Pet Wellness: Ears & Tails Controversy

Ear cropping and tail docking are sensitive subjects in the dog world. Some people see these procedures as cosmetic mutilation and others defend them because of historically established standards.

Cropping appears to have begun for medical reasons. The ears of dogs bred for fighting were particularly prone to injury and so were cropped. Some hunting, herding, and working dogs may also be similarly prone, yet all floppy-ear working dogs or terriers are not cropped, nor are members of the sporting group.

Most of the breeds cropped also have their normally floppy ears turned into erect ears, but the argument that the ear is then less prone to injury or infection is not borne out by veterinary experience. In fact, Dr. Brian Easton, of Cochrane, Alta., says cropped, smooth-coated breeds like the Boxer are more likely to get foreign materials in their ears because they lack the abundance of protective hair of other erect-ear breeds.

Tail docking also appears to have begun for medical reasons. Tails of long-legged hunting dogs are often docked, apparently to prevent injury in the field, and those of terriers that "go to ground,” apparently to provide a "handle” so the hunter can retrieve the animal from a hole. However, not all sporting or hunting dogs are docked. Tail damage in undocked breeds is rare, according to Easton, and the risk to certain breeds in their working environment has not been adequately assessed.

Given the weakness in the medical arguments, and the fact that most purebred dogs today live as pets, it appears that these procedures continue to be done mostly for cosmetic reasons.

And what puppies face to achieve these antiquated standards is not trivial. Things can go wrong, especially if the procedures are not done by veterinarians using proper anaesthetic, instruments, and sterile surgical technique. Ear cropping is a major surgical procedure, according to Easton, performed when the puppies are 10 to 16 weeks old, depending on the breed. He administers a painkiller to ease the discomfort coming out of the anaesthetic, and he says puppies will shake their heads and try to scratch in response to the pain, mostly in the first couple of days. Many veterinarians refuse to crop ears. Easton does it only for the animals’ sakes, to keep them out of the hands of unqualified people.

Tail docking is a comparatively minor procedure, done when the puppy is three to seven days old. The puppies cry out when the tail is cut, says Easton, but otherwise forget all about it. He believes that it should be done by a veterinarian, however, because things can go wrong.

Of the 161 breeds recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC), five are cropped, 40 are docked, and nine are both cropped and docked, for a total of 54. Cropping is optional in all 14 breeds in which it is done (i.e., natural ears are accepted in the show ring), whereas docking appears to be truly optional in only four breeds, with four others (Australian Shepherd, Brittany Spaniel, Old English Sheepdog, and Pembroke Welsh Corgi) potentially naturally bob-tailed. Of the seven CKC groups, only the Hounds escape both of these procedures.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association opposes ear cropping and tail docking, but according to the CKC, unless the breed clubs ask for it, the standards are unlikely to change, regardless of veterinary or public opinion.

If that is the case, it may be up to buyers to effect change by not cropping their pups’ ears, and finding breeders that will agree not to dock their pups’ tails. In time, natural faces and bums will become commonplace, the change in the breed standard will more likely occur, and we can finally enjoy these dogs as they were meant to be.

Penny Grey is a freelance writer in Nanaimo.