Cosmetic Procedures for Purebred Dogs: The Odd Politics of Crops and Docks

Dr. Patty Khuly

Ear crops and tail docks

Cosmetic surgery in dogs is always a hot topic in veterinary medicine, but more so when it comes to breed-specific ear crops and tail docks. Why, some of us wonder, do some breeds get treated to surgical alteration while others are allowed to remain unscathed?

Every savvy pet owner knows it’s contentious, this issue of ear cropping and tail-docking for non-therapeutic reasons. Why else would these procedures be banned in most of Europe, Canada, Australia, Israel, and a variety of other countries? Why else would even the largest animal hospital chain in the US steer clear of performing these procedures?

Just try to walk a Schnauzer with a crop-and-dock down any street in London and you’re likely to earn yourself some cold stares — or worse. And even in places where these surgeries aren’t illegal, they’re rarely communally sanctioned the way they were before the ’60s and ’70s (when animal welfare issues began to take firmer hold on our global cultural conscience).

But the holdouts are firm. They say there are plenty of good reasons to crop a dog’s ears or dock its tail. These typically harken back to the breed’s original purpose. But in a world where cropped and docked dogs rarely work, and where form is no longer legitimately derived from function, detractors say the point of this “look” is more about fashion than anything else. And fashion is no good reason to inflict unnecessary pain, is it?

Nonetheless, the AKC (American Kennel Club), and plenty of other breed clubs remain staunch in their opposition to an outright ban on these procedures: “We have a right to have our breeds reflect their original appearance for historical reasons. And a ban is a slippery slope, they say. What’s next, the gene police?

I get it. A Doberman wouldn’t look all sharp and angular like a Doberman should if he had floppy ears and a whip-like tail. And a Rottweiler wouldn’t have that blocky aspect if he didn’t have a nub for a wagger. But is it worth the pain?

Proponents of these procedures argue that, when done right, they rarely inflict pain. But even the American Veterinary Medical Association (typically staunch defenders of its veterinarian members’ right to practice any way we see fit) argues against crops and docks in a controversial position statement in which the inevitability of pain as a result of these procedures leads it to question their merits on the basis of animal welfare.

But here’s where dock and crops tend to get separated. Crops may be painful and unnecessary some say, but docks are done at such a young age (two to four days) that the pups don’t even feel it. It’s like a circumcision, they argue.

Now, while I won’t get into the argument over whether circumcision is humane or not (yes, there is a debate), I will argue that while less problematic than crops for a whole lot of reasons, docks are painful nonetheless –– more so when no anesthetics are applied, as is the traditional approach. (Who still thinks infants don’t feel pain? Sheesh!)

As to crops, I’ve seen a great many of these procedures after the fact. And whether they’re “well done” or a slash-up, they’re almost uniformly uncomfortable during the obligatory tapings and untapings. Then there’s the issue of the occasional non-standing ear to contend with: I’ve seen owners use moleskin, plumbing insulation, industrial glues and solvents, Scotch tape, duct tape, plumber’s tape and even Crazy Glue to get ears to stand or bend just right. Which means I’ve also seen weeping sores, infected ulcers, and chronic skin irritation — all in the service of the almighty perfect ear.

Worse still are the surgical “fixes” to a failed crop. As if it’s not bad enough that we humans feel compelled to crop our dogs’ ears (and justify the act based on its historical significance), there are veterinarians who specialize in implants for “lazy” ears. But if you ask me, the idea that an implant might be necessary to turn an ear just so is repulsive –– more so should you happen to be the veterinarian who treats these patients after their “repairs” have gone all wrong.

The ears and tails of our animals are important structures with a definite purpose. Just because we’ve bred our dogs in such a way so that their ears take on a specific shape or their tails are “naturally” omitted (17 breeds are born tailless) does not alter this fact. Further manipulating these body parts with surgical techniques, external support to help them stand, or fixatives to help them bend “correctly” should never be undertaken unless the stress and physical repercussions of doing so are negligible.

Period.

After all, the science is pretty clear. There is no research to support the need for non-therapeutic ear procedures, surgical or otherwise. And research has also shown that while tail docking can be prophylactic (because some dogs may injure them), the rate of tail injury is minuscule compared to the rate of docking. So what’s the point?

But I know this is a spicy issue and, as always, you’re free to disagree.

While you can't predict when your pet is going to get sick or injured, you can protect yourself from expensive veterinary bills. Embrace Pet Insurance gives you the freedom to do what’s best for your pet without stressing over the cost. Easily personalize your coverage to fit your budget and your pet’s needs, then visit any vet for nose-to-tail coverage. Check out what the Embrace plan covers or compare pet insurance providers to learn more.