Dog Mutilations vs. Cosmetics

Legislatures in Pennsylvania and Illinois are considering bills that would reduce or eliminate what animal welfare advocates call mutilations, and what breeders and American Kennel Club (AKC) call “breed standards.” Because dogs are considered by state laws to be property, individual owners may currently cut and shape dogs’ ears (cropping) or amputate part or all of their tails (docking), often without a proper sterile environment or anesthesia.

Ear cropping and tail docking, according to the AKC, are “acceptable practices integral to defining and preserving breed standards, enhancing good health, and preventing injuries.” Of 158 pure-bred breeds recognized by the AKC, about 50 kennel clubs have “breed standards” that require or strongly suggest tail docking or ear cropping. The AKC claims standards are established by individual clubs—all of which deduct points for dogs that don’t conform to their “standards”—and that the AKC has no restrictions to register or to show a dog. The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), which includes national kennel clubs of 84 nations, forbids cropping and docking of rottweilers and other breeds. The AKC is not a member of the FCI.

A caudectomy (commonly known as docking) usually occurs between one and four days after birth by placing a ligature over the dog’s tail and cutting off the blood supply. The tail falls off within three days. The tail can also be cut off by using clippers or surgical scissors. Among breeds that are commonly docked by breeders and those involved in the showdog industry are airedales, Australian shepherds, boxers, dobermans, mastiffs, poodles, Old English sheepdogs, pinschers, pointers, rottweilers, schnauzers, spaniels, terriers, and Welsh corgis.

A pinnectomy (commonly known as cropping) requires cutting parts of ears to reshape the structure, usually resulting in ears that are more pointed and which stand up against the head. Among breeds that often have cropped ears are boxers, dobermans, Great Danes, rottweilers, schnauzers, and terriers.

Persons engaged in illegal dog fighting or the drug industry, especially those who own pit bulls, will often crop and dock their dogs to establish not only a more fierce appearance but also to reduce the possibility that other dogs can use the ears and tails as points of attack. “I have seen some really bad cropping,” says Adam Goldfarb of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The cropping, usually done by owners with minimal training, often leaves ears “mangled, misshapen, or almost as buds on the head,” says Goldfarb.

Proposed legislation in Pennsylvania would require that only veterinarians would be allowed to dock tails after five days; ears could not be cropped until puppies are at least 12 weeks old. Breeders may still dock tails when a puppy is no more than five days old. The bill was unanimously passed in the House and is currently in the Senate agriculture committee. Proposed legislation in Illinois would ban all cropping and docking except for medical necessity. That bill is waiting a second reading in the Senate. The Illinois bill, submitted by Sen. Terry Link, majority caucus whip, “has had its struggles” because of the AKC opposition, according to Ron Holmes, communications specialist in the Senate. The bill, says Holmes, “represents “humanity versus cosmetics.” The AKC was largely responsible for the defeat of bills in California, New York, and Vermont during the past four years. Because the proposed Pennsylvania legislation still allows docking and cropping, the AKC has been relatively quiet in Pennsylvania, according to Sarah Speed of the Humane Society of the United States. Opposition, she says, is being mounted in the rural areas and by breeders.

Breeders, as well as official policies of AKC and the Council for Docked Breeds (CDB), an international organization based in England, claim there is no pain when puppies have their tails amputated shortly after birth.

“It is painful,” counters Dr. Barbara Hodges, consulting veterinarian for the Humane Society Veterinarian Medical Association (HSVMA). It is not accepted veterinarian practice “that puppies experience less pain than adult dogs,” she says. Amputation “of any body part of any living being will certainly elicit a pain response from the nervous system, even at two or three days,” Hodges explains, noting that a recently-born puppy “may simply not be able to express this pain in the same manner that an older puppy would.”

There is significant pain when ears are cut, shaped, and then bandaged for several months to assure they meet “breed standards.” In veterinarians’ clinics, the surgery is done under general anesthesia, usually when the dog is between 10 and 14 weeks old. The ears are taped to a rack to keep the ears firm, and stay bandaged three to six weeks. A second surgery to again reshape the ears that do not conform to breed specifications may also be necessary. The “risk of anesthesia for a cosmetic procedure makes no sense whatsoever to put an animal at risk for blood loss or infection unless you are achieving some improvement in their health,” says Hodges.

The Australian Veterinarian Association emphasizes, “While young animals cannot express pain the same way as adult humans do, anatomical studies indicate that they are superbly capable of feeling pain, and biochemical studies show that they do suffer short- and long-term effects from surgery.” The AVMA policy is, “It is not currently accepted that puppies experience less pain than adults.”

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in England has ruled these procedures are unethical and “an unjustified mutilation” when done for cosmetic reasons. England bans docking and cropping except by veterinarians and only for medical necessity. The 39-member Council of Europe Convention opposes docking and cropping, and about 30 countries ban these procedures as unjustified mutilation. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association, the American Animal Hospital Association, and the 76,000-member American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) oppose docking or cropping for cosmetic reasons. In 1976, the AVMA had asked the AKC to eliminate ear crops as part of its standards. In 1986, it asked the AKC to “change breed and show standards.” In 1999, with breeders and the AKC ignoring previous requests, the AVMA condemned the practice for cosmetic reasons as “cruel and barbaric [and] not medically indicated nor of benefit to the patient.” The AVMA suggested that veterinarians “should counsel dog owners against such procedures.” Then, in November 2008, the AVMA issued a short, terse policy statement, based upon extensive analysis of scientific literature and available clinical information: “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.” Surprisingly, there wasn’t significant public opposition. “A substantial proportion” of comments “were supportive,” says Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Division.

Both the AKC and CDB, as well as individual breeders, mounted heavy opposition. The CDB, like thousands of breeders, claims that because certain breeds were bred with little attention to “tail length, shape or carriage,” if the breeds were not docked, “it is unlikely that the best dogs would carry good tails . . . breeders would therefore be left with a diminished number of suitable sires and dams [and] the genetic pool would be reduced, greatly increasing the risk of hereditary disease taking hold [and] some breeds could even disappear for ever.” There have “never been any reputable trials that could even remotely claim” such practices are beneficial to dogs, according to the Australian Veterinary Association.

Docking was once believed to prevent rabies and injuries associated with hunting and fighting. In England, tails were routinely docked to avoid a general tax upon working dogs with tails. Parliament repealed the tax in 1796.

In seventeenth and early eighteenth century America, paranoid Puritans believed dogs’ tails were possessed by demons, and cut them off. In some countries, tails were docked because dogs “have to hunt game through heavy vegetation and thick brambles, where their fast tail action can easily lead to torn and bleeding tails which are painful and extremely difficult to treat,” according to the CDB. The CDB claims that even non-working breeds “which have an enthusiastic tail action are also liable to damage their tails,” even if they only “work” at home.

“Nonsense,” says Hodges. “Severe tail injuries are extremely rare,” she says, “and proper medical treatment can usually benefit the few dogs that do sustain such injuries.” In contrast to AKC and breeder claims that docking is somehow beneficial, Hodges points out that dogs with amputated tails can develop painful nerve scar tissue or neuromas, similar to what humans develop when a limb is amputated. Veterinarians and animal behaviorists recognize that the tail helps a dog to balance and, more importantly, to communicate with other animals and humans. Among water dogs, the tail also acts as a rudder. “When we see animals,” says Hodges, “we look at their body language, and we can learn a lot about them from seeing how they move their ears and tail.”

The CDB also says “long haired, thick coated breeds . . . are docked to avoid the hair around the base of the tail becoming fouled by faeces.” It claims, “even with constant grooming and washing, such fouling is unpleasant. If allowed to get out of hand, it can lead to severe problems of hygiene, or even flystrike and subsequent infestation by maggots.” However, large-tailed dogs, including German shepherds and collies, have no difficulty figuring out how to avoid hygiene problems.

Cropping minimizes ear infections, avoids later ear injuries, or improves hearing, according to both the AKC and the CDB. “There is no evidence that cropping prevents or successfully treats these conditions,” according to the AVMA.” A major study of almost 17,000 dogs in Germany revealed there is no evidence that ear cropping reduces ear infections. Animals which develop ear infections, says Hodges, “can easily be treated medically, with far less trauma than cropping.” If the AKC is so worried about ear infections, asks Hodges, “then why does it forbid cropping as a breed standard for cocker spaniels, which have the highest number of ear infections?” AKC breed standards also dictate against cropping the ears of bloodhounds, basset hounds, and beagles, all of which have floppy ears. The AKC argument is further spurious, says Hodges, “because breed standards dictate the cropping of breeds that have only rare instances of ear infection.”

In a lame attempt to try to relate docking and cropping to patriotism, the AKC issued an official statement in February 2009: “These breed characteristics are procedures performed to insure the safety of dogs that on a daily basis perform heroic roles with Homeland Security, serve in the U.S. Military and at Police Departments protecting tens of thousands of communities throughout our nation as well as competing in the field. 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.”

“Ridiculous,” says Ron Aiello, executive director the United States War Dogs Association, composed of former and current military dog handlers. “I don’t know where they [AKC] are coming up with this,” he says, noting “there is no absolutely no purpose for clipping a dog’s ears or tail.” Most military dogs are German shepherds, Belgian malinois, or Labradors, none of which have their ears cropped or tails docked. “We have dogs who have their ears pointed, and some whose ears are naturally floppy,” says the former combat Marine, who points out, “Our dogs all have their tails. It doesn’t affect their hygiene or abilities.”

Capt. Kenneth O’Brien, commander of the Philadelphia Police Department K9 unit, agrees. “There is absolutely no need whatsoever to crop or dock dogs” except for medical necessity, says O’Brien. The Philadelphia police have 30 dogs, most of them German shepherds; a few dogs had one or both ears that were floppy. “It never affected their abilities or hygiene,” says O’Brien, who emphasizes that breed standards are “nothing more than cosmetic” and have nothing to do with hygiene or preventive treatment.

Docking and cropping may eventually be eliminated in the United States if states pass legislation that bans the procedures except for medical necessity, and then only by veterinarians. “The vast majority of veterinary students say they don’t want to perform these procedures,” says Hodges. The procedures remain in surgery textbooks for medical reasons, she says, “and not because of the desire to help perpetuate breed standards.” Emi Eaton, president of the Student AVMA, agrees. In a statement issued shortly after the AMVA policy issued its policy against docking and cropping, Eaton noted, “Many of the younger student body are behind ear cropping and tail docking only for medical reasons.”

If humans want to bob their noses, augment their breasts, pierce their bodies, or enter any of several thousand beauty and “fitness” contests, it’s their decision. But, to subject a dog to butchery because of imperious “breed standards” and pseudo-medical beliefs is nothing less than cruelty, and must be condemned.

WALTER BRASCH is the author of Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush.

Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.