doesn't show therapeutic benefits of cosmetic procedures

Posted March 1, 2009

It isn't often the AVMA is on the receiving end of kudos from the Humane Society of the United States. But there it was, in the Letters to the Editor section of the JAVMA (Feb. 1, 2009), a missive from the society's veterinary component commending the AVMA for taking a stand against cosmetic ear cropping and tail docking of dogs.

"It is a strong statement in opposition to these procedures when performed for nontherapeutic purposes," wrote Dr. Barbara Hodges on behalf of the Humane Society VMA.

"The 2008 policy has been viewed by some as a reversal of policy, and it's not. The revisions strengthen the Association's policy, to be sure, but they don't change the philosophy of it."


Dr. Hodges was referring to the revised policy on Ear Cropping and Tail Docking of Dogs approved by the AVMA Executive Board this past November. The statement goes beyond opposing the procedures when performed for cosmetic reasons to recommend that cropped ears and docked tails be dropped from dog breed standards altogether.

The American Kennel Club, the nation's most recognized registry of purebred dogs, was quick to criticize the policy and in a statement said: "Mislabeling these procedures as 'cosmetic' is a severe mischaracterization that connotes a lack of respect and knowledge of history and the function of purebred dogs."

Dog with cropped earAs with most AVMA positions on animal welfare, because of the diversity of AVMA membership, the revised ear cropping and tail docking policy was sure to garner its share of supporters and detractors. What was surprising to those involved in the policy process was the minimal amount of controversy it generated within the veterinary profession and the degree of support it obtained from among the purebred dog fancy.

"We did not get the volume of mail that we expected regarding this most recent revision," explained Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division and staff consultant to the Animal Welfare Committee, which recommended the policy.

The AVMA received approximately 250 letters mostly from nonveterinarians associated with the purebred dog fancy. A substantial portion of those letters were supportive of the revised position, which, Dr. Golab said, is in itself surprising since people are more likely to contact the Association when they're upset with a policy than when they are supportive. Contrast this with the AVMA policy on Free-roaming Abandoned and Feral Cats, which was revised a few years ago and resulted in thousands of highly emotional responses.

"This seems to imply that more people are pleased (with the ear crop/tail dock policy) than disappointed by it," Dr. Golab said.

The AVMA is by no means the only veterinary organization opposed to performing these procedures, which is viewed by many as inhumane. Cosmetic ear cropping and tail docking of dogs is banned in Australia and much of Europe. On this side of the Atlantic, the American Animal Hospital Association and Canadian VMA have had
long--standing policies against the surgeries.

Critics of the policy consider it a capitulation to an aggressive campaign by animal rights groups.

How it came about: The AVMA position on Ear Cropping and Tail Docking of Dogs, most recently approved in 1999, was up for evaluation by the Animal Welfare Committee as part regular reviews of all AVMA policies by their oversight councils and committees.

"The reason this came up is because of the review requirement. We were not approached by the HSUS; we were not approached by PETA; nor did anyone else call to ask us to change the policy," Dr. Golab said.

The revised AVMA policy is consistent with earlier iterations on the subject. In 1976, the AVMA House of Delegates approved a policy whereby the Association called on the AKC and other breed associations to delete ear crops from breed standards. Moreover, that version of the policy suggested that dogs with cropped ears be prohibited from shows.

The HOD took up the issue again in 1999 and declared that the procedures, when not medically necessary, cause the patient to suffer pain and distress, and encouraged veterinarians to counsel dog owners about the risks of performing these procedures.

As part of the review of the 1999 policy, which began more than 18 months ago, the committee and the Animal Welfare Division searched the scientific literature for evidence showing cosmetic ear crops of dogs have therapeutic effects. That search revealed that justifications for the procedures lacked substantial scientific support, with the exception of some suggestive, but inconclusive, data related to German Shorthaired Pointers before and after a docking ban in Sweden, Dr. Golab said. Interestingly, among the similar German Shorthaired Pointer, German Longhaired Pointer, and Pointer, only the German Shorthaired Pointer's tail is traditionally docked. The committee was also unable to identify unconfounded evidence supporting the benefits of ear cropping, she added.

"The basis of the policy's most recent revision wasn't just someone's unsubstantiated opinion," Dr. Golab said. "The results of the committee's scientific review provide good justification for the policy. Any policy that comes out of the AVMA will be a combination of professional opinion, practical experience, and what we know about the science. In this case, the science appears to lend clear support to the policy."

The committee unanimously approved the revised policy as did the Executive Board in November 2008.

Given the AVMA's history of not supporting cropping and docking for cosmetic purposes, Dr. Golab admits she is puzzled by the impression that the AVMA has reversed itself. "The 2008 policy has been viewed by some as a reversal of policy, and it's not. The revisions strengthen the Association's policy, to be sure, but they don't change the philosophy of it," she said.

AVMA policies are science-driven, Dr. Golab noted, so if critics of the new policy can identify research showing dogs benefit from cosmetic ear cropping and tail docking, then the committee would welcome receiving that evidence and would consider amending the policy yet again.

Whether the AVMA position will influence practitioners to stop performing the procedures remains to be seen. Some veterinarians worry that nonveterinarians will step in and start doing the surgeries without the benefits of anesthesia or pain medication. Dr. Golab acknowledged that this was a concern of the committee as well, but it ultimately decided that performance of these procedures by lay individuals would constitute the practice of veterinary medicine, something that is illegal, and that the committee felt it should be handled within that context.  


History of AVMA policy on ear cropping and tail docking of dogs 


Suggested by the American Animal Hospital Association and approved by the AVMA House of Delegates  

Ear cropping

Resolved, that the American Veterinary Medical Association recommend to the American Kennel Club and appropriate breed associations that action be taken to delete mention of cropped or trimmed ears from breed standards for dogs and to prohibit the showing of dogs with cropped or trimmed ears if such animals were born after some reasonable future date.


Suggested by the American Animal Hospital Association, California VMA, Oregon VMA, Rhode Island VMA, Vermont VMA, and American Association of Food Hygiene Veterinarians and approved by the AVMA House of Delegates

Ear cropping and tail docking

Ear cropping and tail docking in dogs for cosmetic reasons are not medically indicated nor of benefit to the patient. These procedures cause pain and distress, and, as with all surgical procedures, are accompanied by inherent risks of anesthesia, blood loss, and infection. Therefore, veterinarians should counsel dog owners about these matters before agreeing to perform these surgeries.


Recommended by the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee and approved by the AVMA Executive Board

Ear cropping and tail docking of dogs

The AVMA opposes ear cropping and tail docking of dogs when done solely for cosmetic purposes. The AVMA encourages the elimination of ear cropping and tail docking from breed standards.