The Argument For Altered Dogs
Did You Know?
A medical necessity is considered to be any medical activity justifiable by reasonable evidence-based clinical standards of care. This is a United States legal doctrine. Medical necessities include but are not limited to:
- A leg that is mangled beyond repair, where leg amputation is medically necessary.
- Tails that receive severe injuries, where tail amputation is medically necessary.
- An animal that has been violently eviscerated, where an immediate euthanasia is medically necessary.
Let's face it, dog people may all love dogs, but not all dog people agree. One such thing that dog lovers talk about is livid with both passion and debate. Veterinarians, breeders, show-ring aficionados, and average pet owners alike have all taken up fervent opinions on the matter - some for, and some against. Only just ten years ago these practices would not have been given a second thought, but in today's Green and Internet society, many people are changing their views. So what is this controversial argument that has recently sprung up in the long, largely undiluted history of our beloved canis familiaris?
I'm talking, of course, about "canine cosmetic surgery" - that is, the docking of tails and cropping of ears for anything other than medical necessity.
The docking of a canine's tail is a procedure that occurs when the animal is typically around 42 hours old. Due to the small size of newborns, no anesthesia is used during tail docks (it is difficult to safely dose very small animals for anesthesia, and is therefore avoided). The amputation is administered approximately between the third and fourth coccygeal vertebrae, depending on breed. Through means of either a swift cut, or, less commonly, a rubber band placed tightly around the tail to prevent blood flow and promote the natural shedding of the dead tail, the tail is removed. Tail docks are most commonly issued for purebred dogs to comply with breed standards, but they can also be preemptive fool proofs against tail injury, or for hygenic purposes in the case of very wooly or hairy dogs (this is also why sheep tails are docked).
An ear cropping is a procedure in which a dog's ears are reshaped through surgery, by trimming approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of the pinna. This is performed under anesthesia, since the puppy is by now approximately 10 weeks old. After skillful completion, the ears are "trained" to stand upright by being taped to a small splint for a period of time, which, depending on the particular dog, can be a couple of weeks to a few months. Ear cropping is most commonly performed to comply with a breed standard.
Is It Natural?
A popular argument against the alteration of dogs is that these procedures are not natural. The dictionary sense of being natural is anything that is in accordance with or determined by nature, or a higher deity. In the current age where hipsters run rampant, recycled toilet paper is common, and electric cars and environmentally friendly businesses are popping up out of the woodwork, animal welfare and awareness are issues that are growing exponentially in the importance of peoples' minds.
This is a long time coming, just around the corner from a generation of science that until recently considered animals to be incapable of even the simple concepts of fear or pain. Being natural is an important part of peoples' lives these days, but while it is perfectly fine for one to control his own habits by switching to a vegetarian diet or bicycling instead of driving, is this necessarily entitlement for one to decide the actions of other people and their preferences when it comes to their animals?
There is growing debate that the docking and cropping practices should be put to a stop due to the cruel-to-some methods used and the potentially shallow idea of an animal being altered physically to appeal aesthetically to an owner. Since short tails are not how dogs are typically born, docking them is viewed with distaste. Since cropped ears are contradictory to the animal's original, floppy-eared form as a puppy, it is often considered a useless and selfish practice. After all, what need does an owner have to alter his perfect-as-is puppy in the first place?
Let us consider the fact that dogs, in all their glorious breeds, are animals that have effectively been created by humans through thousands of years of selective breeding. Our ancestors took beasts that were wild and uniformly untamed and shaped them through generations upon generations of trial and error projects in order to form the tallest, the fastest, the smallest, the smartest, the fiercest, and the cutest canines known to man. The low carriage of the dachshund, the delicate skeleton of the greyhound, and the abnormal megaly of the wolfhound are all anatomies that do not exist as God, or Nature, intended.
Did You Know?
Dogs with dropped ears are at a higher risk for things such as ear infections and mite infestations. Yeast and bacterial infections in floppy-eared dogs can be contributed to humid environments, food allergies, or obstructions. This is not to mention aural hematomas and general trauma such as those which are acquired through playing or fighting. Since dropped ears are unnatural, medical issues resulting from their state are not entirely shocking, but worth mentioning in the face of anti-cropping supporters.
Indeed, as seen with the Australian dingo, when domestic dogs become feral and return to their wild roots once more, they ultimately will regain the appearance of natural wild dogs such as wolves and coyotes with Spitz-like fur, bushy tails, and upright ears. These wild dogs, which we consider our dogs to be descendants of, have alert, upright ears. In fact, floppy ears in general are a sign of domestication in almost every animal we know. Generations upon generations of pampered, docile lives have morphed the dog into a comfy couch potato with less and less reliance on pricked ears. It is still unknown for sure why there exists such a correlation between floppyness and domestication, but one thing is for sure - it does have its fair share of problems.
Being humans, we are surrounded by unnatural practices every day. Even you, most likely, were born unnaturally through the assistance of heavy drugs or possibly a cesarean section. Male children are even naturally born with foreskin, yet this is commonly removed through means of ceremonial surgery - circumcision. Is it because we are surrounded by so many unnatural anomalies in our day-to-day life that we feel we need to compensate by expanding our attention and control to the welfare of our animals?
Yet with all this talk of natural, it's puzzling how so many owners embrace that which is most unnatural by choosing breeds or mutts that are as far removed from their wild counterparts as possible. Domed heads, buggy eyes, and rolls of loose skin are a few of the traits many people fall in love with. These people become supporters of Basset hounds, Shar peis, Corgis, and Pugs. It is perhaps strange how the propagation of these commonly handicapped creations are considered normal (even though they trip over their own ears, suffer severe corneal ulcers, and can die from respiratory distress), whereas the sleek Doberman with upright ears or the sure footed Brittney spaniel with a docked tail is considered unacceptable due to its aberrance. It is obvious that the state of au naturale is not the issue here - it is a matter of personal opinion.
Is It Painful?
The natural state of an animal aside, many people are put off by the possible pain one may experience when undergoing such procedures. After all, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) released a statement in 2008 declaring their opposition to the procedures in question. This is an unfortunate supporter to lose for purists of historically cropped and docked breeds. The AVMA generally has a good track record when it comes to policies they support and set as veterinary standards, however, as of late they have shown a history of dabbling and even partnering with HSUS, a powerful anti-pet group.
The apparent position of AVMA and the majority of those opposing crops and docks is that these procedures are painful and immensely unpleasant for the animal to the point of being unethical. Yet dogs go under anesthesia to have their natural reproductive organs removed or tied off, preventing the occurrence of testosterone and estrogen which affects all aspects of their lives, and the AVMA is vehemently in favor of this.
Dipping into the subject of circumcision again, are these practices performed on baby boys painful? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, they are. This type of procedure is understandably stressful for a child yet it holds no definitive, medical value. Oftentimes circumcision is performed without anesthesia. Is it possibly that pain that we may deem appropriate for our children, we cannot seem to bare in our pets? There are those who would call this infant surgery a cruel and pointless mutilation, yet it remains legal because the parents are considered to hold the legal right to consent, and a trained professional is present
Another controversial, but entirely legal practice involving possible discomfort and individuals who lack a say in the matter, is the act of piercing childrens' ears at professional ear piercing studios. This may have been more popular back in the '90s, but it still occurs with some frequency all across the United States. There are both supporters and criticizers, as with anything involving children, yet even this seems more widely accepted than similarly simple procedures performed by legal professionals on privately owned animals.
Proponents of docks and crops are firm in agreement that the pain experienced, if any, during these procedures are short-lived and minimal. Professor Dr. R. Fritsch, Leader of the Clinic of Veterinary Surgeons at Justus-Lieberg University in Germany, sheds some light on puppy nervous systems by saying,
"The docking of tails and the removal of dew claws in puppies less than 4 days old without anesthetic, is not connected with any serious pain in such a way that it cannot be allowed from the point of view of the protection of animals... The conscious feeling of pain is still not very likely at that age." (1)
Many veterinarians agree with this perspective, such as veterinarian Wendy Wallner,
"Individual dogs, like people, have different levels of pain tolerance. In general, boxers are very pain tolerant and most puppies returning home from an ear crop will be eating normally and playing just as they did before surgery within hours of the procedure." (2)
...And veterinarian Sophia Koster,
"I've had to dock the tails of dogs who were older because they got injured, and that can be very painful. When you dock a puppy's tail though, the pain is short-lived. The pain occurs with the actual cut. Then it's over, and the puppy is fine." (3)
Is It Ethical?
Those of us who are bound to the jurisdiction of animal care, whether we be shelter volunteers, wildlife rehabbers, veterinarians, assistants, techs, or even humble kennel workers, often find ourselves in situations where we are faced with challenging scenarios that define for us what is right and what is wrong when it comes to animal husbandry.
Starving a dog is wrong. Leaving a dog in a hot car is wrong. Hurting an animal out of malice is wrong. But what about the more difficult to answer topic? What about the topic of whether or not purebred dogs are wrong? The practice of breeding animals for a specific look, size, and color - is this okay? Are we subjugating living creatures to our whims and desires by even having them breed at all?
Are English bulldogs, basset hounds, and Komondors ethical? Some of these breeds cannot even reproduce, much less live, on their own. They would surely perish in the wild. Being that many dogs are unnaturally bred to produce certain looks pleasing to our eyes, does this forfeit their right to remain naturally eared and tailed? They have already lost the height in their legs, the strength of their necks, the thickness of their pelt, and the fierceness in their demeanor. They are no longer natural at all, but rather hand-picked by us to achieve a look, a temperament, and a result that we desire.
Are ear crops and tail docks ethical? Why shouldn't they be? Performed under the seasoned eye of an experienced medical team and watched over by the warmth of a doting family who is willing to shell out top dollar for the highest quality care, how can these practices be considered animal cruelty?
Ethically, isn't spaying and neutering a more pressing matter than cropping and docking? Both are procedures that alter, yet one has the ability to stunt growth, impair instincts, and alter the course of innate behavior itself, with the capacity to morph a previously spirited animal into a droll beanbag (4). Yet which procedure is practiced freely among veterinarians with no questions asked?
Many owners of traditionally cropped or docked breeds will not only defend their rights as free choosing pet owners, but also their appreciation for the historical look of the dogs themselves when bred, fashioned, and trained in the manner of their ancestors and with the vision of their originators in mind. When a Border collie navigates sheep - this feels right. When a Bloodhound follows scent, this seems correct. When a Doberman looks and acts the way he was bred to be - this is perfection. In the words of Ginette Elliot, a British Doberman pinscher breeder and secretary of the Council of Docked Breeds,
"Cropped ears make a Dobe's head look sculpted, clean and sharp. They impart a look of great intelligence and alertness and an 'I will protect you with my life' look. If I had the choice, I would have the cropped ears on my Dobes and keep the Doberman the way his creator, Friedrich Dobermann, intended."
She concludes by saying the following about this thousand year old breed,
"We are only the custodians of our beloved Dobermans during our lifetime. Let us not be the generation that's remembered for changing the breed out of all recognition." (3)
Legislation and Bans
While true concern for animals shows an evolved mindset and a valuable respect for the sanctity of life, I strongly feel that many people go overboard in the face of the thousands of animals that are in need every day. These people can become overwhelmed, and their emotions have a tendency to overflow. I call these people Bleeding Hearts, and there is no man, woman or child, who can dissuade them from seeing anything other than immediate threats and immediate victims. The victims are any animals which they deem to be kept inhumanely for a variety of differing reasons, and the threats, of course, are every other human who does not agree with their thinking.
These people can fight modest battles within their local neighborhood, making their opinions known simply through activity within the community, or they can form powerful groups. These groups, in turn, have the power to change rules, form legislation, and prevent pet owners of all walks of life from the freedoms they held previously. There are people like this attacking all fronts of pet ownership, from the realm of horsemanship to the world of hamsters, and naturally the society of the dog is no exception. There is a tendency these days to turn any facet of the canine-human relationship into a subject of animal abuse - including but not limited to the brand of food given, the type of collars worn, and even the tone of voice and choice of words used during training.
Strong opinions are shared by both alter-aficionados and anti-alter antagonists, but only one of these sides wishes to force the other to conform completely to their own agendas. People who own docked breeds love their docked pets, but they do not condemn the choice of their neighbor who chooses to leave their Australian shepherd wholly tailed. Why is it then that those who love their naturally eared dogs seem so adamant on forcing the rest of the world to comply to their own personal opinions about canine appearance?
Already in Europe, many countries are banning these procedures, forcing pet owners to travel great distances to the remaining countries that still offer them. For example, in Germany it is illegal for veterinarians to offer cropping services, but in France it is perfectly fine. The United States, in a never-ending quest to try to match European culture, seems to be drawing close to similar bans.
It is an unfortunate day when Dangerous Dog and Injurious Wildlife laws are passed unfairly, banning well-meaning, intelligently capable people from owning the creatures they love in the places they wish to live. But on that same emotion I find it equally sad when anti-crop-and-dock talk is proposed by seemingly well-meaning individuals. Have we lost all of our desire to choose what we feel is best for our own situations, and allow our peers to hear us while keeping their own freedoms in tact? Or are we content to order others to agree with us, or let others tell us what to do - nay, force us?
It is also a very real fear that in the aftermath of statewide bans occurring in the United States, there would undoubtedly be a rise of home surgeries performed by individuals untrained in the medical field - resulting in ugly work and possible danger to the dogs. This is already being seen in some locations, where many vets have refused the services and even the education to learn the art. Is this irresponsible of veterinarians, to refuse services which would be legally paid for and safely performed in a clinic, so that a desperate owner may be forced to try it themselves for a much better price but a much higher risk of failure? Is this, in and of itself, promoting animal abuse by denying care?
We don't often realize that there are pet laws creeping up all around us, targeting many angles of ownership that, I feel, will strangle many of our hard-earned and often-bragged-of "freedoms" in concerns to not only what animals we keep here in the United States, but how exactly we keep them, where we keep them, and precisely what they should and should not look like. (5)(6) At the end of every day, I strongly feel that cropping and docking procedures should be the choice of the owners themselves, as should the decision to feed your dog Purina or a raw diet, wear a martingale or a prong collar, or train using the word 'no.' Nobody forces an owner to crop or dock their dog, subsequently I think equal respect in regards to fellow dog lovers and owners should be given to those who choose to alter their animals professionally.
I believe the freedom of choice, when considered wisely and humanely, is paramount when it comes to every decision within pet ownership. We are all pet owners, we all love our pets, and we are all concerned about their care, it's high-time we started acting like we were on the same team. A lack of understanding in regards to differing opinions in pet husbandry can only result in ignorance and intolerance, which will ultimately be everyone's downfall. Martin Niemöller stated it best when he said,
"First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me."
Sources and Further Reading
1. Tail docking - pain felt by puppies Professor Dr. R. Fritsch, 2010.
2. Ear cropping, tail docking, & dewclaws Wendy Wallner, DVM, 1997.
3. Sikora Siino, Betsy. "Crop And Dock... Or Not?" Doberman Pinschers, Popular Dogs Series volume 18, 2010: 76-81
4. Spaying and castration Stan Rawlinson, 2012
5. Anti-dog movement "Eric", 2006
6. Anti-pet ownership quotes Various authors, 1982-1996
7. The health problems of dogs bred through selective breeding "Melpor", 2012
8. Floppy eared dogs and chronic ear infections Mia Carter, 2009