Controversial Cosmetic Surgery

by Jeff Fleischer

(Chicagoland Tails, January 2006)

When envisioning a Doberman Pinscher, the image that pops up is usually a dog with a short stub of a tail and triangular, pointed ears. But that’s not how they start life. Dobermans are born with floppy ears and long tails but, like many other breeds, they usually lose those features early in life through a pair of widespread but controversial surgical procedures.

The removal of the tail, known as “tail docking,” usually takes place when a puppy is just a few days old. Breeders commonly dock by tying a rubber band or similar device around the dog’s first vertebrae, above the portion of the tail they wish to remove. This cuts off the flow of blood, and within a few days that part of the tail falls off. Veterinarians performing the dock usually clamp the tail and cut off the undesired portion without anesthetic, as it can be dangerous to puppies that young. Ear cropping occurs when the dogs are older (8 to 12 weeks old). Once the dogs are put under anesthetic, the ears are surgically cut, and are usually taped to hold the desired position.

Both of these practices go back centuries and originally reflected how mankind used the dogs, whether for hunting, fighting, herding, or protection. “Way back when, there may have been a logical, functional reason for this. The jobs for which the dogs were bred may have entailed being out in the field and they didn’t want ears or tails getting caught on bushes or grabbed,” says Nancy Peterson, an issue specialist for the Humane Society of the United States, which opposes these procedures. “Nowadays, that’s not the case anymore, and the breed clubs perpetuate that look because it’s something they like aesthetically.”

Opposition to docking and cropping is growing. The American Veterinary Medical Association urges member vets to counsel pet guardians that when these procedures are done for cosmetic reasons (as opposed to amputating an infected area), they “are not medically indicated nor of benefit to the patient,” and can cause unnecessary pain and distress to the animal. Groups such as the HSUS and the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights stand in opposition, and countries around the world have passed laws against both procedures. Bans on such cosmetic surgeries are included in the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals (ratified by 13 nations so far; four additional countries have signed but not yet ratified it), and bans have become law in nations such as Israel, Australia, and South Africa. Since June, the Virgin Islands has labeled docking and cropping as first-degree animal abuse. West Hollywood and the state of California have seen the introduction, though not yet the passage, of similar legislation.

In the United States, these practices remain common for certain breeds. The American Kennel Club recognizes 153 breeds, each with a “parent club.” Those clubs draft the Kennel Club’s standards for how dogs of a particular breed should look, including whether it should have cropped ears or docked tails. Some breeds also regularly have their dew claws — a fifth claw higher up on the leg than the others — removed, usually within a few days of birth. “The purpose of the standard is to give breeders a sense of what they should be breeding toward,” explains AKC spokeswoman Lisa Peterson. “It also describes the original function of the dog with man.” Because the aforementioned procedures reflect that original function, she explains, AKC does not consider them cosmetic surgery and permits them. (Any cosmetic procedures not outlined in the standards are against the club’s rules for competitions.)

The most common optional procedure for cats, declawing, also remains controversial. Because the root of a cat’s claw is attached to bone, the procedure involves surgically removing the first bone on each of the animal’s toes so that the claw does not grow back. The option of laser surgery can make the procedure less painful, but can also add to its cost.

Peterson of HSUS says too many cat guardians “preemptively” declaw their pets because they worry about destruction of furniture or other possessions. “Given what we know about cat behavior, most cats can be trained to scratch on appropriate objects without much effort,” she says. “Also, cutting a cat’s claws and keeping them shorter is not difficult, and your veterinarian can show you how to do that.”

The AVMA’s position is that declawing should be considered “only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively” or if there are medical reasons. The AVMA points out that there is “no scientific evidence” that declawing leads to irregular behavior, but also cautions that declawed cats should remain indoors at all times.

As with all surgical procedures, it’s important that guardians understand their options. For more information, visit,,

Tags: , , , , , , , ,