Cropping Ears and Docking Tails: Canine Cosmetic Surgery

Working at an animal shelter, you see a steady stream of dogs that have had their ears cropped and tails docked.  These are often pit mixes, or dogs that resemble pits regardless of their breed, with their ears cropped to satisfy some previous owners’ wishes.  The ears are sometimes cut so severely that they are reduced to tiny points, termed a “battle crop”.   Tail docking seems to be done somewhat less often and I have seen it done at random lengths – we have gotten dogs with tails cut so short as to be almost non-existent.

Of course, this “surgery” is done at the behest of breeders to make their dogs more marketable and to satisfy breed standards, or by owners to satisfy some desire to change their dog’s appearance.  At any rate, this subject is hotly debated by animal welfare organizations, breed clubs, veterinary organizations and dog fanciers in general.

Why is it done is the first place?

The practice began centuries ago, based on an ancient use of war dogs, a 5th century understanding of infectious disease, a 17th century understanding of religion and an 18th century tax code.

The Romans believed that docking dogs’ tails (and clipping their tongues) was a means of protecting them from rabies infection1 (Mills, Robbins, von Keyerlingk).  Dogs’ ears were cropped throughout the ancient Mediterranean civilizations as a means of keeping them from being harmed in fighting or hunting large game.  The puritans of colonial America docked dogs’ tails in the belief that they were possessed by demons2.

Figure 1 Statue of Molossian dog with cropped ears.  Believed to come from Epirus, 2nd Century BCE

One of the more practical historic reasons for tail docking goes back to 18th century England, in which it was determined that working dogs would not be taxed, but that a tax would be imposed on pet and hunting dogs.  It was further determined that working dogs would be identified by their docked tails.  This created an incentive for tail docking, although wealthier people who kept hunting dogs made a point of leaving their tails intact to demonstrate that they could afford to pay the tax3.

Over the centuries, these practices of cropping ears and docking tails became traditions and in Victorian England they were incorporated in written standards when the Kennel Club was established and developed the concept of dog breeds and their physical criteria for canine perfection4.  These established standards were adopted by the American Kennel Club (AKC) upon its establishment in 1884.  The AKC first published conformation standards for purebred dogs in 1929, and continues to do so today, including requirements for ear cropping and tail docking5.

Why is it done now?

In many countries, it isn’t done.  Ear cropping was prohibited in England in 1899 and tail docking became highly restricted under the Animal Welfare Act of 2006.  These surgeries are prohibited for cosmetic reasons in the European Union, Australia, and a total of 40 developed countries; and are highly restricted in others.  In fact, there is currently a movement in the UK to close a loophole in their laws by banning the import of cropped and docked dogs from countries where this is still legal6.  The United States is distinctive as having no restrictions on these practices.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)7 and The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)8 are actively opposed to cropping and docking dogs’ ears and tails unless necessitated by illness or injury.  In fact, the ASPCA requested that the AKC remove cropped ears from breed standards as early as 1895, and the AVMA made a similar request in 19769.  That said, a number of veterinarians still perform these surgeries, possibly reasoning that they can at least ensure that the operations are performed safely.

The docking and cropping of dogs is primarily championed by breed clubs and show organizations in the United States.  Although the American Kennel Club has no rules requiring these surgeries or prohibiting the showing of dogs with natural ears and tails,     it has published a position statement stating, “These are important in not only defining and preserving breed character, but also to enhance good health.” That same position paper goes on to deny that cropping and docking surgeries are done for “aesthetic reasons”10 ,  ignoring the fact that AKA standards for showing dog breeds only address aesthetics.  In fact, the only justifications providing for cropping and docking in early AKC publications are to give dogs a more pleasing appearance.  To this day the AKC judging guidelines include clear standards for ear and tail modification in select breeds11.  And various breed clubs have published statements advocating cropping and docking dogs12, and standards for showing dogs that recommend severe penalties for failing to dock tails or crop ears13.

Proponents of ear cropping have stated, without any evidence, that ear cropping for specific breeds reduces the risk of ear infection later in life.  The fact is that although some breeds have a higher incidence of ear infection than others, and that the shape of the ear has not been shown to be a factor.  In fact, breeds such as German Shepherds with naturally pricked or erect ears, have been found to suffer from ear infections more frequently than others with floppy ears14.

Ear cropping has also been rationalized as a means of preventing injury to a dog, on the basis that a working dog’s ear can be wounded or injured.   The thinking behind this is performing surgery on the ears of all dogs in about 20 particular breeds will prevent a small fraction of them from needing some veterinary care later in life.   If you take time to examine some breed associations’ justifications for injury prevention, you will find that the possibility of “injury” is associated with organized dog fighting, which was the basis for modifying the ears of breeds such as cane corsos, Staffordshire terriers, and others.

Injury prevention is also used as a rationalization for tail docking, on the theory that some 50 breeds are at risk for injuring their tails in the normal course of work or play, so amputating their tails shortly after birth prevents some of them from needing veterinary care later in life.  And yet, this thinking is applied only to specific breeds, ignoring the fact that related breeds or breeds with similar working lives are left with full tails:  Schipperke’s tails are docked close to their bodies, while Keeshonds have full natural tails.  Pembroke corgis’ tails are docked so close as to be nonexistent, while Cardigan corgis’ tails are left alone.  German shorthair pointers’ tails are docked while English pointers’ are not.  A Rottweiler fancier once gave me a heated lecture about the need for their tails to be removed because they were once used at cart dogs.  He was unable to explain why Bernese Mountain Dogs and Great Swiss Mountain Dogs, which are still used to haul carts, are left with full natural tails.

This advocacy of tail docking as a means of preventing future injury has been thoroughly debunked.  A survey conducted by the AVMA found that tail injuries requiring surgery are extremely rare and are experienced by only one out of 500 dogs.  The study calculated that a dog has a 0.23 percent chance of needing tail surgery any time in its life15, 16.  A Scottish study of undocked spaniel dogs concluded that it would be necessary for 230 dogs to have their tails proactively amputated in order to prevent injury to one of them17.  Another rationalization for tail docking is that it is done on puppies without anesthesia when they are only a few days old, and they don’t feel pain because their nervous systems are undeveloped18.  This has also been thoroughly debunked.  Studies have shown that they experience severe pain during the surgery19, 20; but at that age they are simply unable to communicate it as well as older dogs21.

The fact is that these surgeries are done solely for cosmetic reasons, to satisfy breed standards that were established two centuries ago and have been discarded by the country that originated them as being unnecessary, harmful and cruel. Dog fancier publications from as early as the 1850s denounce these as cruel practices done for purely cosmetic reasons22 and publications from the early days of Kennel Clubs list dogs’ appearance as the only reasons for cropping and docking23 .   And the notion that these surgeries are needed to preserve a historic or traditional function for the dogs is simply ridiculous.  There are innumerable cruel and inhumane practices that were once justified as “tradition” and are now outlawed.

Is docking and cropping harmful?

In a word, yes.

For starters:  It is unnecessary surgery.  In addition to the pain and trauma to the dogs, these procedures entail the risk of applying anesthesia, post-operative complications and infection24.  Tail docking has been shown to have long-lasting effects on the dogs’ musculature and development, affecting the use of their hind quarters and elimination.  And early trauma has been demonstrated to have long-term effects on dogs’ emotional lives and fear responses25.

Perhaps the greatest damage caused by these surgeries is the effect that is has on dogs’ ability to socialize and communicate.  In the years since cropping and docking were adopted, we have learned that dogs have highly sophisticated means of non-verbal communication involving their postures and facial expressions.  Ear and tail position and movement are key factors in their ability to express themselves to others26.  By removing or cutting them, we are rendering them incapable of socializing with other dogs, leaving them vulnerable to aggression or outright attack.

These pictures are of two young pit bulls that were recently placed in a shelter from the same household.  The one on the left, who was given a “battle crop” by a previous owner, is left with his ears permanently fixed in an upright and forward position, giving other dogs a clear signal that he is aggressive and about to attack.  His younger brother, on the right, has natural ears that give him a softer expression and allow a range of communication with other dogs.  A recent study found that humans have a natural tendency to consider dogs with cropped ears as being more aggressive and dangerous than those with natural ears27.

Figure 2 Side by side comparison of young pitbull terriers.  The dog on the left has a “battle crop” and the dog on the right has natural ears.

Similarly, dogs use their tails to convey their moods and intentions.  The position of the tails conveys detailed information about their emotional states, ranging from relaxed and confident to fearful.  The simple act of wagging their tails communicates information to us and other dogs about how they are feeling and how they are likely to react to situations, including showing friendliness, willingness to play, fear, anxiety or submissive behavior.  By removing them, we limit their ability to get along peacefully and happily with other dogs.  We limit their social development and put them at risk.

In conclusion:

In spite of claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that ear cropping or tail docking has any beneficial effects, or prevents illness or injury.   In fact, there is growing evidence that these procedures entail risks to the dogs and can have long-lasting adverse physical effects.  The popular assertion that tail docking does not cause very young puppies to experience pain or trauma has been thoroughly refuted.  And the notion that performing veterinary surgery on an entire breed of dogs in order to avoid veterinary care for a small fraction of them defies logic.  These surgical procedures also severely inhibit dogs’ abilities to interact with each other safely and peacefully.  At this point, there is a legitimate question as to why the American breed associations still advocate these cosmetic procedures in the face of all the evidence that should convince them to stop, along with the breeders and fanciers in the rest of the developed world.

A last word:  In colonial America, ear cropping was a common punishment given to people for petty crimes.  This practice was later abandoned as being cruel and inhumane.  Why would it be considered overly cruel for human criminals, but acceptable for dogs that have committed no offense?

References:

  1. Mills, K. E., Robbins, J. & von Keyserlingk, M. A. G., 2016, Tail Docking and Ear Cropping Dogs:  Public Awareness and Perceptions, PLoS One 11(6),  doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0158131
  2. Brasch, W. March 18, 2009, The Painful Cost of ‘Breed Standards’, The Scoop. Retrieved from The Painful Cost of ‘Breed Standards’ | Scoop News
  3. Broughton, A. L., 2003, Cropping and Docking: A Discussion of the Controversy and the Role of Law in Preventing Unnecessary Cosmetic Surgery on Dogs, Retrieved from Cropping and Docking: A Discussion of the Controversy and the Role of Law in Preventing Unnecessary Cosmetic Surgery on Dogs | Animal Legal & Historical Center (animallaw.info)
  4. Worboys, M., March 25, 2019, Dog Breeds are Mere Victorian Confections, Neither Pure nor Ancient, Aeon, retrieved from Dog breeds are mere Victorian confections, neither pure nor ancient | Aeon Ideas
  5. American Kennel Club, Judges’ Study Guides, retrieved from www.akc.org/sports/conformation/judging-information/judges-study-guides/
  6. Petition to Stop the Rising Numbers of Ear-Cropped Dogs in the UK, retrieved from petition.parliament.uk/petitions/574305
  7. Ear Cropping and Tail Docking of Dogs, AVMA Policies, Retrieved from www.avma.org/resources-tools/avma-policies/ear-cropping-and-tail-docking-dogs
  8. Ear Cropping and Tail Docking, AAHA Position Statements and Endorsements, Retrieved from Ear cropping and tail docking (aaha.org)
  9. Veterinary FAQ: Ear Cropping and otitis in Dogs.  DVM360.  Retrieved from Veterinary FAQ: Ear cropping and otitis in dogs (dvm360.com)
  10. Dog Ear Cropping/Tail Docking/Dew Claw Removal. Retrieved from Microsoft Word – crop and dock- 1 page.doc (akc.org)
  11. AKC, Judges’ Study Guides
  12. Ear Cropping. Retrieved from Ear Cropping (canecorso.org)
  13. Boxer Standard, Cropping & Docking. Retrieved from Boxer Standard, Cropping & Docking — US Boxer Association)
  14. Veterinary FAQ: Ear Cropping and otitis in Dogs.  DVM360.
  15. Diesel G, Pfeiffer D, Crispin S, et al. Risk factors for tail injuries in dogs in Great Britain. Vet Rec 2010;166:812-817.
  16. Canine Tail Docking FAQ.  Retrieved from Canine Tail Docking FAQ | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)
  17. Cameron, N., Lederer, R., Bennett, D. & Parkin, T (2014). The Prevalence of Tail Injuries in Working and non-Working Breed Dogs Visiting Veterinary Practices in Scotland. Veterinary Record 3 (174), doi: 10.1136/vr.102042.
  18. AKC Staff (2013), Issue Analysis: Dispelling the Myths of Cropped Ears, Docked Tails, Dewclaws and Debarking.  Retrieved from www.akc.org/expert-advice/news/issue-analysis-dispelling-myths/
  19. Noonan, G. J., Rand, J. S., Blackshaw, J. K. & Priest, J. (1996), Behavioral Observations of Puppies Undergoing Tail Docking. Applied Animal Behavior Science 49 (4). 335 – 342, doi:  1016/0168-1591(96)01062-3
  20. What are the Animal Welfare Issues With Docking Dogs’ Tails? Retrieved from What are the animal welfare issues with docking dogs’ tails? – RSPCA Knowledgebase
  21. Brasch, W. (March 18, 2009) The Painful Cost of ‘Breed Standards’. Scoop Independent News, Retrieved from The Painful Cost of ‘Breed Standards’ | Scoop News
  22. Youatt, W. (1852). The Dog.  Retrieved from The Dog by William Youatt – Free Ebook (gutenberg.org)
  23. Lane, C. H. (1901), All About Dogs, A Book for Doggy People, London and New York, John Lane
  24. What are the Animal Welfare Issues With Docking Dogs’ Tails?
  25. Tail Docking FAQ
  26. Handelman, B. (2008). Canine Behavior.  Norwich, VT.  Woof and Word Press.
  27. Fratkin, J. L. and Baker, S. C. (2013). The Role of Coat Color and Ear Shape on the Perception of Personality in Dogs.  Anthrozoos  26 (1). doi: 10.2752/175303713X13534238631632