Is Tail Docking Painful to Puppies?
Yes, Newborn Puppies Feel Pain
There has been common belief for many years that docking a three-day-old puppy's tail is a painless procedure due to the puppy's immature nervous system. This justification stemmed from the belief that as altricial species, day-old puppies would not feel pain due to lack of mielinization. Animals considered to be altricial are those which, at birth, are immature and therefore totally dependent on their mothers. Cats, dogs, and humans are all considered to be altricial species.
At the opposite side of the spectrum are precocial species which are quite independent at birth. These animals see, hear, and can often even stand up just minutes after being born. Calves, foals, baby ducks, and turkeys are good examples of precocial species.
Studies Reveal That Day-Old Puppies Do Feel Pain
The immaturity at birth typical of altricial species has been linked to an immature and underdeveloped nervous system, causing people to believe that a newborn puppy is, consequently, not capable of feeling pain. Recent studies and advanced knowledge on pain, however reveal that this is far from being true.
Australian veterinarian Robert K. Wansbrough explains, in an article published in the Australian Veterinary Journal, that anatomical studies demonstrate that pain in day old puppies would be actually more than in an adult dog due to the way impulses are sent through the puppy's unmyelinated fibers. Their slower conduction due to incomplete myelination, is offset by the shorter interneuronal and neuromuscular distances the impulse has to travel, therefore, creating greater pain due to the pup's undeveloped inhibitory pain pathways. Dr. Robert further explains that cutting through muscles, tendons, nerves, bones or cartilages, would result in intense pain to a level that would never be allowed to be inflicted on a human being!
Understanding Pain Reactions in Day-Old Puppies
The fact that pain is present in neonatal altricial species explains why so much care and dedication is involved in neonatal pain management in the human world, explains veterinarian Jean Hofve with the Animal Protection Institute. One report from the Department of Pediatrics at the Washington University School of Medicine suggests that even prematurely born babies which are also altricial species exhibit responses to pain.
A puppy's whimpering and ''escape response'' should, therefore, be sufficient to indicate an intense level of pain. However, veterinarian Robert Wansbrough further points out that lack of showing signs of suffering in some puppies should not be automatically translated as lack of pain. Indeed, dogs as animals are prone to appear stoic due to an ''inherent preservation instinct'', where showing pain is a sign of weakness which may potentially attract predators.
Another common myth is the assumption that just because puppies go back to nursing right after being docked, translates into a puppy with no pain. However, studies on this reveal the opposite. Veterinarian Jean Hofve points out that research demonstrates that the act of suckling releases endorphins, which are natural pain relievers, and therefore, a much more realistic and plausible explanation is provided for the docked puppy's sudden desire to nurse.
Further References and Position Statements
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) reports that tail docking is a painful procedure and that puppies have a fully developed nervous system, and therefore, are fully capable of feeling pain. While a puppy may not actively demonstrate pain, WSAVA explains that ''there are biological markers that show pain is occurring''.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) admits that tail docking is painful and opposes to it, claiming that ''there is no obvious benefit to our patients in performing this procedure''. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) further urges ''the elimination of ear cropping and tail docking from breed standards. ''
The Department of Companion Animals, in Queensland also carried out an interesting study involving 50 Doberman, Rottweiler and Bouvier puppies between the ages of 3 to 5 days old. After being docked, all puppies appeared distressed, exhibiting '' repeated and intense shrieking vocalizations '' . Upon being returned to their box, the puppies made uncoordinated movements, while ''stumbling and whimpering for some time''.
Methods Used for Tail Docking
There are different methods when it comes to docking tails, and with more stringent rules and the banning of the procedure in several countries, more and more breeders are feeling compelled to open a ''chop-shop'' in their homes, basically performing the docking of litters of puppies themselves using a Stanley knife, nail clippers or scissors.
Many breeders resort to a procedure known as ''banding'' where a sort of rubber band is placed around the tail, causing the tissue to die, and ultimately causing the tail to fall off about three days later. The process is obviously not pain-free and veterinarian Jean Hofve compares it to ''slamming your finger in a car door - and leaving it there.''
Even when performed under the sterile environment of a veterinarian's office, no anesthesia or analgesics are used in tail docking procedures. More and more veterinarians are refusing to perform tail docks for cosmetic purposes only. In July 2009, Banfield, one of the largest veterinary chains with more than 730 hospitals in the U.S., stopped performing tail docks and ear crops with '' the overall health and wellness of pets in mind''. And as research and ethical dilemmas around this painful cosmetic surgery continue, more and more are sure to follow.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.