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Telling tails

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IDEALLY, legislation and the policies on which it is based would be evidence-based but the real world doesn’t always work like that and evidence is often in short supply. As a result, policies usually represent a compromise based on received wisdom, opinion and fact – and it is often the case that, the fewer the facts available, the more strongly opinions are held and the more controversial the legislation proves to be. Legislation on the docking of dogs’ tails provides a good example of this.

Non-therapeutic docking of dogs’ tails has been banned in Great Britain since 2007. However, as things stand, different policies exist in Scotland, England and Wales, largely reflecting differences in opinion about the possibility that docking puppies that are intended to be used as working dogs might usefully reduce the incidence of tail injuries in those dogs later in life. In Scotland, the ban on non-therapeutic docking applies to all dogs, whereas in England and Wales, certain working-type dogs and working breeds are exempted. Doubts must remain about whether working dogs should have been exempted from the ban in England and Wales, not least because of the difficulties associated with predicting how a dog might be used in the future (see VR, February 24, 2007, vol 160, p 245). At the time the legislation was introduced, debate was hampered by a lack of firm evidence concerning any benefits of prophylactic tail docking. A paper by Gillian Diesel and colleagues on pp 812-817 of this issue of Veterinary Record should help put that right.

The paper describes a study conducted during 2008 and 2009 to quantify the risk of tail injury in dogs, to evaluate the extent to which tail docking reduces this risk and to identify major risk factors for tail injury in dogs attending veterinary practices in Great Britain. Fifty-two practices across Great Britain were involved in the study, in which 281 cases of tail injury were identified from the clinical records of more than 138,000 dogs attending the practices over a 12-month period.

Among the findings was that the overall risk of tail injury was low, and that trauma not associated with work accounted for most of the injuries seen by the participating practices. Work in itself was not a major risk factor, and characteristics such as the dogs’ breed, the width of the angle over which they wagged their tails and their docked status were more important factors associated with tail injury. Dogs that had been docked were found to be less likely to sustain an injury, which is to be expected as they do not have a tail, or only a shorter tail, to injure. However, this finding needs to be kept in perspective given that the overall risk of tail injury was found to be small: on the basis of their findings, the authors calculate that 500 dogs would need to be docked in order to prevent one tail injury.

Thirty-six per cent of the recorded injuries were reportedly related to injuries sustained in the home, 17.5 per cent were outdoor-related injuries and 14.4 per cent were the result of a tail being caught in a door; for 16.5 per cent the cause was unknown and the rest were due to other causes.

Breed was found to be an important risk factor in the analysis, with English springer spaniels, cocker spaniels, greyhounds, lurchers and whippets all being found to be at higher risk compared with labradors and other retrievers. However, the authors again point out that, despite some groups being at higher risk than others, the overall risk of tail injuries was low. Dogs kept in kennels were also found to be at higher risk of tail injury, which the authors suggest may be the result of kennels being too small in relation to the dog, increasing the chances of the dog banging its tail against the kennel wall.

Given the low overall risk of tail injury and that the fact that work was not found to be a major risk factor, the study does raise the question of whether the exemption of working dogs from the ban on non-therapeutic docking in England and Wales can be justified. Perhaps more tellingly, given that 500 dogs might have to be docked in order to prevent one tail injury, it raises the question of whether prophylactic docking can be justified at all.

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