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The Campaign Against the Docking of Dogs' Tails


TAIL DOCKING - a veterinary perspective


John M Bower BVSc MRCVS 

RCVS Tail Docking WORKING Party



One of the first veterinarians in print with his views on tail docking of dogs was William Youatt in his book The Dog  in 1854.  He was clearly upset by the procedure which was carried out, he says, because "the tail of the dog does not suit the fancy of the owner".  By 1896 opposition to docking had grown to such an extent that the Kennel Club debated a motion entitled "No dog born after 31 March 1896 can, if docked win a prize at a show held under Kennel Club rules."  The motion was lost on the grounds that docking was such a trivial operation as to be unworthy of further discussion, not because there were good reasons for continuing.


The original reasons for docking, or tailing as it used to be known, are lost in the mists of time.  Hints, however, can be found in the writings of eminent people such as veterinarians like Youatt, or those involved in dog breeding or showing.  One such is Captain Jocelyn Lucas, M.C. who wrote several books on dogs in the 1920s including Pedigree Dog Breeding, The Sealyham Terrier, and Hints on Dog Management.  In this latter booklet, the foreword of which is written by no lesser person than Charles Cruft, he includes an explanatory section on docking.  It is pertinent to quote the first two paragraphs in full.


 "The docking or cutting of the tail of certain breeds is permitted by the Kennel Club, notably Fox, Irish, Sealyham, and Airedale Terriers, Spaniels, Poodles, etc.


Docking is not merely a fashion, for it has a practical origin.  All running dogs such as Hounds, Greyhounds and Retrievers - animals used to catch as well as pursue game, have their tails left long, so that they can twist and turn, using their tails as "rudders."  Dogs such as the Spaniel used for hunting out game but not for catching it, formerly had their tails cut to impede them.  Thus the bobtailed Sheepdog was originally docked to prevent him catching hares."

This is a far cry from the current reasons put forward by the Council of Docked Breeds which centre round hygiene, and prevention of possible future injury, in an attempt to justify a procedure which is a tradition.  At least Larry Elsdon and others, in the Docking Debate of the mid 1980s at a BSAVA/Beechams Breeders' Symposium in Loughborough, admitted that the main reason they wished to see docking continue was that they liked the look of their breeds when docked and felt they had a right to carry out the procedure.


In recent times veterinary interest in docking was rekindled at the BVA Congress in Dublin in 1969 where, by a large majority, members attending the AGM voted their opposition to the procedure.  As a result, in 1973, the RCVS included in the Guide to Professional Conduct a statement to the effect that "it cannot be ethically correct for a veterinary surgeon to carry out the docking of a dog's tail except in cases of disease or injury.  However, whilst the docking of dogs' tails remains permissible in law, and in particular, whilst the law continues to permit the docking of the tails of dogs under certain conditions by lay persons, The Council does not feel able to go so far as to say that the docking of dogs' tails by a veterinary surgeon for non-therapeutic reasons would amount to prima facie evidence of conduct disgraceful in a professional respect."  


Opposition continued to mount and in 1985, at a BSAVA lunch in the House of Commons hosted by Dame Janet Fookes MP, MPs  were briefed on the topic.  Surprisingly some were unaware that short tailed dogs such as Boxers were born with tails and immediately asked questions in Parliament about the procedure.


In the summer of 1989, the veterinary profession were invited, through the RCVS, to put the profession's view point to the Home Office.  The BVA, and its major Division, the BSAVA, confirmed their opposition, stated clearly in their policy statements, and compiled democratically from members' opinion, to non-therapeutic tail docking in dogs.  Supporting evidence included, amongst other arguments, observations and assurances by dog behaviourists that the tail was an important and powerful communication tool for the dog; the Royal (Dick) Veterinary School retrospective survey of 12,129 clinical cases involving tails that showed there was no reduction in the incidence of tail problems in docked dogs; and a recording of a Radio 4 broadcast in the "Punters" series that concluded that tail docking was unjustified and inhumane.


The case put to the Home Office during that meeting concluded with the urgent request that primary legislation be introduced to ban the non-therapeutic removal of dogs' tails in the UK.


The Minister, Douglas Hogg, was visibly impressed with the arguments put forward by the profession, and asked the RCVS what its action would be if he decided on a compromise solution and banned non-veterinarians from performing the procedure by removing  the exemption that permitted this in the Veterinary Surgeons Act.  He was advised at the time that the Council of the RCVS would be likely to make it unethical for veterinarians to remove tails for non-therapeutic reasons.  It seems that the Home Office took their eventual decision in the belief that tail docking would cease as a result of the appropriate amendment of the Veterinary Surgeons' Act, rather than introduce the primary legislation, so clearly requested by the RCVS.


This single move, a "ducking of the issue", has had a devastatingly harmful effect on the trusting relationship between the dog breeder and the vet.  It has led to vituperous attacks on vets in the dog press, pressure on breeders to change vets to those who would still dock, regardless of whether that vet could or would service the other much more important needs of the breeder on a willing 24 hours basis.  Vets got the blame for a Governmental action that Government knew had only one outcome.  Subsequent conversations with the Home Office confirmed this.  "Legislation was not needed to ban this act," they argued.  "We have merely grouped tail removal along with surgical removal of any other part of the body, and that is all adequately covered by the Veterinary Surgeons Act.  If you do not remove legs and ears without reason and without special legislation, then you do not need special legislation to ban the surgical removal of tails."  A good, powerful, but naive point.

Further evidence that Government really intended this move to end docking comes from Hansard, the House of Commons Official Report on Parliamentary Debates, a verbatim transcript of the Standing Committee proceedings, on 21 May 1991.  The then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, David Maclean, in moving the amendment to the Veterinary Surgeons' Act that would ban docking by lay people with effect from 1 July 1993, said, and I quote:


"Home Office Ministers with a responsibility for animals held several meetings with interested bodies, including the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the Kennel Club, and the Council for Docked Breeds.  Following those meetings and further consultation by my Department, Ministers concluded that steps should be taken to phase out tail docking.  The veterinary profession is unanimous that tail docking is a mutilation that is cosmetic, and serves no useful purpose - and the Government entirely agree."


There can surely be no doubt as to Government's intention after that definitive statement.


In 1992 a survey on docking was conducted among the 3,300 members of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association [BSAVA].  Some 2,214 replies were received, a very high response rate of 67%, and of these 92% wished to see the end

of tail docking.  This was the mandate and incentive needed for the RCVS Council to rule, on 12 November 1992, that tail docking of dogs, for reasons other than therapeutic or acceptable prophylactic purposes, was unethical, and that repeated unethical behaviour had the potential to be construed as disgraceful conduct.


There seems to be a very good reason for leaving tails on: 


* Tails are there for a purpose and are very useful to the dog for      communication, balance and steering. 



If other reasons are needed, the following are relevant.


* As it is a useful organ, present at birth, why remove it?

* Why remove all tails of a certain breed to prevent injury in the tiny, tiny minority?

* there is obviously some pain inflicted on removal.

* Even if this is not severe, what right have we to remove a tail?

* Normal length tails help to empty the anal sacs.  (They certainly help vets to    empty them!)

* There is opinion that the muscles used to wag the tail also strengthen the    perineal area and help prevent perineal hernias.


Pain is present, however minor and fleeting, and it can be measured.  Pain is possibly the least powerful argument as it is so slight.  But it is there.  Professor David Morton's study of the subject (Veterinary Record, 3 October 1992) shows this. 

The Royal (Dick) Veterinary School survey into the presence or absence of tail damage in over twelve thousand clinical cases in docked and undocked breeds has shown that docking does not reduce tail injury.  The report (Veterinary Record 13 April 1985) concludes: "Since the odds ratio is not significantly greater than one, tail docking cannot be recommended as a prophylactic procedure against tail injuries in any dog population similar to the predominantly urban one from which the teaching unit draws its cases"


No-one has put forward a substantive argument for docking except that to ban it is to remove a traditional right, that certain breeds look better without tails, or that it doesn't hurt so why stop it.


Breeders of working dogs, such as Springer Spaniels, have argued that in order to prevent damage to their dogs' tails when working in close cover, a portion of the tail should be removed.  To my knowledge, there is no evidence, except anecdotal, to support this.  Dogs do not reverse into cover tail first, and if any part of the body were to be damaged in such circumstances, it would be logical to suppose that it would be the long floppy ears of such a breed.  However, ears are not cropped or shortened to prevent this.  If in the future long tails are shown to be more prone to damage when dogs are being worked, statistics will reveal this fact.  Many veterinary practices now have access to computerised records and the veterinary profession would respond to this.  However, without the benefit of the knowledge of the proportion of Springers that work in close cover to those that are family pets, it is difficult to justify the mass removal of this organ from the breed.  Indeed working Springers traditionally have their tails left longer than show specimens.


Tail injuries in dogs are quite uncommon in practice.  Vets certainly see as many tail problems following docking as in dogs whose tails were not docked.  A noticeable number of docked puppies' tails need re-docking to remove an inflamed or infected callus, or one caused by a vertebra being left too long.  Tail injuries do not occur often enough to justify the mass removal of all tails in traditionally docked breeds.  Cat tail injuries, however, are much more common, occurring as a result of fights, and road accidents especially. Yet no-one would suggest the mass removal of cat tails to prevent possible injury at some unspecified time in the future.


The argument for docking, loudly and strongly proclaimed, is that of the removal of a right, by the people who had that right - the breeders of the docked breeds.  The veterinary profession respects that point of view but, by an overwhelming majority and with a strong mandate, prefer to argue from the point of view of the welfare of their patient, and not to cause any unnecessary suffering to puppies.


What of the largest group of people involved in dogs - the family pet owners.  These are the people who for years, in our surgeries, have been expressing disquiet at docking, at being unable to obtain pups with tails, or expressing disbelief when they find out that the puppies were not born without a tail, but that someone amputated them.  To test the current attitude of this far larger body of dog (and cat) owners, a questionnaire has been devised and used in several veterinary practices in a totally unselected manner.  The format is as illustrated:







Dogs such as Boxers, Dobermanns, Spaniels, Poodles and many other breeds have customarily had their tails removed or shortened (docked) at 3 to 5 days old.

For over a year now, it has been illegal for anyone except a vet to do this.

Our governing body, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, has advised vets not to do this except where it is beneficial to the individual dog.  We would value your opinion:

q     I think puppies of those breeds should have

         their tails removed or shortened 

q     I think puppies of those breeds should not have their tails removed or shortened 

q     I own a Dog / Cat / Both.             Breed              



So far, with over two hundred returns, the results make fascinating reading.  The overall outcome is almost identical to the result of the survey of the veterinary profession itself - an overwhelming 91.5% against docking.  Amongst owners of undocked breeds it is 97%, and even amongst owners of traditionally docked breeds it is 81% against docking.  As a check, it was noted that 96.5% of cat owners are against it.


Of course the veterinary profession finds docking distasteful.  How can we wholeheartedly support the unnecessary removal of a useful and limb-like organ.  We have thought long and hard about it.  We have looked at scientific evidence of pain, at statistical evidence of injury, at the attitudes of our young veterinary graduates and our veterinary nurses who are noticeably upset at the prospect of being involved in tail docking, at our ethics in performing it, and at the attitude of our enormous client base.  These same people comprise most of the client base of dog breeders.  They wish to see an end to docking.


The Kennel Club altered their Breed Standards in 1988 so that no dog has to be docked.  Brian Leonard, Kennel Club External Affairs Officer, stated at Crufts this year that no dog will be marked down in a show for having a tail.  He intimated on Radio 2 that education was the way forward, not an outright ban.  However an outright ban on showing docked dogs, as suggested by the Kennel Club motion of 99 years ago, would see the end of docking as surely and rapidly as ear cropping was finished some years ago by a similar declaration from the Kennel Club.


Frank Jackson, in an excellent review article on the subject in Our Dogs (March 1995) entitled Puppy Dogs Tails - The Historical Perspective - ends with the following paragraph, and I can do no better:


"The practice of docking dogs is now being questioned all over the world.  In parts of Scandinavia it has been banned for over three years, in the UK only vets can dock and few are prepared to risk being harangued for unethical conduct by doing so.  The tide against docking is running at different speeds but throughout the world it is running in the same direction.  Canute himself demonstrated that the tide cannot be turned."

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The Campaign Against the Docking of Dogs' Tails


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