In previous years tail docking was done for reasons that do not currently apply, for example they paid less tax for dogs with docked tails. Working dogs were exempt from taxes, and docked tails made it easier for them to work in the thick bush. Now the reason most people want their puppies’ tails docked, is because they are used to seeing these dogs with short tails and think the dogs look better. Some people claim undocked tails are frequently injured and prefer to prevent this by docking.

Tail docking is the amputation of a puppy’s tail at varying lengths, depending on breed, with scissors or a scalpel. Sometimes rubber bands are used, (banding) although this method has never been advocated by vets, there are countries where they practice it. It can cause necrosis (death) of the tissue over several days or weeks, accompanied by high levels of pain and is considered to be cruel. When a scalpel is used, the cut goes through many highly sensitive nerves in the skin, cartilage and bone. This procedure is usually performed without any anaesthetic, or with a local anaesthetic, at three to five days of age.

Previously, puppies of certain breeds routinely had their tails docked. The procedure was usually performed either by vets (preferably) or by breeders themselves. On 1 June 2008, the South African Veterinary Council decided that it would no longer condone the routine docking of puppies’ tail and pronounced the procedure unethical for veterinarians to perform. Since then it has been performed mostly by dog breeders, although many breeders have chosen to stop tail docking and most of the breed standards have been amended to accept dogs with intact (long) tails. Vets are allowed to amputate dogs’ tails only for valid therapeutic reasons e.g. a chronic recurring injury or cancer.

Tail Docking and Function of The Tail

Dogs use their tail mostly for communication and for balance. Body language i.e. visual communication, is a vital way in which dogs communicate. Various parts of the body are used, including the tail, ears, facial expression, body posture and eye contact. The height of the tail and its movement indicate what the dog is thinking and what its intentions are. A friendly approach is signified by wild wagging, above or below the topline, an aggressive approach is shown when the tail is held high and just the tip is wagging. A fearful dog will hold its tail between its legs.

These attributes are difficult if not impossible to observe in a dog with a docked tail. This may lead to misunderstandings as the absence of the tail means that dogs are unable to read each other’s signals correctly. It could result in unnecessary aggression between dogs and possible injury.

People may also not be able to differentiate between different tail movements where there is only a short stump and could approach a dog that is signalling its aggressive intent. This could result in the dog biting the person who is perceived as being a threat. Over time, dogs with docked tails may learn that people or other dogs are not trustworthy and they become more aggressive as a result. Not only does this have a direct negative influence on the dog’s quality of life, but it also poses a health risk to people and animals the dog may come in contact with.

The tail is anatomically part of the spinal column. It contains nervous tissue (the spinal cord and nerves), bone (tail vertebrae), cartilage, muscles, tendons and blood vessels. The tail helps stabilize the animal during movement as it moves in the opposite direction during loss of balance or a misstep and thus prevents falling. The absence of a tail therefore may lead to subsequent injury.

Weighing Up The Pros and Cons

Tail docking does not provide any benefit to puppies or adult dogs. Traditionally, some breeders considered a docked tail necessary to fulfill the working (hunting) functions of the dog. Today working breeds are kept as house pets and only a small percentage are used for field work, which is usually a recreational activity for people and not an essential function.

If dogs of breeds that are customarily docked are left with intact tails, they are not more likely to get tail injuries than dogs of other breeds. A study in the UK showed that the risk for tail injuries in dogs with intact tails is only 0,23%.

If the docking is done poorly, there could be physical complications like problems with urinating and defecating and nerve damage that causes pain later (thought to be similar to phantom-limb pain experienced by human amputees).

If a procedure that causes pain, problems with communication, negatively affects movement and balance, has no immediate or future benefit for the dog and may lead to life-threatening complications, it is unnecessary and should not be performed.