COSMETIC SURGERY FOR DOGS & CATS

TAIL DOCKING

Tails are usually docked on 2-10 day old puppies, without either general or local anesthesia. If the procedure is done by a veterinarian, the tail is clamped a short distance from the body, and the portion of the tail outside the clamp is cut or torn away. Many breeders dock their pups themselves using a method that has been proven to be far more painful - "banding," or tying off the tail. This stops the blood supply, which results in dry gangrene. The dead portion of the tail usually falls off about three days later. This can be likened to slamming your finger in a car door - and leaving it there.

Two cases involving home tail docking were recently reported by the Michigan Humane Society. One woman was tried and found guilty of cruelty for allowing rubber bands to become embedded in the tails of four puppies. In a similar abuse case, a four-week-old Rottweiler mix puppy's tail had been improperly rubber banded. His infected tail had to be amputated.

Puppies undergoing any method of tail-docking squeal and cry, yet advocates assert that the newborn's nervous system is unable to feel the pain. They point out that puppies immediately crawl to their mothers to nurse. But don't all hurt or frightened children immediately cry for their mommy? Moreover, research indicates that suckling causes the release of endorphins, the body's natural pain relievers, which may be a more realistic way to view the puppies' desire to nurse. Docking advocates ignore the fact that a newborn puppy simply is not capable of a wide range of responses. It is very difficult to accurately assess the degree of pain a newborn is experiencing. Just because a puppy is not actively vocalizing does not mean she isn't feeling any pain.

The pro-docking lobby claims that since puppies are less developed at birth (altricial) than, say, fawns or colts - which stand, walk and run within a very short time after birth (precocial) - their nervous systems are less sensitive, therefore tail docking is not painful. However, it is well documented in the human medical literature that newborn humans, who are also altricial, do feel pain - and neonatal pain management is taken seriously. "Clinicians believe that infants can experience pain much like adults, that [hospitalized] infants are exposed daily to painful procedures, and that pain protection should be provided, even very prematurely born infants respond to pain," states one report from the Department of Pediatrics at the Washington University School of Medicine.

Proponents of tail docking claim that their favorite breeds "often" have their tails damaged while hunting. No statistics or percentages of dogs so damaged are given. However, explicit photos of such injuries are prominently displayed in their literature and web sites. This vague potential risk for future tail injury theoretically justifies docking the tail of every single puppy of traditionally docked breeds. It does not matter whether any particular puppy will ever be used for hunting or any other activities that carry a significant risk of tail injury. One study of 12,000 canine cases over seven years found only 47 cases of tail injuries from any cause, or about 0.003% of dogs seen at that hospital. Another survey reviewed 2,000 canine emergency cases, and turned up only three tail injuries - all of them complications from docking.

One certainly wonders about the validity of the "tail injury" argument, when sporting breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Irish, English and Gordon Setters, Beagles, Foxhounds, and Pointers do not have their tails docked, while Vislas, Weimeraners, German Shorthaired Pointers, and Springer, Brittany and Cocker Spaniels do. Spaniels have long, heavy, furry ears that appear more hazardous in thorny, brushy terrain or water than a long tail. Spaniels are also notorious for severe, chronic ear infections. Does it make any sense that they are allowed to keep their pendulous ears, but not their tails?

The tail injury argument also doesn't explain why Rottweilers, Dobermans, Poodles, Schnauzers and Old English Sheepdogs (as well as Australian Shepherds unfortunate enough to be born with tails instead of without), routinely have their tails docked. These working and non-sporting breeds aren't running around in the brush and woods. Old English and Aussie breeders might offer that a tail is a liability around livestock. But why isn't this so, then, for Border Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, Australian Cattle Dogs, Great Pyrenees, or other herding breeds? The argument seems very thin when examined logically.

EAR CROPPING

Breeds whose ears are naturally floppy, like Great Danes, Boston Terriers, Boxers, Schnauzers, and Manchester Terriers, have traditionally had their ears surgically cropped to stand up straight. This custom has existed in some breeds for hundreds of years. Initially, some of these breeds, such as Bull Terriers, were fighting dogs, and their ears were cut to reduce or eliminate an easy target. Since dogfighting is illegal in the U.S. today, this rationale is no longer applicable.

Ears are cropped at 8-10 weeks of age. The puppy is put under general anesthesia, the ears are cut, and the sore ears are stiffly taped in position to make them stand up straight. They will be taped and re-taped for weeks to months. Postoperative pain medication is not routinely given, even though the ears have an extensive blood and nerve supply. Even after all the torment, some dogs end up with floppy, bent, scarred, wrinkled, twisted, or otherwise disfigured ears. There is no reason to perform this painful, mutilating procedure, other than for looks (or more specifically, to conform with American Kennel Club (AKC) or breed club standards). There is no health benefit to the dog. Contrary to pro-cropping advocates' claims, there is no scientific evidence that cropping has any effect on the incidence of ear infections.

Many dog show judges now allow "natural" (uncropped, undocked) dogs of traditionally cropped and docked breeds in their classes, and sometimes even reward them with blue ribbons. Many breed standards accept either cropped or uncropped ears. In 1998, an uncropped Boxer won every show leading to his championship, and went on to claim an AKC Best in Show award. Animal advocates have for years pleaded with the AKC and similar organizations to make cropping optional in the more rigid breed standards. However, AKC's reaction was in the opposite direction - it amended the Boxer standard to specify that deviations from the "ideal" (cropped and docked) appearance must be penalized in the show ring.

AKC, breeders, and breed clubs do not want to see a resolution passed in San Francisco that might impinge on their demands for specific alterations of appearance in certain breeds. Cropping advocates theorize that their breeds will become unpopular and wither away, because no one will want dogs that do not conform to the standard. However, a recent article in Dog World speculated that people who previously avoided some of these breeds due to cropping requirements will now be more interested in them as companions. The appearance of many breeds has changed and evolved over time, including the Labrador Retriever - the most popular dog breed in the nation despite its "new look." The historic tradition of cropping and docking should be made as obsolete as the equally historic tradition of slavery.

DEBARKING

While cosmetic tail docking and ear cropping are clearly of no benefit to the dog, the issues become a little fuzzier when it comes to debarking. After all, a noisy dog is liable to find herself sitting in a shelter awaiting death because the neighbors complained. There are few things as frustrating and even infuriating as a neighbor dog's incessant barking.

Many people initially acquire a dog for protection as well as companionship. A dog is supposed to bark when there is something amiss. It's his job to guard his home and family. Homes with dogs are far less likely to be targeted for burglary and other crimes. Even a small dog is a big deterrent to would-be robbers. Neighbors understand that a dog will bark at the meter reader, delivery person, or mail carrier for a minute or two. But they do not want to listen to 30 minutes of nonstop barking at every slight noise. It's only when barking is excessive that it becomes a problem. However, a problem barker is not the one at fault - we must look to the dog's guardians for the source of the behavior. Chronic or excessive barking arises because the dog is improperly socialized or trained, or because she is stressed, hypersensitive, lonely, fearful, or frustrated. Debarking a dog does not make her any less stressed, hypersensitive, lonely, fearful, or frustrated! It is important to deal with the problem at its source, rather than turn down the volume surgically. These dogs still bark, they just don't make much noise.

Debarking surgery is not difficult (although it does entail general anesthesia and surgical risks such as bleeding and infection), but the rate of postoperative complications is very high. Some practitioners estimate that 50% of dogs will develop problems arising from the debarking surgery. These range from merely annoying (the dog regains his ability to bark within two or three years) to life-threatening (scar tissue obstructs the dog's airway). Correcting these complications requires more surgery, more risks, and more money. Again, this puts the dog at risk for landing in the shelter. This burdens taxpayers with the expense of dealing with yet another dog made essentially unadoptable by her guardians.

There are at least two other serious consequences linked to debarking. San Francisco has already been faced with one: the ability to disguise a large number of dogs on a property by debarking all of them. The other is being considered right now in the State of Ohio, where there is legislation pending to prohibit debarking of "vicious" dogs. The bill's sponsors believe that attack-trained dogs who are made silent by debarking are "deadly weapons." Indeed, no law enforcement professional wants to come upon a large and menacing Rottweiler without warning or time to prepare.

There are simple, effective training steps that will deter excessive barking, which is really only a cry for help. For instance, when a dog barks and his guardian yells at him to stop, the dog actually perceives this as the guardian joining him in barking, which only encourages more barking. Rough play, or "hunting games" like fetch, heighten a dog's excitement level. When left alone, he is keyed up and may express his frustration by barking. Calm exercise such as a walk will satisfy him without stirring up his adrenaline. Dogs that can hear people walking but cannot see them may bark at every footstep. Creating one or two dog-level "spy-holes" in a solid fence allows the dog to see and assess the "danger."

There are also "anti-bark" collars that deliver either a mild shock or puff of citronella (an aversive odor) to the dog when he barks. With such collars, there is some concern that they will discourage the dog from barking to the point that she becomes useless as a guard dog. These collars may also make a dog fearful and neurotic. However, judicious and appropriate use can be effective.

DECLAWING

Declawing in cats is a surgical procedure that involves amputating each front toe at the first joint. This is equivalent to you losing the entire tip of every finger at the first knuckle. It is an excruciating procedure that may result in chronic lameness, arthritis, and other long-term complications. It alters the way the cat moves and balances. This can cause strain and eventually arthritis in the upper leg joints as well as the feet. It is a barbaric and cruel procedure that is actually illegal in many countries. A respected 1990 veterinary text states that "The operative removal of the claws, as is sometimes practiced to protect furniture and curtains, is an act of abuse and should be forbidden by law in all, not just a few countries."

Declawed cats are reported to have a higher incidence of litterbox avoidance problems. Not many people would choose urine-soaked carpeting or mattresses to a a few claw marks, but unfortunately this is a common outcome. Declawed cats may also become biters. They must resort to using their teeth, because their primary means of defense has been taken away. Any of these unpleasant behaviors may ultimately kill the cat, because they are unacceptable at home, and also make the cat unadoptable if surrendered to a shelter.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman of Tufts University, who has written several books on canine and feline "psychology," says of declawing that it "fits the dictionary definition of mutilation to a tee. Words such as deform, disfigure, disjoint, and dismember all apply to this surgery. Partial digital amputation is so horrible that it has been employed for torture of prisoners of war, and in veterinary medicine, the clinical procedure serves as a model of severe pain for testing the efficacy of anesthetic drugs."

Cats waking from declaw surgery will thrash from wall to wall in the cage, howl, and shake their feet as if trying to fling them away. It is very distressing and heart-wrenching to see. Postoperative pain medication is available, but not always used. Complications include infections, abscesses, and abnormal regrowth of the claws. Any or all of these may occur, even many years after the surgery.

The latest trend is for this surgery to be done with lasers, which (in addition to a huge increase in cost) is said to make the immediate postoperative period much less painful for the cat. The long-term physical and behavioral consequences, however, remain unchanged.

The excuses people use for wanting to declaw a cat are usually trivial, and nearly always involve putting the well-being of their belongings above that of the cat. People who wish to own leather furniture need to understand that leather and cats cannot peacefully coexist in the same household.

Even declawing the front paws does not save leather furniture, since when a cat jumps down off a couch, she necessarily digs in her rear claws slightly. Declawing the back paws is even more painful than the front, and often results in litterbox avoidance problems. When a cat squats in the box, more weight and pressure are put on the rear paws, and cats often associate this pain with the box itself.

Cats of any age can be trained not to scratch furniture or other objects, including people, although it is obviously easier if the cat is trained as a kitten. Other than serious medical considerations, it is mostly the guardians' unwillingness or sheer laziness that results in cats being declawed. There are many effective and inexpensive options now available, including soft plastic caps for the claws, clear sticky strips to apply to the furniture, and other deterrents, as well as a multitude of cat-attractive scratching posts, mats, door-hangers, and other distractions that will protect your possessions.

 
Jean Hofve, DVM, Animal Protection Institute