By Tari F. Mord, DVM for Havre Daily News
"Doc, I just got a new puppy and I want his tail and ears docked so he looks like the breed magazines say he should. Do you do that?" Breed standards for many dog breeds require tail and/or ear docking, which has become a controversial topic among dog breeders, veterinarians, animal rights activists and many others.
Many of the dog breeds involved in this argument have a historical basis for the changes made to the animal's body structure. Tails were often docked in the herding breeds to prevent tail damage or interference with an animal's ability to move quickly in tight quarters. Tails were docked in some hunting breeds for the same reasons. Fighting and guarding dogs had tails docked to prevent the animal from being grabbed by the tail during a fight. Ears were often docked to improve hearing and minimize chances of water or foreign objects getting caught in the ear canal. Also, upright ears make an animal appear more alert, and in some cases, more menacing, which was a desired characteristic.
Breed standards today are based more on tradition and desirable appearance, since the majority of our dogs are pets, rather than working dogs. Because of this change in the dog's purpose in life, altering its appearance to meet what seem to many people to be arbitrary standards, has become a huge controversy. In fact, many countries have banned tail and ear docking altogether, calling the procedures cruel and unethical. Many veterinary teaching universities have refused to teach these procedures for many years, which has resulted in fewer and fewer veterinarians available who have the training and the willingness to perform the surgeries.
There are still a few breeds out there, as well as a few individual situations, where docking is desirable in order for the dog to function in its job correctly. It's common that injury to a tail or ear results in docking to prevent spread of infection or insure healing of the injury. Tumors of the ear or tail may require docking as well. For the most part, however, a dog derives no physical benefit from having a normal part of its body removed, just to measure up to a breed standard.
Docking, when properly performed, happens quite early in a puppy's life at 3 to 5 days of age for tails and 8 to 15 weeks for ears. Follow-up care, especially for ears, is crucial to the success of the surgery. Both procedures require longer recovery periods, are more painful, and are more prone to complications when performed on older puppies or adult dogs.
Dew claw removal, which is another docking procedure, is also performed ideally on puppies at 3 to 5 days of age. Dew claws are the toes above the foot on the inside of the leg and are prone to being torn and injured. If the claws are left on the puppy, the owner needs to keep a careful watch on the nail, since it doesn't touch the ground and, therefore, doesn't wear off like the rest of the dog's nails do. Left to grow unchecked, these nails often grow in a circle and back into the dog's leg, causing pain and infection.
So, to answer the original question, yes. I perform tail and dew claw docking procedures. I strongly caution the owner of the older puppy or adult dog that these procedures are now major surgery and the animals are at more risk for pain and complications. I don't, however, perform ear crops at any age unless a medical problem requires that one be done. Dogs with natural ears still look like their breed should, and they don't have to undergo the pain and hassle of surgery and weeks of postoperative splinting just to achieve a certain "look."