The Debate over Ear Cropping and Tail Docking

If you've ever met a purebred boxer that hasn't undergone cropping or docking, you may have wondered what sort of mixed breed dog this is – and very likely infuriated the owner by asking.

Cropping and docking is the surgical alteration of the ears and tail respectively. It's so common with boxers, among many other breeds, that to see one without the alteration is like looking at a different dog.
The practice goes back a long time, at least to the Romans and probably even before. For many breeds in the American Kennel Club (AKC), cropping and docking is necessary for the dog to conform to the "breed standard." The breed standard is a detailed description of what breeders of show dogs should strive to achieve in their litters.

But the practice has been under fire for some time as being an unnecessary, cosmetic and even cruel surgical procedure. In Europe, cropping and docking has been banned in many countries.

Cropping the ears involves surgically cutting away a portion of the ear cartilage to make it shorter, so it stands up on its own. After surgery, usually done on puppies about 6 or 8 weeks old, the site is bandaged and taped to form the correct position called for by that particular breed standard. The ear must still be trained to stand in the correct position through the use of bandages.

This can be a long, drawn out process that some owners come to regret. The cropped dog must return to the veterinarian to have the ears re-taped periodically for them to stand correctly. The process can take several months, even as long as 18 months. Sometimes, despite all efforts, one or both ears may droop. Of the 150-plus breeds registered by the AKC, only about 14 require cropping to adhere to breed standards.

Docking means simply that the tail is shortened, usually done when the puppy is only a few days old. The procedure is widely practiced in the United States. Breeders say it's necessary for hunting or working dogs because their tails are often injured in the course of their activities. For instance, Dobermans, which have often been used as guard dogs, have traditionally had their ears and tails altered to give an adversary less to grab onto.

The debate is beginning to blow strong in the United States, with various animal- or pet-related groups staking out their territory. The American Kennel Club states that "ear cropping and tail docking… are acceptable practices integral to defining and preserving breed character and/or enhancing good health."

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Veterinary Medical Association state that there is no medical benefit to either cropping or docking, and that the procedures "cause pain and distress" to the patient. They suggest that veterinarians educate owners that cosmetic appearance is the only reason behind cropping or docking a dog.

It is important to note that while docking is taught in veterinary schools (the procedure is similar to amputation, which is occasionally necessary), cropping is not. The technique is taught informally.