CDB Submission - Part Four



The docking of puppies' tails at less than 10 days of age, without anaesthetic, has increasingly become a heated issue within the veterinary profession and interested animal welfare groups and breeders.

Before any discussion, we should define the ideal (and currently legal), procedure for docking of pups' tails:

Docking may be carried out only by a qualified, registered veterinary surgeon, without any required anaesthesia, before 10 days old and before a puppy's eyes are open.

The earlier a puppy is docked, the better and many vets like to carry out the procedure before 3 days of age, but in some small breeds it can be left until the puppy has reached 5 days of age.
Docking can involve a surgical excision or the placing of a specialised rubber band at the required length on the tail.

A veterinary surgeon, through his professional training and experience, will carry out a docking by the most efficient means, using aseptic technique and with the minimum of stress to the pups. It is also expected that the veterinary surgeon will competently advise the client on post-operative care.

History of the issue

A sector of the veterinary profession has, for some time, opposed tail docking. In more recent times, a body of the profession has sought to remove the free choice of the profession to continue to dock at its clinical discretion. This pressure from a "politically correct" section of the profession has succeeded in persuading the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, (RCVS), to adopt an official policy against tail docking in dogs. It should be noted that no open debate on the issue or vote preceded the adoption of this policy other than a questionnaire to BSAVA members approximately ten year ago.

The RCVS has repeatedly stated that it considers docking to be "an unjustifiable mutilation". The emotive power of these words is such that most people, within or without the profession, accept them immediately and without question. However, logical consideration can lead to an alternative opinion.

The Collins Concise Dictionary defines mutilate as "…to damage or maim, especially by depriving of a limb or essential part, etc…" In the case of tail docking it is clear that:

a) a dog's tail is not a limb
b) a dog's tail is not an essential part (for it is patently obvious that a dog can live quite happily without a tail, both physically and emotionally.)

There is no logical basis for using this emotive expression but it is relied upon to cloud the issue emotionally. It must be unreasonable that the RCVS and the anti-docking section of the profession use an unjustified definition to underpin its position. A scientific community would be expected to defend its view with science and considered reason.

The way forward for the profession
The reasonable position on docking that would satisfy all veterinary surgeons would be to allow professional choice. If a veterinary surgeon opposes docking, then he or she is free to refuse to carry out the procedure and vice versa. It is unreasonable for that part of the profession who oppose docking to seek to impose its will on those who take a more positive attitude. This policy has no place within a modern democratic society and indeed must be opposed as an infringement of the liberty and human rights of those clients who wish to have it done and the vets who are willing to dock puppies.

The anti-docking lobby has proffered several arguments against the procedure:

a) It is a painful procedure. Many seek to argue that the tail removal is analogous to having a finger "chopped off" without anaesthesia. While being very emotive, this argument fails. After properly performed docking, every puppy rejoins its siblings quietly, finds a comfortable position and immediately sucks milk or goes back to sleep. Furthermore, pups that have been docked continue to gain weight normally after the procedure and suffer no setbacks. As far as the pup in later life is concerned, it has no memory whatsoever of the procedure and it is as if the docking has never taken place. Contrast this sequence of events to that expected of a sentient human having a finger amputated without anaesthesia and the injustice of the analogy is quite apparent.

b) It is unnecessary. There can be no doubt that any experienced vet or breeder is aware of the possible damage caused by a long whip-like tail-wagging or by gundogs working through thick cover. In such cases, the tail tip becomes chronically inflamed and bruised. Conservative treatment may provide temporary relief but amputation is the only practical cure and this is a much larger operation in the adult dog, involving the risk of a general anaesthetic. Healing can be difficult and protracted and the patient suffers post-operatic discomfort and irritation. Docking is arguably also necessary as a cosmetic requirement in certain breeds so that they can continue to flourish and supply the traditional pet market with the most desirable stock. Experience has shown that pet owners, even when aware of tail docking will not readily purchase undocked varieties of traditionally docked breeds. There is also evidence that welfare societies have a disproportionate number of undocked variants passing through their hands. Breeders are entitled to breed dogs that are naturally docked and if one accepts that breeders have the right to breed cosmetic features, one cannot logically deny them the right to have tails docked for similar cosmetic reasons, especially as it is a simple procedure performed without complication.

c) Docking affects the dog's balance and communication. The balance issue is easily addressed. No dog requires acute balance skills more than a racing greyhound circling the track. Observation shows, however, that the racing greyhound makes little use of its tail during a race. A greyhound which has had its tail docked because of injury suffers no balance impairment during subsequent races.
Communication in dogs is primarily an interaction by smell, facial expression and body posture. Similarly, urine marking of territory is a major communication mode. To a lesser extent, vocal communication plays a part. The tail takes a small part in the process and experience shows that the absence of a tail has absolutely no effect on canine communication skill. It is a simple fact that naturally docked breeds are perfectly happy and interact normally with both humans and other dogs.

d) Docking causes weakness of the anal muscles and an increased risk of perineal hernias. Both of these assertions are unproven in any recognised scientific study. No paper in the professional press has appeared that supports either assertion. Professional experience would confirm both assertions as spurious and untrue.

Robert Wansborough has produced an extensive anti-docking report, which seeks to outlaw docking by listing a myriad of alleged structural and functional adverse sequelae. This report should only impress because of its length. In his introduction, Mr. Wansborough states quite clearly "There have been no scientific studies or double blind trials conducted to compare the effects of tail docking in one sample of dogs with a similar sample of undocked dogs. Similarly, there have been no studies that measure the initial pain and the ongoing pathological pain inflicted on docked dogs". Notwithstanding this admission, Mr. Wansborough proceeds to list his extensive anatomical and physiological anti-docking theories as if they were proven fact. In my 25-year experience of docking dogs and treating them as adult patients, both in the UK and overseas, I have never witnessed any of the adverse effects alleged in his report. Mr. Wansborough is entitled to his personal opinions and theories but they cannot substitute for scientifically proven fact.

In conclusion, vets and breeders must be entitled to make their respective, personal choice as to whether or not to dock. Everyone should respect the mutual right to free choice and that right should be enshrined in law. In my experience, having docked hundreds of pups' tails over the years, the operation has proved fast and without any immediate or long term adverse effects. All heal perfectly within 10 - 14 days and those who have grown up as my patients have proved to be very happy and well adjusted. Of all the animal welfare issues facing the veterinary profession and indeed the Government, I cannot understand that docking is even a subject for debate.

J. L. Holmes. BVM&S MRCVS.

Part Four