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Tail Docking - The Facts

Members of the public may be surprised to learn that all dogs are born with tails and that removal of puppies’ tails is an unnecessary and painful mutilation. While it may appear strange to see a Rottweiler with a tail, it is only because of what we are accustomed to -it would be equally odd to see a Labrador without a tail!

 Why dock tails? 

The practice of docking dogs’ tails has been around for hundreds of years and for a variety of reasons. Maybe the most understandable would have been to reduce the likelihood of injury of those dogs used for ratting, fighting and hunting. However it was also thought that docking of the tail prevented rabies, increased the speed of the working dog and even avoided the payment of tax!

The establishment of the Kennel Club in the early 1900s resulted in official recognition of pedigreed dogs that had to conform to the so-called breed standards. One way to ensure uniformity was to encourage cropping of ears and docking of tails so that the dogs tended to look alike. This practice became the norm and the fashion of cropped ears and docked tails was carried out as a routine procedure.

While many would try and insist that there are still valid reasons why certain breeds should have their tails docked the reality is that there is no logical explanation why any animal should be mutilated for the sake of fashion. Many breed clubs will insist that the tails are easily injured especially in working breeds, but there is no evidence to suggest that this is in fact the case. There are other equally ludicrous reasons given from the fact that wagging tails can cause damage in the home to improving hygiene in long coated breeds. 

Why have a tail?

Many might consider that the tail is a useless appendage but it is worth looking at it more closely.

Anatomically the canine tail consists of a number of vertebrae at the end of the spinal column supported by many muscles and tendons allowing for very efficient movement.

The tail has a rich and intricate nerve supply- motor nerves which are associated with the movement of muscles, and sensory nerves which conduct messages to the brain.

The tail is an important means of counterbalance when the dog is moving, jumping etc and helps to stabilize the vertebral column. Removal of the tail compromises the dog’s ability to balance the entire spinal column. One only needs to watch a working dog to appreciate the masterful use of the tail as the dog moves.

The tail is also an essential part of canine communication. The dog is a pack animal and relies on body language and voice to signal its intent. Without a tail a dog has lost one of its prime opportunities to indicate emotions such as joy, fear, and aggression.  Watch a Boxer express happiness-they will wag their whole body while a Boxer with a tail will only wag the tail!!

It has been shown that docking of the tail may affect the muscles involved in defaecation.

It is also quite possible that certain animals may experience continual pain and discomfort much like phantom pain in humans following limb amputation. It has been speculated that there may be a higher incidence of urinary incontinence in bitches of docked breeds.

How is a tail docked?

For those who are not familiar with the tail docking procedure it is a barbaric practice. The procedure would normally be done at between 2 and 4 days of age. According to fashion a certain proportion of the tail must be removed and may be anything from one third to the whole tail. This would be carried out using a scalpel, scissors and some breeders will use rubber bands, which restrict the blood supply to the tail but must cause excruciating pain. No anaesthetic is used, as both local and general anaesthesia could be highly dangerous in very young puppies.

There are a number of complications that may arise after the procedure. The pup may go into shock and there may be haemorrhage, infection and even death. There is also the possibility that there may be persistent pain due to irritation of the nerve endings. There is very definitely distress as the pups will cry and attempt to move away. The extreme shock of such a procedure on a newborn pup cannot be underestimated.

Is the procedure painful?

 In recent years there has been greater understanding of the mechanisms of pain. It was originally thought that newborn pups would not feel pain or that it would be momentary. This has been shown to be quite untrue and in fact there may be an even greater sensitivity due to an increased number of nerve endings. The complex pain pathways, which may be undeveloped in the newborn pup, may be affected detrimentally by the procedure. Proportionately the pain that a pup will experience will be far greater than that experienced by an adult.

The only situation where amputation of the tail may be necessary in an adult dog would be where there has been irreversible damage. A qualified veterinarian would carry out this procedure under strict surgical conditions and with a general anaesthetic. 

Ear Cropping 

Ear cropping is a procedure performed on puppies to alter their appearance and is purely cosmetic. It results in the ears being held in an erect position and tends to give the dog a fierce expression. To submit any animal to painful cosmetic mutilation is against all codes of welfare. Unfortunately there will always be those who will carry out such a procedure if there is a demand. 

What can be done to stop tail docking?

Many European countries instituted bans on tail docking and ear cropping some years ago. Tail docking has been banned in Australia and this has been very successful with a very proactive public education program. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association has recommended that the procedures should be phased out and has encouraged all member associations, which includes South Africa, to instigate measures to make the docking of dogs’ tails illegal except for therapeutic reasons. This commitment is part of a drive to improve the welfare of animals worldwide.

 The Kennel Club continues to allow docked and undocked dogs in the same classes and does little to discourage the practice. Ear cropping in South Africa is considered an unethical practice but is still done on some breeds.

Education of the public is essential, and demanding that puppies be left undocked will create pressure on breeders to discontinue tail docking. Animal owners concerned about welfare of their pets can go a long way to putting an end to these distasteful practices.

Reference:  Australian Veterinary Journal Vol 74, No. 1, July 1996

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