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One Beleaguered Veterinarian’s Take on Tail Docking

 

As a dog lover, I’ve never been a fan of tail docking.

It seems wrong to remove an animal’s tail in the absence of a compelling medical reason to do so. But as a veterinarian, I’ve had cause to like it even less.

My repugnance is perhaps understandable given that as a young veterinarian I was pressed into performing this service. At more than one past place of employment (over whose policies I invariably held little sway), prospective clients would call to solicit pricing before presenting their two-day-old litters. The brow-beaten me would then lop off each slinky tail for less than the price of your average Starbucks card.

It was not a proud moment in my career. Less so seeing as I’d been lulled into thinking veterinary graduates could control their own practices in keeping with their own personal ethics. To my chagrin, I’d soon learned that veterinarians have to play by local rules. (More so when a student loan payment the size of a mortgage looms large at the cusp of each month.)

What was worse than feeling forced into dishonorable servitude, however, was the fact that I’d also enjoyed little control over the surgical procedure itself. When one practice owner learned that I’d been pilfering the local anesthetic stores to inject teensy tail bases, she’d called me out (“That doubles the cost of each dock!”) and later taken to hiding the stuff unless I possessed a “legitimate” need.

No wonder I hated hearing that a laundry basket full of baby Schnorkies was headed my way!

In fact, despite having since risen to a professional standing that allows me to dictate my own medical practices, I’ve yet to shake off the certain dread that accompanies a batch of newborn Boxers. After all, I know somebody somewhere is going to slice their tails off with a scalpel, laser, scissor, constrictive band… or worse.

What About the Pain?

Yes, in spite of my own personal revulsion to the tail dock, I’m well aware that plenty of dog owners are its staunch advocates, and a healthy population of veterinarians is comfortable performing it.

Some stand by the procedure’s brutish simplicity (“They only cry for a little while”), while others hold up their preferred breed’s celebrated aesthetics and cite the dock’s historical significance as justification.

Uncomfortable with any unnecessary pain or bloodshed, still others bend backward to make it ethically acceptable to them. These are the veterinarians who apply modern anesthetic principles to an undeniably painful procedure (and the breeders who seek them out).

The preponderance of good intentions here explains why I’m loath to label all tail docking proponents morally indefensible. After all, whenever careful concessions are made to an animal’s comfort, I’ve got to assume thoughtful inquiry has accompanied them.

Does It Really Reduce the Risk of Injury?

Then there’s the rational school of thought to consider. This camp points to the animal’s function as grounds for docking. Preemptive tail amputation, they argue, is a necessary medical procedure for breeds of dogs that hunt and fight for a living. As such, tail docking is medically motivated and should therefore be supported by the veterinary community at large.

While I don’t deny that the argument offers a medical rationale for tail docking, it’s not a persuasive one. Even if the veterinary literature hadn’t explored the statistics behind traumatic tail amputation and found them lacking (amputation could prevent only one case of tail damage out of 500 according to estimates of a large-scale 2010 study), the arbitrariness among docked breeds argues powerfully against it. I mean, why trim some hunting dog breeds’ tails and leave others’ intact? And since when was fighting an everyday Boxer or Rottweiler endeavor, anyway?

What Dogs Lose

Yes, those claims, too, fail to win me over. Because even if prophylactic amputation held some sway as a credible medical justification for tail-lessness, I’d have to weigh it against all the many benefits a natural canine tail offers. For example, consider a recent study on the biological import of tail wag directionality. Indeed, the loss of a dog’s ability to fully communicate intentions and emotions, one of the tail’s most well researched purposes, seems a significant snag, enough to convince even the most devoted tail docking supporter.

But it’s not. Because what carries more weight on this issue than any other has little to do with the rational arguments for or against the procedure itself. Rather, it has far more to do with the reality that what humans want, humans get — regardless of what’s best for anyone else. Hence, the elusiveness of legislation on tail docking.

There is, however, good news for those of us who long for a day when all dogs get to keep their tails, and clients no longer call expecting a SuperCuts-priced snip: Not only are fewer veterinarians offering this service, those who do are less willing to eschew adequate pain control measures. Even our conservative American Veterinary Medical Association now holds that docking is not in an individual dog’s best interest (though it stops well shy of supporting its ban).

But best of all is the true measure of a thing’s cultural conception: its public visibility. Consider that breeds whose tails have been traditionally docked are beginning to appear in public with full tails in tow. Poodles with long elegant poufs, Schnauzers sporting a brushy flourish, even Rottweilers brandishing Labrador-ish lengths. And if I’m seeing that kind of progressiveness in my historically not-so-progressive town, just imagine what that means for the rest of the U.S.!

Yes, better than a society that demands legislation to ban a simple cruelty… is one that doesn’t actually need it.

But that’s just one tail-loving, docking-beleaguered veterinarian’s opinion. What’s yours?

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