Abstracts: Tail docking of canine puppies: reassessment of the tail’s role in communication, the acute pain caused by docking and interpretation of behavioural responses

Laws, regulations and professional standards increasingly aim to ban or restrict non-therapeutic tail docking in canine puppies. These constraints have usually been justified by reference to loss of tail participation in communication between dogs, the acute pain presumed to be caused during docking itself, subsequent experiences of chronic pain and heightened pain sensitivity, and the occurrence of other complications.

These areas are reconsidered here. First, a scientifically robust examination of the dynamic functional foundations, sensory components and key features of body language that are integral to canine communication shows that the role of the tail has been greatly underestimated. More specifically, it shows that tail behaviour is so embedded in canine communication that docking can markedly impede unambiguous interactions between different dogs and between dogs and people.

These interactions include the expression of wide ranges of both negative and positive emotions, moods and intentions that are of daily significance for dog welfare. Moreover, all docked dogs may experience these impediments throughout their lives, which challenges assertions by opponents to such bans or restrictions that the tail is a dispensable appendage. Second, and in contrast, a re-examination of the sensory capacities of canine puppies reveals that they cannot consciously experience acute or chronic pain during at least the first week after birth, which is when they are usually docked.

The contrary view is based on questionable between-species extrapolation of information about pain from neurologically mature newborns such as calves, lambs, piglets and human infants, which certainly can consciously experience pain in response to injury, to neurologically immature puppies which remain unconscious and therefore unable to experience pain until about two weeks after birth.

Third, underpinned by the incorrect conclusion that puppies are conscious at the usual docking age, it is argued here that the well-validated human emotional drive or desire to care for and protect vulnerable young, leads observers to misread striking docking-induced behaviour as indicating that the puppies consciously experience significant acute pain and distress.

Fourth, updated information reaffirms the conclusion that a significant proportion of dogs docked as puppies will subsequently experience persistent and significant chronic pain and heightened pain sensitivity.

And fifth, other reported negative consequences of docking should also be considered because, although their prevalence is unclear, when they do occur they would have significant negative welfare impacts. It is argued that the present analysis strengthens the rationale for such bans or restrictions on docking of puppies by clarifying which of several justifications previously used are and are not scientifically supportable. In particular, it highlights the major roles the tail plays in canine communication, as well as the lifetime handicaps to communication caused by docking.

Thus, it is concluded that non-therapeutic tail docking of puppies represents an unnecessary removal of a necessary appendage and should therefore be banned or restricted.

The study is from the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre, School of Veterinary Science, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Mellor DJ. Animals (Basel) 2018;8(6). pii: E82. doi: 10.3390/ani8060082.

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