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cropping, docking, and dewclaws, oh my

cropping, docking, and dewclaws, oh my, Responsible Breeding, Responsible Ownership

Cropping and docking are going away. Which side of history will your breed be on?

Some years ago a fellow came to my office and insisted that he needed to dock the tail of his dog. I asked, “How will your dog be better when it doesn’t have a tail?” He replied, “Well, that’s the standard of gundog owners associations around the world.” I said, “Who cares?”

(Alan Ashton, veterinarian, New South Wales, Hansard, April 06, 2004)

I have a sixteen-year-old daughter who is just about to breed her first litter. She is entering the dog fancy at the very end of two hundred years of show-breeding-based cosmetic surgery in the United States.

By the time she is the age I am now, most of the states in the US will have passed cropping and docking bans. The few states that remain without laws on the books will have no vets who perform the procedures, effectively ending the practice of cropping. A few breeders will still dock at home, but most pet owners will consider the sight of a cropped or docked dog to be unusual, and many will consider it repulsive.

When Honour goes to dog shows with me in 2015, surrounding her are hundreds of cropped and docked dogs. In 2040, assuming she is still in the fancy, there will be few or none.

I can feel you gearing up for an argument about your breed, its history, what’s allowable and what freedom means.

Shut your mouths.

We are beyond arguing about whether cropping or docking are ethical for breeders to do. The argument has already been settled. The veterinary leadership took the position that cosmetic cropping and docking was wrong in the 1970s.1 Since then, its position has only strengthened.2 The rejection of cropping/docking is not confined to the veterinary profession, either – it has moved into the philosophical,3 legal,4 and public perception.5

The veterinary community had a general feeling in the 70s, but science had progressed enough by the 1990s to make researchers certain that dogs did feel pain from both procedures. Again, if you’re taking a breath to say that baby puppies don’t feel pain when they’re docked, you are completely and totally wrong. 6 It’s also false that it’s less painful to dock during puppyhood than amputate in adulthood.7 And if you insist on either one of these things, you are not only perpetuating a falsehood,8 you just make us look even more stupid.9

By 2008, not only was it certain that the procedures caused pain, it was certain that they did not provide anything close to a compensatory benefit. Undocked dogs have very few tail injuries. 10 Cropping does not prevent ear infections.11 The implementation of cropping/docking on “working breeds” is so inconsistent as to be laughable.12 The jig is up; nobody believes you when you say it’s for a working purpose.13

So in 2009, the AVMA released a new policy, one that did not just advise against cropping and docking but condemned it. This policy change was not initiated by any communication with the animal rights lobby;14 it was the result of a genuine groundswell of opinion among the veterinary community.

The show-breeding community is the only group that still wants dogs to be docked or cropped, and we’ve effectively moved (in veterinary perception) from an institution that is somewhat quaint and set in its ways to a source of active cruelty. 15

When I bought my first Great Dane, there were vets in almost every state who would do a decent show crop. An extensive network of home croppers was general knowledge in the community. Fifteen years later, breeders are traveling across half the country to find one of the few vets who will still do a show crop.

This is not a coincidence.

The vets who support breeders’ desire to crop are older; a huge number of them have retired in the last couple of decades. In the next twenty years, virtually all of the remaining show-cropping vets will retire or die. They will not be replaced. And home cropping is now so universally condemned in vet schools that the story of a show cropper who wants assistance to crop at home is used as a test case in veterinary ethics textbooks.16

No matter how much you may try to deny it, the facts are inescapable. No matter how you feel about docking and cropping, they are no longer going to be an option very soon.

So what are you going to do now – as breeders, as parent clubs, as ambassadors of your breed?

Here’s what is NOT going to work:

1) The “Then I’ll take my ball and go home” solution: If we’re not allowed to dock or crop, threaten to stop breeding.

All this would do is confirm to the entire world that the right to be able to cut off pieces of your dogs is more important to you than the dogs themselves. It would be a very public admission of an extremely unattractive attitude, and would turn the public against show breeders with great efficiency.

2) The “Throw lobbying money at it” solution: Insist that this is just “AR nonsense” and that if you give enough money to the NAIA or push the AKC hard enough this will all go away. 

First, the move toward banning docking and cropping is not “Animal rights nonsense.” Not only is it not the result of animal rights lobbying, it is not nonsense. What IS nonsense is saying that cropping and docking don’t hurt dogs. Throwing money at perpetuating nonsense is doomed to failure over the long term, and it should be.

Second, by trying to push this as a legislative agenda, you are positioning show breeders AGAINST the world’s veterinarians and AGAINST the world’s legal ethicists. Is that really a place we want to put ourselves? Or are we dooming ourselves to look abusive and blind when history looks back and considers this question?

Here’s what you SHOULD be doing:

1) Rewrite your standards now, not when you’re forced to. 

Parent clubs have a VERY limited window of time in which to represent a standard change as their own idea and not something rammed down their throats.

2) Publicize your club’s decision.

You have the opportunity to gain a huge amount of goodwill among the decision-makers of the veterinary community, the legislature, and pet owners if you are perceived as being ahead of the curve on this topic. This well of goodwill is getting shallower by the year. Do it now and do it very loudly.

3) Stop making excuses, pull your head out of the sand, wake up and smell the coffee, or whatever cliché makes you change your rhetoric.

There is no rational justification for cosmetic docking and cropping and there never has been. The only situation that made it so easy to perpetuate was a lack of absolute certainty about the causing of pain both immediate and long-term. That era is over.

4) Spend the goodwill and the publicity you gained in step 2 to educate vets and the public on something that’s both defensible AND pro-dog.

“We’re glad to get our breed in the news for this wonderful reason. We want to invite everyone to come out to the shows and see how dedicated our breeders are to the welfare of their breeds.”

“We hope this decision encourages more people to get involved in our wonderful breed; if you’re interested in becoming a responsible breeder, visit our website.”

“We hope this decision affirms our dedication to providing the very best care for all dogs. If you’d like to learn more about evidence-based breeding, including what veterinary interventions we support and which ones we don’t, check out our homepage.”

The bottom line: Now is the time to act. Being truthful, humane, and proactive will, in the public’s eyes, earn us the right to continue to have a voice in the national dialog about dogs. If we reject any of those three principles, we’re proclaiming ourselves to be unreliable, and we will be treated as such when it comes to vital dog arguments in the decades to come.
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Notes on the footnotes: None of the sources are from animal rights publications or from the research arm of any animal-rights-oriented institution. They are from mainstream peer-reviewed journals and AVMA publications. The AVMA is not an animal-rights-friendly organization; it actively supports ownership rather than guardianship language, disbudding and dehorning, the use of animals in research, and so on. 

My statements on state cropping/docking bans are based on the rapidly accelerating pace of docking/cropping lawmaking and proposed bans. Test-case laws are being proposed virtually every year, and (as with most sea changes in public perceptions) are likely to succeed in one or more of the New England states, California, or Oregon within the next few years. Vermont already has a sort-of ban, as of 2006 (Vermont didn’t have any vets who would crop, so the ban did not have any teeth, but it was enacted). Once a true ban is enacted, a half-dozen other states will follow quickly, and then the court of public opinion will create a sweep. 

I am leaving the comments open but cautiously. Please do not comment that puppies do not feel pain or are not affected by docking/cropping; I’ve already posted the studies that establish that they do. Any statement of fact in a comment must be backed up by a cite, and the strength of the cites must be high.

  1.  https://www.avma.org/News/JAVMANews/Pages/090315c.aspx
  2.  https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Reference/AnimalWelfare/Documents/tail_docking_history.pdf
  3. http://lch.sagepub.com/content/6/1/37.short
  4. “Two recent cases have opened the door to successful animal cruelty prosecutions for ear cropping and tail docking. First, in Hammer v. American Kennel Club, a dog owner brought a discrimination suit against the AKC alleging that a docked tail standard effectively excluded his dog from participating in competitions, as the owner believed tail docking to be a form of animal cruelty. Although the court dismissed the action on the ground that the plaintiff had failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted, and this case had no effect on the previous decision in Rogers , the court did specifically state that the anti-cruelty law could be construed to prohibit tail docking for cosmetic purposes as unjustifiable mutilation. Additionally, in a pointed dissent, N.Y. Supreme Court (Appellate Division) Justice Ellerin states, “Assuming arguendo that the protection of hunting dogs against tail injuries justifies docking the tails of hunting dogs, it is not a justification for docking the tails of non-hunting dogs . . . for the purposes of AKC competitions.” https://www.animallaw.info/article/cropping-and-docking-discussion-controversy-and-role-law-preventing-unnecessary-cosmetic
  5. From a very lay-oriented article in WSJ: “Some dogs growl before biting and some don’t; the canine body speaks louder than the voice. That is why dogs whose tails are docked or ears cropped lose some of their linguistic fluency.” http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-is-your-dog-telling-you-1431098919
  6. Noonan G, Rand J, Blackshaw J, et al. Behavioural observations of puppies undergoing tail docking. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1996;4: 335-342. Also Fitzgerald M. (1994). – The neurobiology of fetal and neonatal pain. In A textbook of pain (P.D. Wall & R. Melzack, eds), 3rd Ed. Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh, 153-163
  7. “It has also been suggested that accidental tail trauma to the adult dog causes more suffering than amputation early in life. However, puppies are rarely provided analgesia when their tails are docked and the short-and long-term effects of painful procedures in neonates of many species are well documented.” LaPrarie JL, Murphy AZ. Long Term Impact of Neonatal Injury in Male and Female Rats: Sex Differences, Mechanisms and Clinical Implications. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology 2010;31:193-202.
  8. “A survey conducted in Australia in 1996 found that 76% of veterinarians surveyed believed that tail docking causes significant to severe pain, with none believing that no pain is experienced. In contrast, 82% of dog breeders believed that docked puppies experience no, or only mild pain.” Bennett and Perini, “Tail docking in dogs: a review of the issues,” Australian Veterinary Journal, April 2003, vol. 81, no. 4, p. 209.
  9. “Indeed, whereas most veterinarians state that tail docking causes significant or severe pain and should not be continued (despite its potential as a source of income), most breeders believe that docking is not painful or causes little pain, and want it to continue. It is reasonable to assume that veterinarians, being in closer contact with animals that are suffering through being ill or wounded, are better informed on tail damage than breeders. Moreover, veterinarians are trained to recognise typical pain behaviour, and this recognition significantly increases the ability to distinguish between painful and less painful treatments, for instance in rats (44). Such divided opinions raise questions about the vested interests of the breeders, the breed societies which set the breed standards and the information which they distribute to their members and elsewhere.” http://www.health.fgov.be/internet2Prd/groups/public/@public/@dg4/@animalsplants/documents/ie2divers/19097820_fr.pdf
  10. “These justifications for docking working dogs’ tails lack substantial scientific support. In the largest study to date on tail injuries in dogs the incidence was 0.23% and it was calculated that approximately 500 dogs need to be docked to prevent one tail injury.”   Diesel G, Pfeiffer D, Crispin S, et al. Risk factors for tail injuries in dogs in Great Britain. Vet Rec 2010;166:812-817.
  11. “Otitis externa incidence, however, is most closely associated with particular breeds within each group (whether ears are hanging or erect), and is especially prevalent in Cocker Spaniels, Poodles, and German Shepherd Dogs. … (But) no group deems a high incidence of otitis externa a valid reason for advocating routine cropping of the ears of Cocker Spaniels or Poodles. … Breeds such as Cocker Spaniels seem to be predisposed to otitis externa due to a greater density of apocrine glands and a predisposition to proliferative ceruminous gland hyperplasia (i.e., proliferation of cells) and ectasia (i.e., dilation or distension). This clustering of risk factors suggests the risk of otitis externa in pedigreed dogs must be considered on a breed-by-breed basis, and that grouping study samples by ear shape (e.g., pendulous or erect) may not be justified” https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/FAQs/Pages/Frequently-asked-questions-about-ear-cropping-and-canine-otitis-externa.aspx
  12. “Differences between breeds that are docked and those that are not are often minor.  For example among the very similar Pointer, German Longhaired Pointer and German Shorthaired Pointer, only the German Shorthaired Pointer is traditionally docked.” https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/FAQs/Pages/Frequently-asked-questions-about-canine-tail-docking.aspx
  13. “Based on current knowledge and ethical considerations, authors of many previous articles, as well as official veterinary associations, have concluded that tail docking cannot be considered as a prophylactic measure to prevent damage caused by practices such as hunting. From an ethical point of view, these articles and opinions examine which item carries most weight: the suffering of the whole newborn population of traditionally docked breeds or the pain felt by the few individuals possibly requiring an amputation in adulthood.” http://www.health.fgov.be/internet2Prd/groups/public/@public/@dg4/@animalsplants/documents/ie2divers/19097820_fr.pdf
  14. “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. https://www.avma.org/News/JAVMANews/Pages/090315c.aspx
  15. “I think we can all agree that snipping off puppies ears and tails serves no purpose other than to satisfy some archaic notion of how a dog should look by an out-of-touch institution.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2764515/
  16. “A local schnauzer breeder with whom you have worked for the last five years wants to buy a bottle of Innovar-vet…” http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-EHEP002754.html