The history of tail docking goes back to Roman times when it was thought by shepherds to prevent rabies. In Britain in the Georgian era it was undertaken for the same reasons we would dock today – to prevent injuries to ratting, fighting and hunting dogs. Up until 1796 a tax was levied in Britain on dogs that were not tail docked. How times have changed!
Vets in the UK spend much of their time preaching and providing preventative medicine to animals to reduce the likelihood of infections, medical and surgical problems. We vaccinate our dogs against many diseases rarely seen in the UK. Vaccination has virtually wiped out canine distemper and viral hepatitis and even parvovirus which is rarely seen other than in unvaccinated dogs. We neuter bitches and dogs to prevent problems such as uterine infections, mammary tumours and prostatic disease. Microchipping is now a legal requirement for all dogs to improve the likelihood they can be returned to their owner.
Tail docking (or shortening) should be seen in the same light in some working gundogs – primarily the cocker and springer spaniels, and the hunt,point,retrieve (HPR) breeds. It is intended as a preventative treatment to stop damage to the tail end when working. Although not all dogs will get damage to the tail, the discomfort and pain to those dogs that do get damage is considerable. Modern veterinary treatment may relieve much of the discomfort associated with the damage but it is persistent and often repetitive until the tail is amputated. Amputation of the tail of an adult dog is very painful and the surgical wound is often damaged by the dog if it can get to it with some dogs requiring multiple surgical interventions due to this problem.
So why is it that certain breeds especially the HPR and spaniels that are prone to tail damage whilst Labrador’s and retrievers aren’t.
Spaniels and the hunting and seeking dogs are usually working thick cover which is often bramble strewn and through small runs. Always willing and ever hopeful they will enter any thick cover. When on the scent the TIL never stops wagging often getting more energetic the stronger the scent. If fully haired the soft long hairs often get caught in the bush and get pulled out, a few hairs at a time until the tail is bare and the cushioning effect of the hair is lost. Then the tail tip becomes traumatised and torn on the undergrowth becoming a blood-spattered mess. Labrador’s and Retrievers tend to work more open ground going around rather than through thick cover or gorse and have a lower tail carriage and possibly a less manic tail wag. The thicker and shorter hairs on the tail are also less likely to get caught in brambles and gorse and be pulled out.
The HPR breeds tend to work similar ground to the spaniels and their very long tails with sparse short hairs offer little protection and the tip easily becomes traumatised when these dogs follow game into the thickest of cover.
The prevention of tail trauma is by tail docking pups from these working breeds in the first few days of life. The procedure must be carried out by a vet who will provide a certificate for each puppy which must also be microchipped (although this does not have to be done at the same time).
Although not a legal requirement we inject local anaesthetic into the tail to desensitise it then cut the tail using our laser (see section on surgical laser) which cauterises the blood vessels and seals the nerve endings to reduce any pain once the local anaesthetic wears off. A stitch is then placed at the end of the tail to oppose the cut section. This stitch will dissolve after 10 days and the tail will be healed. There is a minimum length of tail that must be left and in most cases, we remove the last third of the tail only so there is plenty left to ‘wag’. It is a quick procedure and the puppies are returned to their litter mates where they settle within seconds. Prevention of tail damage using this procedure is far better than trying to treat a chronic tail injury in an adult dog.
Different legislation applies between England, Wales and Scotland – where tail ‘shortening’ has recently been allowed again. The differences revolve around the breeds of dogs that can be ‘docked’ and their intended use. In essence, only ‘working’ breeds may be docked when they are intended for sale for working use and owners of litters must produce evidence of working status. No cosmetic docking is allowed in any area of the UK.