Tail docking, the practice of removing part of a puppy's tail early in life, has been banned or restricted in many parts of the world, but in the US and parts of Canada, you can still dock your dog's tail for cosmetic reasons. Here's why it doesn't make sense to subject your non-working dog to this traumatic procedure.

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Top image by 50-phi (CC BY 2.0).

Why did we start docking dogs' tails?

The practice of docking dogs' tails stretches all the way back to Ancient Rome. Lucius Columella, who wrote extensively on agriculture in the first century AD, asserts in his Res Rustica that shepherds believed that, if on a puppy's fortieth day, the final tail bone is chopped off, the tail would not grow and the dog would be protected from rabies.

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In later eras, tails were docked for a number of reasons. The tails of dogs who hunted, herded, or were used as watchdogs were docked in the hopes of preventing injury — the tail, the theory went, was just another appendage that could be trampled on or grabbed by another animal. Similarly, some sources indicate that the tails of dogs that worked in the underbrush were docked with the goal of preventing injury from burs and foxtails.

But perhaps the strangest historical reason that tails were docked has nothing to do with the supposed health of the animal; rather, it was related to taxes. In 18th-century England, there was a tax on dogs, unless the dogs were working dogs. The way you showed that your dog was a working dog was to cut off your dog's tail, and so tail docking became more common as a way to avoid tax liability. It was also supposed to be a handy way to show that your dog wasn't a hunting dog (and that you weren't a potential poacher), since long-tailed dogs were deemed most suitable for hunting at the time.

J.G. Wood, writing in his 1853 Illustrated Natural History, offers some hint as to how this may have caused the practice of docking tails to spread:

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The tail of the Sheep-dog is naturally long and bushy, but is generally removed in early youth, on account of the now obsolete laws, which refused to acknowledge any Dog as a Sheep-dog, or to exempt it from tax, unless it were deprived of its tail. This law, however often defeated its own object, for many persons who liked the sport of coursing, and cared little for appearances, used to cut off the tails of their greyhounds, and evade the tax by describing them as Sheep-dogs.

In 1796, the law was repealed, but the practice of docking dogs' tails continued — and often with aesthetic, rather than practical, justifications. In the 19th century, books like The American Book of the Dog (1891) show us how tail-docking became associated, not with the safety of the dog, but the proper look of the breed. Cropping the ears and docking the tails of certain dog breeds was deemed necessary to win points with the judges in dog shows. (In the UK, however, the Kennel Club deemed dogs with cropped ears ineligible for showing in 1898.) Chances are, if you have a pet dog with a docked tail in the US, the tail was docked to conform with a certain breed standard.

Photo by Jena Fuller (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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Currently, tail docking is banned in Australia and much of Europe, but legal in the US and most of Canada. In England and Wales, tail docking was banned under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but exemptions are made for dogs involved in the following types of work: law enforcement, armed services activities, emergency rescue, lawful pest control, and the lawful shooting of animals. Under the Animal Welfare Act, the docking must occur within the first five days of a puppy's life and must be performed by veterinary surgeon. The Kennel Club allows lawfully docked dogs to be shown. The American Kennel Club allows the showing of dogs that have had their ears cropped, tails docked, and dewclaws removed in keeping with breed standards.

How are tails docked?

There are two ways that dogs' tails are primarily docked. The first procedure involves using surgical scissors to snip off part of a puppy's tail within the first few days of life. (Some vets recommend docking occur at two to five days old, but sometimes tails are docked much later.) The practice is performed without anesthesia and does not typically require stitching up the tail afterward. (You can actually watch tail docking videos on YouTube if you're curious, although I warn you that they tend to involve shrieking puppies.) In some places where tail docking is restricted, this procedure is performed by a veterinary surgeon, but in the US and parts of Canada where docking remains unrestricted, it is often performed at home by breeders and owners.

The second method involves placing a ligature band on a puppy's tail, preventing blood flow to the end of the tail. After a few days, the end of the tail falls off and the ligature is removed.

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Not every short-tailed dog has had their tail docked, however. A natural bobtail does occur in members of a couple dozen dog breeds, including English Bulldogs, Australian Shepherds, Boston Terriers, and Rottweilers. (A bobtail has also been introduced in some lines of Boxer by crossbreeding them with Corgis.) In most of these breeds, a mutation of the gene C189G is linked to the presence of a natural bobtail. The mechanism for the natural bobtail in the other breeds is unknown. That is not to say, however, that all members of these breeds do have natural bobtails, only that natural bobtails do turn up in those breeds.

Does docking really protect dogs from injury?

Preventing tail injury has long been a popular anecdotal justification for docking the tails of working dogs, but does it really help? We have a handful of studies that have tried to answer that question.

Proponents of tail docking tend to cite an investigative study in Sweden that looked at 50 litters of German Shorthaired Pointers born in 1989, after the ban on tail docking, and three litters of puppies with docked tails born in 1988. The study found that 38 percent of the undocked dogs suffered tail injuries within the first 18 months of life, and that by 1991, that number had risen to 51 percent. By the time the study was published in 1992, seven of the dogs had had their tails amputated.

German Shorthaired Pointer photo by Harold Meerveld (CC BY 2.0).

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More recent surveys have also looked at the prevalence of tail injury in gundogs specifically. A 2008 study on gundog lameness and injuries in Great Britain found a "highly significant association between tail injuries and undocked Springer and Cocker Spaniels." A 2014 survey of working gundogs and terriers in Scotland found that, out of 2860 working dogs, 13.5 percent suffered a tail injury during the 2010-11 shooting season. Certain breeds, however, were more prone to tail injury than others, with 56.6 percent of undocked spaniels and 38.5 percent of undocked hunt point retrievers suffered tail injuries during that season. Although it's a subject that will demand continued study, it is possible that tail docking protects certain breeds working in certain situations.

However, for the non-hunting dog snoozing on your rug, tail docking probably won't have any benefit. A 2010 survey of 138,212 dogs in Great Britain found that the weighted risk of tail injuries was just 0.23 percent, meaning that 500 dogs would have to be docked in order to prevent one tail injury. For the record, this particular study did not find a significant difference in tail injuries between working and non-working dogs.

In their essay "Tales about tails: is the mutilation of animals justifiable in their best interests or ours?" from the 2014 edition of Dilemmas in Animal Welfare, Sandra Edwards and Pauleen Bennett note that breeding naturally bobtail dogs may not be the best solution to the docking debate. After all, purebred dogs are already dealing with a very tiny gene pool, and restricted that gene pool even further to dogs that carry a mutation for bobtails could result in even greater health problems for these breeds. They also argue, however, that even it turns out that there are clear benefits to tail docking, that we should not necessarily accept tail docking and leave it at that, but also look for alternative solutions for dealing with legitimate risks to animals.

What effect does a docked tail have on a dog?

The big question about docking tails is whether the puppies feel or appreciate pain related to the procedure. One of the key justifications for docking a puppy's tail without anesthesia is that the puppy is too immature to feel pain. If you watch videos of puppies having their tails snipped off with scissors, you will likely notice that they make rather unpleasant-sounding noises. A 1996 study logged the behavior of 50 puppies during tail docking procedures at the University of Queensland Companion Animal Veterinary Hospital. The study found that every single one of the puppies emitted a distressed sound (which the authors describe as "shrieking") during the actual procedure, and emitted whimpers immediately following the procedure. On average, the puppies ceased vocalization 138 seconds after the procedure, with a maximum time of 15 minutes to become quiescent. The authors of the study note that while this indicates that the puppies do feel acute pain, it's difficult to quantify.

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There is also the question of whether the pain might have long-term consequences. Recent studies on rats have looked into the impact of neonatal nerve injury on pain sensitivity later in life, but it's an area biological science is still exploring.

Even putting pain aside, though, docking is a physically traumatic procedure that comes with certain risks. Complications can certainly arise from tail docking, such as infection, and while it's not clear how common they are, some dogs with docked tails deal with neuromas (the potentially painful regrowth of nerve tissue at the amputation site). Neuromas can cause discomfort, which encourages dogs to abuse the amputation site — which can lead to further risk of infection — and need to be treated surgically. We may need further research to establish the cost-benefit of docking the tails of certain breeds of gundog, but many of our non-working pet dog have had their health and comfort risked for nothing more than aesthetics.

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And what about life without a tail? There has been a bit of speculation on this point, notably from veterinarian Robert Wansborough, whose 1996 paper published in the Australian Veterinary Journal attacks tail docking from an anatomical perspective. Wansborough argues that the tail is vital as a counter-balance for dogs and that the loss of the tail can impair locomotion and contribute to incontinence. The American Veterinary Medical Association notes that, while there is some very early data suggesting that there may be a link between tail docking and canine incontinence, "there is no strong evidence that naturally bobbed or surgically docked dogs are physically or psychologically disadvantaged."

Photo by Ethan (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Another area that's currently being explored is the link between tails and canine communication. While dogs partially communicate by scent and sound, there is increasing evidence that dogs are also visual creatures when it comes to communication. In a study published in Behavior in 2008, a pair of researchers used a short-tailed and long-tailed robotic dog to see how real dogs in an off-leash park would interact with the robot. The researchers found that large dogs were more likely to approach the long-tailed robotic dog when the robotic dog's tail was wagging (91.4 percent) than when it was still (74.4 percent of the time). Large dogs were almost just as likely to approach the short-tailed robotic dog when the robotic dog's tail was wagging (85.2 percent) as when it was still (82.2 percent). The study suggests that it may be easier for dogs to read the signals from a dog's tail when it is long than when it is short. A more recent study found that dogs react differently when viewing dogs engaged in asymmetrical wagging on the left sides of their bodies than when view dogs wagging on the right.

Even if we're just beginning to understand the significance of tails in canine communication, the American Veterinary Medical Association sees no justification for removing the tail for cosmetic purposes. In its statement on tail docking, it comes out against docking when it is only for the benefit of "the owner's impression of a pleasing appearance," adding:

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Precautionary removal of the tail of a young puppy needs to be based on compelling evidence that the animal is at high risk of tail trauma due to congenital defect, breed and/or planned working activity. However, such a justification must be supported by evidence such as empirical data or impartial expert opinion based on extensive, directly relevant experience.

We couldn't say it better.

See also:

Does your dog's breed really determine its personality?

Why the Brains of Dogs and Humans Are More Similar Than You Think

Additional Sources:

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American Veterinary Medical Association, Canine Tail Docking FAQ.

John Bradshaw, Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet, 2012.

Amy L. Broughton, "Cropping and Docking: A Discussion of the Controversy and the Role of Law in Preventing Unnecessary Cosmetic Surgery on Dogs," Animal Legal & Historical Center, Michigan State University College of Law, 2003.

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The Council of Docked Breeds.

Sandra Edwards and Pauleen Bennett, "Tales about tails : is the mutilation of animals justifiable in their best interests or ours?" from Dilemmas in Animal Welfare, 2014.

Shannon Wilkinson, "Canine Cosmetic Procedures - Docking and Cropping Can Be Dangerous," Whole Dog Journal, February 2005.