Spoiler Warning: Believe it or not, this post makes reference to Game of Thrones series 6 episode 9 – consider yourselves warned!
Cropped ears and docked tails are so often seen, particularly in countries where the practice is unrestricted, that they seem to have become ‘normal’ features of certain breeds. In fact, a Canadian study found that 42% of participants could not explain why dogs that had been docked and cropped had short tails and ears. That’s why I’m going to start this post by explaining what cropping and docking actually involves.
Docking is amputation of all or part of the tail, typically performed when the dog is young. The tail may be cut off, or an elastic band can be used to restrict blood flow to the end of the tail, which eventually falls off. This is often performed without anaesthetic, and sometimes by a non-vet. As I’m sure you can imagine, it is painful, and can result in infection.
Cropping of the ears is cutting off some or all of a dog’s external ear (the flappy part), typically when the dog is a puppy. Like docking, the practice is painful and can result in infection. If the desired ear shape is not achieved, the ears are sometimes ‘taped’ for a period of weeks, to force them into a particular shape.
Cropping and Docking on TV
I’ve been quite disturbed recently by the amount of docked and cropped dogs I’ve seen in the media. Cropped ears in particular seem to be a big part of the ‘aggressive dog’ image. The picture below is from a music video by Taylor Swift. Here, the dogs are a symbol of elitism and power.
Other depictions of cropped or docked dogs are even more extreme – in a recent episode of the popular tv series ‘Game of Thrones’ the villainous Ramsey Bolton is mauled to death by one of his own dogs, a Cane Corso with severely cropped ears.
Perhaps narrower ears make the head look more muscular, or someone in the design department thought that floppy ears would ruin the aesthetic. Whatever the reason, the fact that people judge cropped and docked dogs to be less friendly and more aggressive makes these dogs a perfect prop for the tv and film industry.
Why Did We Start Docking and Cropping in the First Place?
Whereas cropping has featured less in the doggy history books, docking has been performed throughout history for many different purposes. In Roman times, amputation of the tail was thought to prevent rabies and strengthen the back. In 18th century England, working dogs (who were regularly tail docked) weren’t taxed, and so tail docking became a method of tax evasion. One justification that persists to this day is that tail docked dogs are less likely to have their tails injured, owing to the fact that you can’t injure something that’s not there. This is the argument that has led to many countries sanctioning tail docking in working breeds.
So should we be tail docking working dogs to prevent injury? This study, which aimed to find out if tail docking did significantly decrease tail injuries, suggests not. It turns out that although docked dogs are significantly less likely to sustain a tail injury, tail injuries are actually really rare. So rare, in fact, that 500 dogs would have to have their tails docked to prevent just one tail injury.
Docking and cropping are painful procedures, and could present a social impediment for dogs. However, as the American Veterinary Medical Association puts it:
The essential question is not “How harmful is the procedure?”, but rather “Is there sufficient justification for performing it?”
I don’t think that the AVMA would count ‘owner swagger’ or even ‘art’ as sufficient justification for cutting a dog’s tail or ears. Cosmetic, surgical alterations of animals, who can’t consent, are deplorable. Preventative docking may also be unjustifiable, in light of recent research.
Let me know your thoughts on cropping and docking in the comments section. How can we discourage docking and cropping?