Thursday, 28 May 2015

A tale of tails: Is docking tails bad?

Tail docking is a pretty controversial subject and I realise my views may not sit well with everyone. However, I feel a lot of people say "tail docking is bad!" without getting the other side of the story. I will try to keep this as subjective as possible and I would love to hear your comments, whether you agree with me or not!

Clearly, Maizy has a docked tail. She doesn't seem to mind.

Maizy's tail is docked. It is traditional for her breed and let me tell you, am I ever glad it is docked! I'll explain why in a moment, but before we begin I'd like to say that when I say "research" I am not talking about reading somebody's opinion on the internet, though I certainly take that into account too. I am referring to peer reviewed scientific papers.

What is tail docking? 

The definition of docking is, according to the Almighty Google: 

Docking is the intentional removal of part of an animal's tail or, sometimes, ears. The term cropping is more commonly used in reference to the cropping of ears, while docking more commonly—but not exclusively—refers to the tail.
 Many types of animals have their tail docked, including horses and sheep. Tail docking began as a way to help prevent injury to the animal: a draft horse's long tail might get caught up in machinery, or a hunting dog may have its tail ripped to shreds by thorns, or a sheep with a long tail may get fly strike. When tail docking began, it was used to protect the animal against very real threats. Today, we thankfully have lessened, but not eliminated, these threats.

In dogs, tail docking should occur when the pup is no older that 5 days. This is done by either the vet or the breeder, and is most commonly done by "banding" the tail. Banding involves placing a special orthodontic band over the tail, which then cuts off blood supply to the end of tail. It can also be done using surgical scissors and the end of the tail is simply cut off.

Sounds painful, right? Wrong. Pups at this point do not have their nervous system fully developed. If a tail is docked properly, the pup will often not even notice. The puppy should not cry out, whine, or show any signs of distress. At this point, there is no evidence (or at least, I have not been able to find it in my research) to show this has any negative impact on the puppy.

After 5 days old, tail docking should only be done by a vet while the puppy is under anaesthesia, preferably after the pup is eight months old. To be clear, I do not condone the docking of tails after the pup is 5 days old - this has the potential to cause trauma to the dog.

The longer you wait to dock a tail, the more painful it becomes. While tail docking is a "non-event" for very young puppies, it is a very painful process for older dogs. At this point it is no longer considered docking, but rather an amputation. Docking an older dogs tail should ONLY be done by a vet for medical reasons.

Why dock tails?

Okay, so we've establish what tail docking is, a brief history of why it was done, and how it is done. But why bother?

Breed History: Many people dock tails because it is traditional. The American Kennel Club says, "The American Kennel Club recognizes that ear cropping, tail docking, and dewclaw removal, as described in certain breed standards, are acceptable practices integral to defining and preserving the breed character and/or enhancing good health. Appropriate veterinary care should be provided."

Personally, I think "preserving the breed character" is a pretty dumb reason to dock a tail. This is basically along the lines of 'we have always done this, so we are going to keep doing it'. Really, this comes down to fashion. While I don't agree with this reason for tail docking, if done properly, I don't believe it is an issue.

Injury Prevention: This is why I like docked tails. Maizy is a breed of hunting dog and we spend a lot of time in the woods. That means going through all sorts of plant matter, climbing up rocks, belly crawling through thick , swimming and more. We don't just wander along well groomed trails, we get out there and adventure.

This spaniel recieved a tail injury while out in the field.
Note the amount of blood.

Working dogs and dogs that spend a lot of time "in the field" are at risk damaging their tails. Docking was invented to prevent such injuries. In this case, the old saying a "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" rings true. Tail injuries can be very nasty business and if the dog requires amputation it will cause a considerable amount of suffering to the dog.

Here's a story from a cocker owner:
Our cocker spaniel bitch Lucy was 14 months old and enjoying the experience of her first working season when the problem with her tail started in December 1996. Approximately two inches at the tip of her tail broke open leaving raw, bleeding skin. This was treated by the vet with cream and we tried our best to protect it (not easy!) for the next two months. Lucy was in obvious pain during this time and the tail would always break out whenever she was working and often when she was being exercised.
Eventually the vet recommended we have the tail amputated, which was done on 12th February 1997. This caused Lucy much distress over the next few days. She cried a lot with pain, was very reluctant to even walk and generally changed completely from the happy confident dog we knew. Eight days later she was back at the vet because the stitches were infected. The end of the tail was in such a mess, the stitches had to be removed early and she was back on antibiotics. The tail had to be bandaged for three weeks but eventually scarred over approximately one month after the operation.
Another member of our shooting syndicate had to have their springer spaniels tail amputated last year. Needless to say, I am no longer open-minded about this issue, believing now that it is cruel not to dock.
You can read more stories like this at the Council of Docked Breeds website. Please remember that Council of Docked Breeds is a highly biased source, so read with a grain of salt.

Spaniels, for whatever reason, seem to be at a higher risk. I am glad Maizy's tail is docked - it is one less thing I have to worry about. I compare tail docking to vaccination: The risk of Maizy contracting Lyme disease is not very high, but I vaccinate her against it anyway, just in case. Similarly, the risk of a dog injuring its tail is not very high, but docking prevents any possible injury.

Happy Tail Syndrome: While this sounds like a good thing, it isn't. Have you ever met one of thsoe dogs that just wags its tail constantly? You wake up in the morning to the "thump, thump, thump" of a dog eager to start the say. Your drink goes flying as Fluffy walks past the table wagging his tail. You get bruises on your legs from constantly being smacked by an enthusiastic dog.

Believe it or not, dogs can wag their tail so much that it leads to injury.

The result of Happy Tail Syndrome:
A cone of shame and a sore tail.
Gayle Hickman from PetAdvisor, describes Happy Tail very well, so I'm going to quote her on this matter:
Happy tail, sometimes known as kennel tail, is actually an injury caused when a dog wags his tail (maybe from happiness) so hard that the tail hits against hard objects, such as walls or floors. This can cause the tail to break open and bleed — very painful.
Sometimes dogs may even wag so hard that the skin and blood vessels at the tip of the tail will rupture. Wagging tails with blood slinging all over the place are enough to scare any pet owner, but thankfully the amount of blood lost is actually very little. The bad news is that even when you do get the tail bandaged and finally healed, the dog very well might start wagging all over again and re-injure himself, time and time again... As a general rule, happy tail injuries in a dog require a veterinarian’s attention, especially if bleeding cannot be controlled. Antibiotics will be needed to prevent infection. The worst-case scenario if you can’t stop constant injuries from recurring is that up to two-thirds of the tail may be removed through amputation.
As you can see, Happy Tail is not very happy at all! You can read the rest of what Gayle has to say here.

What are the cons of tail docking?

So now that we've discussed why you might want to dock a dog's tail, let's talk about the reasons why people are against tail docking.

They think tail docking is cruel: A large number of people think tail docking is cruel, but I wonder how much research they have done into the subject. Certainly, tail docking has the potential to be cruel, but if done properly between the age of 2 to 5 days, the puppy should not suffer any ill effects.

They think tail docking is unnatural: It is unnatural. Everything we do with dogs is unnatural, really. Walking on a leash? Unnatural. Eating kibble? Unnatural. Vet care? Unnatural.

They think tail docking affects how dogs communicate: I am not a vet or researcher, so I can only comment on my experiences. And in my experience, this is a load of crap. All the dogs I know with docked tails also have no issues. Maizy certainly has no trouble communicating with other dogs, despite her docked tail. In fact, her ears pose way more of a problem for her with other dogs (aka, they pull the shit out of them).

They think tail docking affects a dog's balance: I have yet to see any evidence of this, either through my research or in person. 

In conclusion...

I think tail docking has a place and it is a valuable tail. Should every dog have its tail docked? Absolute not. But some dogs may benefit from this procedure. I have yet to find any evidence showing that tail docking negatively impacts a dog.  

Maizy's docked tail keeps her safe from injury while out in the brush.
It's also pretty damn cute. 

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