Why Tail Docking Dogs and Farm Animals Is Usually Unnecessary and Inhumane

The practice is opposed by most veterinarians — so why does it continue?

A boxer dog in a front yard
Credit: AxsDeny/Flickr

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Though most often associated with dogs, livestock — especially pigs — are also commonly subjected to tail docking. Regardless of the species being subjected to docking, there are many similar consequences for animal welfare. Taking away part of an animal’s tail can hamper their ability to communicate  and cause chronic pain.

In the case of dogs, tail docking is usually done purely for aesthetic purposes, whereas for farm animals, the procedure is done to keep meat production running smoothly. For example, one of the main reasons for docking piglet tails is to avoid cannibalism. Pigs often cannibalize each other out of boredom due to the inhumane  farm conditions.

What Is a Docked Tail?

A docked tail is a tail that has been shortened by amputation. Occasionally, the procedure is medically necessary; for example, due to an injury. However, in most cases, the reasons behind tail docking are either aesthetic or stem from the poor living conditions on factory farms.

Docking is commonly performed on farmed animals, including sheep and pigs, and sometimes cows. Some dogs also have their tails docked. The American Kennel Clubs’ (AKC) standards for dozens of different breeds require tail docking. Their stance on the procedure has remained unchanged, even though other countries — such as the UK — have legislation in place preventing docking in most circumstances.

Not every dog with a stubby tail has endured docking. There are a handful of breeds, such as Boston Terriers, who tend to naturally have shorter tails.

A Brief History of Tail Docking

The origin of all tail docking ultimately boils down to human convenience. Ancient Romans thought that clipping off the tail’s tip (and sometimes parts of the tongue) would protect dogs from contracting rabies. However, when the real cause of the disease was discovered, the practice fell into disuse.

Tail docking in dogs once again reached prominence during the 16th and 17th centuries because of the belief that it would make fighting dogs faster. As a “bonus,” chopping off fighting dogs’ tails removed the option of opponents grabbing hold.

Why Are Dogs’ Tails Docked?

Today, there are only a handful of reasons why a dog’s tail might be docked. The first, and most legitimate, is that they’ve injured their tail, and docking is a treatment. For example, sometimes this procedure is carried out in dogs with chronic “happy tail” — a condition in which they are constantly banging their tail on walls or other items, leading to persistent injuries — or dogs who have broken their tails.

In addition to medical necessity, there are numerous other reasons why a dog’s tail might be docked. Among them are  their perceived safety, cleanliness and aesthetics. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) doesn’t regard any of these reasons as worthwhile causes to amputate.

Working dogs, such as those used by people as guard dogs and for hunting, often have their tails amputated to prevent injury. Some dogs with long hair have their tails docked for hygienic purposes, though a surgical procedure should never be performed when grooming would suffice.

Perhaps one of the most frivolous reasons that dogs’ tails are docked is to adhere to breed standards. Even pedigreed dogs who will never set foot in a show ring often have their tails chopped off shortly after birth.

In fact, the purchaser often has to specify before their new puppy is even born if they don’t want their dog’s tail docked. Boxers, Dobermans, Corgis and numerous other breeds all have their tails docked as a standard practice.

Guard Dogs

Proponents of tail docking for guard dogs cite that an intruder could otherwise grab the tail  to stop or distract the dog.

Hunting Dogs

Hunting dogs are sent into the underbrush to chase down wild animals.  According to docking proponents, hunting dogs risk damaging their tails in the underbrush, where burrs and brambles can collect on their fur and later cause infection, though opponents of tail docking point out this is uncommon.

Long-Haired Dogs

For long-haired dog breeds, cleanliness is often a reason used to justify tail docking. Dogs with longer hair run the risk of having brambles, feces or other materials  tangled in their fur. However, routine grooming is usually enough to prevent this from becoming an issue.

Cleanliness is also a reason used to justify chopping off cows’ tails on factory farms — a procedure that can lead to long-term pain and impair communication. For a long time, docking the tails of dairy cows was standard practice, as farmers thought it would reduce the risk of mastitis and improve hygiene overall.

However, in the last decade, the practice has come under fire. As is the case with dogs, the AVMA opposes tail docking cattle as a standard practice, as research has proven that most of the touted benefits don’t actually exist. Meanwhile, the practice can lead to both acute and chronic pain, disease and abnormal behavior.

Cosmetic Reasons

The most common type of docking is cosmetic, or any docking that’s performed routinely instead of as the result of medical necessity. According to the AVMA, docking the tails of guard, long-haired and hunting dogs just because of their coat or profession is cosmetic.

Because cosmetic docking generally has absolutely nothing to do with the dog’s well-being, it tends to be highly controversial, with the AVMA decrying the practice.

Is It Cruel to Dock a Dog’s Tail?

Tail docking puppies has historically been treated much the same way as tail docking piglets — if done young enough, the assumption is that they don’t  feel much pain. However, in both cases, research has established that the procedure results in cries of pain.

A study of 50 puppies at the time they were tail docked recorded shrieks of pain from all of them. Following having their tails removed, they continued whimpering and crying out for an average of over two minutes.

In much the same vein, research has established that piglets suffer when they are docked at just a few days old. Not only do they squeal in pain, but they are also less active than piglets who don’t undergo the procedure.

Which Breeds Get Tail Docked?

Numerous breeds get tail docked. A lot of pointers and other hunting dogs — German shorthair pointers and Vizslas, for example — are docked. Standard schnauzers and Neopolitan mastiffs often have their tails docked. Even some smaller breeds, such as Jack Russell terriers, have their tails partially removed.

Why Is Tail Docking a Problem?

In addition to the direct impact on animals’ quality of life, tail docking also sets a dangerous precedent. As tail docking falls out of favor with veterinarians, individuals may take it upon themselves or seek less qualified people to perform the surgery.

Perpetuating tail docking as a breed standard for numerous dogs, while also associating docked tails with toughness — especially for Dobermans, Rottweilers and other working breeds — places them at risk of having at-home docking jobs performed.

Tail Docking Is Painful

While little research has been done to determine whether dogs who have their tails docked endure lifelong pain, one study found that at the time of amputation, most puppies screamed and then proceeded to whimper until they fell asleep.

Tail docking is usually performed before five days of age. Due to the risk of anesthetizing such young puppies, the procedure is typically carried out with the pups fully conscious.

There is evidence suggesting that the nervous systems of animals who experience a traumatic injury — such as having their tails docked — do not develop normally.

Tail Docking Can Cause Behavioral Issues

Some experts suggest that dogs whose tails are docked struggle to communicate, making aggressive interactions more likely. There is some debate surrounding the actual impact of tail docking on behavior; more research is needed to know for sure.

Tails Are Used for Communication Purposes

What is clear is that tails play an important role in communicating — not just with other animals, but also with people.

A dog with a wagging tail is often perceived by humans as happy, but this is not necessarily true. A wagging tail can actually mean that a dog is anxious, and could even mean that their fight-or-flight instinct has been activated. Being able to see the entire tail makes it easier to determine what the dog is  feeling.

It’s not just dogs who need their tail to communicate; though small, a pig’s tail is also an important communication tool.

Is Tail Docking Legal?

Tail docking is banned in countries and regions across the world. In much of South America and Europe, Iceland, Australia and South Africa, there are laws preventing dogs’ tails from being removed in most circumstances.

However, livestock don’t enjoy the same protections in most places. While the EU has taken steps to phase out tail docking in piglets as a standard procedure, in other countries,  young pigs are still docked routinely.  For those countries that have been successful at phasing out tail docking, providing additional enrichment has proven key.

Does Tail Docking Affect a Dog’s Behavior?

Tail docking makes it harder for dogs to communicate, whether that be with other canines or humans. This means that it’s easier for their intentions to be misconstrued, resulting in a higher incidence of aggressive interactions.

When Did Tail Docking for Cosmetic Purposes Begin?

While tail docking has been performed for thousands of years for a variety of reasons, cosmetic docking — done for purely aesthetic purposes — became popular more recently. In the 1950s dog shows in the United States formalized cosmetic docking, compelling many breeders and guardians to dock dogs  to comply with breed standards.

Veterinary opposition to the practice has endured about as long as people have been needlessly docking tails, with one book condemning it as early as 1854.

Why Does AVMA Policy Oppose Cosmetic Tail Docking?

AVMA opposes cosmetic tail docking, considering any tail docking carried out routinely to be cosmetic. This means that not only are they against docking the tails of pets, but also the routine docking of hunting or working dogs.

Why Does AKC Support Cosmetic Tail Docking?

The American Kennel Club supports tail docking to preserve “breed standards.” Essentially, this means that because some people decided that because certain breeds “look better” with shorter tails, all members of this breed should have their tails docked — especially if their guardians wish to enter them into dog shows.

What Are the Arguments Against Tail Docking?

In dogs, there are two major arguments against tail docking: when performed routinely it’s an unnecessary and painful procedure, and it impacts dogs’ ability to communicate with other canines and people.

Despite the same being true for farm animals, the procedure endures across much of the world, with only limited pushback.

What You Can Do

First and foremost, consider where you get future furry family members. Adopting from a shelter or rehoming from a family member or friend who is unable to keep a beloved family pet is usually the best way to go.

However, if you have your sites set on a certain breed, be sure to do lots of research on breeders and choose one who, ideally, doesn’t dock any of their dogs’ tails. At the least, request that your new puppy’s tail not be docked before they’re born.

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