Precious Paws: Is Physically Altering Dogs Humane?

Pets are known for being loving, loyal companions, and owning them has been proven to increase happiness. As recorded by the Insurance Information Institute, 70%  of U.S. households own a pet and nearly 40% of U.S. households own a dog. Although dogs may simply seem to be a highly-valued companion to keep one busy and happy, for others, dogs are used for competitive events such as dog shows, racing, and fighting. 

These topics alone are controversial, but because of events like dog shows, where dogs are ranked based on their looks, pet owners may want to surgically change their dog to fit certain “criteria.” Some owners choose to change their dog’s appearance by cropping their ears (cutting off part of a dog’s ears) or docking their tail (cutting off a portion of the tail), whether for competition or their own personal satisfaction. Another reason some owners decide to tail dock is because, depending on the dog, tails can be extremely strong and may hurt young children. Even more so, the barking aspect that comes with a dog is viewed as quite annoying to some pet owners, some of which permanently devocalize their pets through surgical procedures to keep them quiet.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), there are currently 29 states that do not regulate tail docking, 41 states that allow ear cropping, and 44 states where devocalization is legal. Tail docking, also known as caudectomy, occurs for a few reasons, the first being for medical necessity. When the tail is removed medically, it is not referred to as tail docking. Examples of medical reasons would include ensuring complete tumor removal, alleviating excess skin around the base of the tail, or if the tail is broken and there is little chance of it healing correctly. 

Another rationale behind pet owners getting this surgery performed is for the aesthetic, to increase the speed of the dog, and prevent injuries to children as mentioned above. Why is this particular approach possibly a bad idea?  Tail docking is actually banned in most countries, and according to Fetch by WebMD, there are many significant reasons as to why this is the case. Although some dogs undergo this procedure to ensure complete tumor removal, docked tails can develop neuroma or nerve tumors which can cause pain to the dog. Dogs display their excitement through the process of wagging their tail, so without a tail, they may struggle to display happiness and it could interfere with the dog’s ability to interact with other dogs. Lastly, the most common reason for tail docking is to change the dog’s appearance for the owner’s pleasure, which can pose unnecessary risks.

In addition, the ear cropping procedure can involve taping the dog’s ears to train them to point upright. Dogs use their ears for not only listening but also for communicating with their owners and other dogs. RSPCA confirms this and establishes the three main reasons a dog should keep their ears: communication, hearing, and body language. Dogs use their ears to help us and other animals understand how they’re feeling as a primary form of expression. It is not proven whether or not ear cropping harms a dog’s hearing, but further research indicates that this is possible. Body language is another important way dogs communicate. This can give perspective as to whether or not a dog is happy, relaxed, or worried. Without the insight that ear expression provides, it can be difficult to address the needs of a dog. Just within the past five years, there have been 236% more reported ear croppings.

Devocalization, also known as debarking, is a surgical procedure to remove a part of the vocal cords of a dog or cat, which permanently reduces the volume of their vocalizations. As stated by AVMA, the human benefits to this procedure are reduced noise pollution, especially in places like dog shelters or vets, less annoyance, and fewer complaints. Although these benefits might sound appealing, the reasons that dogs bark, just as humans speak, are far more complex and significant. Reasons may include poor training, needing to go to the bathroom, wanting to play, social isolation, behavioral problems such as anxiety, greeting, seeking attention, or even a warning. Barking can be especially helpful in addressing intruders and other urgent situations. There are also risks involved with the debarking surgery, involving general anesthesia, post-operative discomfort, and potential complications. Resumption of a normal bark can also reoccur within a few months, which further devalues the procedure. Rather than debarking dogs, better training should be prioritized and implemented if barking becomes an issue as a more positive investment. 

The overarching problem is our societal need to combat natural processes through forced change, as portrayed through attempts to make physical alterations to  dogs in order to fit the criteria of “perfection.” By introducing legislation that makes these procedures illegal, unless medically suggested, and prioritizing training, we can keep dogs natural and healthy. 

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