independent

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Tail docking is illogical and belongs in the past

Published 19/11/2013 | 05:38

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A docked Corgi.
An undocked Corgi.

THE recent debate on docking puppies' tails must be leaving some folk baffled. What's the big fuss about? The economy is in crisis, global warming is in full swing, international conflicts are brewing, yet people worry about puppy dog tails. What's the big deal?

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My answer is simple: it's a black and white case of right and wrong. There is no reason to cut off young puppies' tails. It's an outdated, illogical practice that belongs in the past. It causes pain to animals that cannot defend themselves. It removes an essential part of a dog's communication repertoire, potentially upsetting their social skills for their whole life.

For these reasons, tail docking should be stopped. Of course there are more important issues out there, but that does not mean that we should not also deal with the small issues.

I have to confess: I have docked puppies' tails in the past. While I feel bad about it now, it does mean that I have direct experience of what's involved.

When I qualified as a vet, nearly thirty years ago, it was standard practice for vets to dock the tails of certain breeds of dog. Boxers, Dobermans, Rottweilers and all sorts of terriers or spaniels were brought in at three days of age. The vet used a sterile surgical kit to neatly sever each tail. Veterinary text books included a guide that told us how much tail should be left behind.

An entire litter would be brought in, so up to a dozen pups might have their tails docked in one session. As the scissors sliced through the tail, each puppy squealed shrilly in pain; once any bleeding had settled down, the pup was put back with the rest of his litter. The squealing settled down to quiet whimper, and soon the pup was quiet again. People said 'they are too young to feel it' and 'they soon forget about it anyway', but even at the time, I remember feeling that it was all so wrong.

I was young and new to the job, and it was difficult to go against the standard practice of that era, but fortunately, my own misgivings were shared by many other vets around that time. Soon after I qualified, vets began to speak out against tail docking, and many vets (including myself) started to refuse to do it.

The veterinary governing bodies looked into the practice, and they agreed that it was simply wrong. It became unethical for vets to carry out tail docking, and vets continuing to do it were at risk of being 'struck off'.

The only problem with this stance was that breeders who liked seeing dogs with docked tails started to do it themselves. They had seen vets docking tails, and it did not seem to be a highly technical procedure. A pair of scissors, a Stanley knife or even just a tight elastic band was enough to remove the tail.

It was done behind closed doors, so nobody knew what was going on. If some of the pups suffered long term tail injuries, or even if they died, it was easy to hush it up. By the time the pups were old enough to go to new homes, the tail stump had usually healed up, and no-one knew any better. Do-it-yourself tail docking meant that despite the refusal of most vets to carry out the procedure, docked tails were seen as often as before.

In the UK, a nationwide debate was held on the subject, and in 2007, tail docking was made completely illegal in Scotland, in England and Wales, it's only allowed for a small number of working dogs or when the procedure is needed for medical reasons, such as damaged tail tips. It also became illegal to show dogs that had had their tails docked after 2007.

The effect has been dramatic: over the past six years, it has gradually become normal in the UK to see dogs like Boxers with long tails. When I visited Crufts this year, the transition was very visible. Dogs over the age of six had stumpy rear ends with docked tails. All of the dogs in younger classes had full length, glorious, waggy tails. Over the next decade, as the dogs born before 2007 grow old and die, the sight of dogs with docked tails will become rarer, and they'll eventually be phased out.

The UK pattern has been followed across Europe: tail docking is banned in most countries. So what about Ireland?

Tail docking is not banned under current law, so it's still common to see docked dogs. It's done by breeders so that when people go to buy a puppy, they are presented with a docked animal. It's difficult to buy a long-tailed version of most traditionally docked breeds.

The Irish organisations that care about animal welfare - such as the ISPCA, Dogs Trust and Veterinary Ireland - ensured that tail docking was set to be banned in the new Animal Health and Welfare Act, which is shortly due to become active. Astonishingly, the Minister of Agriculture, Simon Coveney, has recently drafted regulations that allow the continued docking of dogs' tails to be done by members of the public.

It's impossible to see the logic of allowing tail docking: it goes against the tide of international public opinion. There is still time for the Minister to change his mind on this. Puppies may not have votes, but sometimes politicians just need to do the right thing. Please change your mind, Minister Coveney.

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