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Docking – not the end of the tale?
  1. Adele Waters

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SCOTLAND is proud of its record on animal welfare. Its intention to ban wild animals in travelling circuses is a good example of Scotland setting standards for the rest of the UK to follow.

But later this summer the Scottish parliament will vote on whether to accept a new package of welfare proposals and tail docking – banned in Scotland for 10 years – could make a comeback. For many vets and welfare experts, this is an unnecessary and retrograde step.

Under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, it is illegal to shorten any dog's tail (unless it is indicated medically).

This is different from the rest of the UK where it is permitted for working dogs of certain breeds including hunt point retrievers (HPRs), spaniels and terriers.

When the Scottish Government introduced the ban in 2007, it committed to reviewing its position if new evidence that indicated the welfare of working dogs was compromised by the ban.

It has been commissioning research in this area ever since. So what has the research found?

First, in 2009, a study carried out by Diesel and others at the University of Bristol and the Royal Veterinary College examined tail injuries in 138,212 dogs across 52 practices and found a low risk of injury (0.2 per cent). It found 500 dogs would need to have their tails docked in order to prevent a single tail injury. This study did not provide sufficient information to justify a change in policy.

However the next two studies, carried out by Glasgow university, have been used to argue for a possible change in law.

In the first, Cameron and others (2014) compared tail injuries in working and non-working dog breeds across 16 practices. They found working breeds were at significantly greater risk of sustaining a tail injury than non-working breeds and that for every 232 working dogs undergoing tail docking, one tail injury could be prevented.

The second influential study, carried out by Lederer and others (2014), was based on a survey of 1005 working dog owners in Scotland during 2010/11. Of 2860 working dogs, 13.5 per cent were found to have sustained at least one tail injury, with undocked spaniels and HPRs at greatest risk (57 and 39 per cent, respectively).

The study found anywhere between two and 18 spaniels or HPRs would need to be docked as puppies to prevent one injury. Its conclusion – that docking the tails of these breeds by one-third would significantly decrease the risk of tail injury – was sufficient to persuade the Scottish government last year to carry out a consultation on changing the legislation.

The consultation found strong support for reform of the law. A large majority (92 per cent) of respondents – 40 per cent of whom had a declared commercial interest in the use of working dogs – agreed that vets in Scotland should be allowed to dock the tails of spaniels and HPR puppies if they believed a) the dogs would be used as working dogs and b) the possible avoidance of serious tail injuries in later life outweighed the pain of docking.

Hence, the tail docking ban is up for a review. But does the evidence to support change stack up? Not according to the BVA and BSAVA. They remain firmly against tail docking in dogs, even in specific breeds, believing it to be unnecessary and detrimental to their welfare.

They point out that even in the breeds most frequently affected by tail injuries, a large number of puppies have to be docked in order to prevent a single serious tail injury. Far from making the case for tail docking, these figures work against it.

They also argue that from an animal welfare point of view, tails are a vital form of canine expression – dogs use their tails to let people, and other dogs, know when they are happy, scared or submissive. Docking them deprives them of the ability to communicate as effectively as they would otherwise be able to.

And from a delivery point of view, it is difficult for vets to restrict tail docking to puppies that will later go on to be working dogs – how can vets reasonably know and ensure they are within the law here?

A key argument in favour of tail docking is to prevent pain and suffering in adult dogs due to tail injury. Injured tails in adult dogs can be difficult to treat and slow to heal. Supporters of the practice say adult tail injuries are noticeably more painful and therefore it makes sense to remove the tail to prevent the injury in the first place.

But dogs injure their ears and no one is arguing that we should start cutting them off routinely. Why is tail injury so different? The evidence for occurrence of serious tail injuries is also weak with only 4 per cent of owners (in the Lederer study) calling on veterinary treatment.

In contrast, tail docking involves the cutting through or crushing of skin, muscles, up to seven pairs of nerves, bone and cartilage. So what about the pain and distress caused to puppies undergoing the procedure?

A vet who has carried out tail docking tells me that puppies make a noise for about a minute while the procedure is carried out – the tail is cut and a suture applied without anaesthetic – but after they are returned to their litter they settle after 30 seconds. This would seem to concur with research carried out in the 1970s (Katz) that indicated that neonates would not feel pain due to immature nerve pathways being unable to transmit painful stimuli.

However subsequent research since the 1990s has consistently disputed this and suggests the reverse – that neonates have similar, if not increased, sensitivity to pain as adults. Not only that but the identification of neuromas following tail amputation suggests dogs can go on to suffer chronic pain.

Throughout the Scottish government's consultation the same themes – and battlelines – emerged. Those involved in field sports – the ‘country set’ – were generally supportive of introducing an exemption to the current total ban; those not involved in field sports – ‘the urbanites’ – tended to argue against a change in legislation.

For any country trying to harmonise these polar positions, it would make sense to refer to the evidence. Here, the case for changing the law to allow tail docking in working dogs is not made.

It also makes sense to refer to existing legislation – the Animal Welfare Act itself. As Lederer herself argues in her MVM thesis (‘Investigations regarding tail injuries in working gundogs and terriers in pest control in Scotland’), working dog owners have the same duty of care as any other owner – a duty to ensure their dogs' welfare by providing the five freedoms, especially in this context freedom from pain, injury and disease and freedom from fear and distress. She argues: ‘Engaging in a hobby or lifestyle that frequently results in tail and non-tail injuries and would benefit from removal of parts of the tail is ethically debatable in itself.’

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