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Retrograde step on tail docking

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IN an ideal world, policies and legislation would be evidence based. In reality, however, evidence is often in short supply and open to different interpretations: policies end up being a compromise based on received wisdom, opinion and fact – and it is often the case that, the fewer facts that are available, the more strongly opinions are held and the more controversial policies are. There are a number of instances where this applies in the veterinary sphere and the docking of dogs' tails is one of them.

Non-therapeutic docking of dogs' tails has been banned in Great Britain since 2007, but policies have differed in Scotland and England and Wales. In Scotland, the ban on non-therapeutic docking has applied to all dogs, while in England and Wales certain working-type dogs and working breeds are exempted. The different policies have largely reflected differences in opinion about the possible benefits of ‘prophylactic’ tail docking; that is, the idea that docking the tails of puppies intended to be used as working dogs will prevent those dogs suffering tail injuries in later life. Introducing the total ban in Scotland in 2007, Ross Finnie, the animal health and welfare minister at the time, said that, having consulted widely, the Scottish Government had concluded that arguments against docking dogs' tails outweighed those in its favour: ‘Tail docking of dogs involves the removal of most or part of the tail, severing muscles, tendons, nerves and sometimes bone or cartilage. That cannot be justified because of a possibility that the dog may injure its tail in later life.’

Now, following a consultation undertaken earlier this year, the Scottish Government has indicated that it, too, intends to exempt certain working dogs from the ban on non-therapeutic tail docking – specifically, ‘to permit the docking, by up to a maximum of one third in length, of the tails of working spaniels and hunt point retrievers before they are not more than five days old’. The legislation will ‘require tail docking to be carried out by veterinary surgeons, only where they have been provided with sufficient evidence that the dogs will be used for working purposes in the future; and in their professional judgement the pain of docking is outweighed by the possible avoidance of more serious injuries later in life’.

Announcing the change in the Scottish Government's position last week, environment minister Roseanna Cunningham said, ‘We have seen evidence that some working dogs are suffering tail injuries so I have decided to allow vets to shorten the tails of spaniel and hunt point retriever puppies where they believe it will prevent further injuries amongst working dogs.’

The exemption applied in Scotland will be more restrictive than the one applied in England and Wales but, irrespective of that, it is difficult to regard this decision as anything other than a retrograde step.

The introduction of the ban in 2007 was not without controversy and, in its consultation document earlier this year, the Scottish Government noted that, since then, field sports interests in Scotland had continued to campaign for dogs used for shooting or pest control to be exempted. It drew attention to research it had commissioned into the tail injuries sustained by working dogs, and the prevalence of injuries in working and non-working breeds. Among the findings were that dogs of working breeds were at greater risk of sustaining a tail injury than dogs of non-working breeds, and that the number of puppies that would need to be docked to prevent one tail injury varied between different breed groups. It was also found that docking the tails of hunt point retrievers and spaniels by one third would decrease the risk of tail injuries in these breeds while working, and that somewhere between two and 18 puppies would need to be docked to prevent one tail injury. The research, by workers at the University of Glasgow, was published in Veterinary Record (Cameron and others 2014, Lederer and others 2014). In an accompanying Editorial, David Morton questioned whether docking puppies could be justified, given the pain and distress involved and that more dogs need to be docked than are injured (Morton 2014).

Responding to the consultation in May this year, the BVA and the British Small Animal Veterinary Association opposed the proposed exemption from the ban, arguing that puppies suffer unnecessary pain as a result of docking and are denied a vital form of expression. They, too, questioned whether docking could be justified in view of the subsequent risk of injury. They also drew attention to the difficulties inherent in establishing whether newborn puppies will in fact be used as working dogs.

In an analysis of all the responses to the consultation that was published last week, the Scottish Government reported that a majority of respondents (54 per cent) were keepers of working dogs. Respondents involved in field sports were generally supportive of introducing an exemption to the ban, while those not involved in field sports – particularly animal welfare groups and members of the public – were not. Whether for or against, both used animal welfare to support their perspective. Views on the research referred to in the consultation document were also split, with those in favour of an exemption arguing that the findings supported the idea, and those who were against arguing that they did not. Some respondents referred to the commercial consequences of the ban, and damage being done to Scottish breeding lines.

Evidence gathering has formed part of this exercise, and that in itself is to be commended. However, it is clear that opinion and political pragmatism have also contributed and, ultimately, it is hard to see how animal welfare will benefit.

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