The Anti-Docking Alliance 


The Campaign Against the Docking of Dogs' Tails


The Wansbrough Report
Cosmetic Tail Docking of Dogs’ Tails.

ROBERT K WANSBROUGH    Picasso Crescent, Old Toongabbie, New South Wales 2146        

This article was published in the Australian Veterinary Journal Vol 74, No. 1, July 1996.    It has been
reproduced, by kind permission of the Author.


The anatomy of the canine tail and its relationship to the physiological functions of the tail are described
and the effect of tail docking on these is discussed. Current knowledge on the physiology and anatomy of
pain is described with  particular reference to cosmetic tail docking in the neonatal puppy. Recent
advances in knowledge about pain and the changes in approach to pain management refute the premise
that 'Puppies do not feel pain therefore tail docking is not Inhumane', and also the premise that 'the pain
and the effects of tail docking are insignificant.' Six criteria to tell the 'necessity' to dock dogs are
presented. The article  shows that the reasons advanced for tail docking do not satisfy these criteria
and so that docking dogs' tails cannot be justified.        

Tail docking is an old custom, which is entrenched in certain dog breeds. This article aims to provide
scientific information relevant to the cosmetic tail docking of dogs.        

There have been no scientific studies or double blind trials conducted to compare the effects of tail
docking in one sample of dogs with a similar sample of undocked dogs. Similarly there have been no
studies that measure the initial pain and the ongoing pathological pain inflicted on docked dogs. Due
to the phenomena of deafferentation (suppression of afferent  nerve impulses) and phantom limb pain,
scientific regulatory bodies would not permit such inhumane research. Even without this information
from specific scientific research, our current knowledge is sufficient to show the canine tail is an
anatomically and physiologically important organ which should not be docked simply because tradition
dictates it. Cosmetic tail docking cannot be justified  medically or scientifically and recent advances in
our knowledge about pain indicate that it should he regarded as an inhumane act.        


The following questions have been proposed by Morton (1992) to test the necessity to modify or remove
any part of a dog.

1. Is there evidence that leaving the dog intact predisposes them to harmful consequences?        

2. Is there evidence that the interference is in the best interests of the dog and will be beneficial to the dog?        

3. would the harmful consequences or the benefit occur in a significant proportion of dogs and therefore
justify the procedure on all dogs of a particular breed?        

4. Does the proposed interference cause greatest harm to the dog than the damage one is trying to prevent?        

5. Is there another way with no, or lesser adverse effects that would achieve the same end?        

6. Does the increase in 'value' as a result of the interference justify the harm done to the dog?        


An understanding of the importance of the tail and the con-ditions to which docking can predispose is gained
by reviewing the anatomy and the physiology of the tail and the pelvic region.    The canine tail usually consists
of 20 (6 to 23) highly mobile vertebrae largely enclosed by a very versatile musculature  making the various
segments, especially the tip capable of finely graded movements. Part of the musculature is formed from
muscles associated with the rectum, the anus, and the pelvic diaphragm. The tail is served by 4 to 7, paired
coccygeal nerves. On leaving the spinal canal the branches of these  nerves anastomose to form the left and
right dorsal and ventral coccygeal trunks which lie on their respective surfaces of the transverse processes of
the vertebrae. The dorsal muscles of the tail are direct continuations of the epiaxial musculature of the trunk.
The dorsal sacrococcygeal muscles are extensors, while the sacrococcygeus ventralis later-  alis and medialis
muscles act as flexors or depressors of the  tail. These muscles have many tendons that insert from the 5th or
6th coccygeal vertebra then onto the next vertebra and so on to the end of the tail. The coccygeus, levator ani,
and the inter-transversarius caudac muscles are lateral flexors of the tail.

The rectococcygeus muscle is composed of external fibres from each side of the rectum with the left and right
portions fusing at the level of the 3rd coccygeal vertebra then inserting on the 5th and 6th coccygeal vertebrae.
This attachment on the tail serves to support, anchor and stabilise the anal canal and the rectum, preventing
them from being pulled cranially by a peristaltic wave. By its contraction, the rectococcygeus muscle can move
the anal canal and rectum caudally thus evacuating faecal material (Miller 1969). The pelvic diaphragm is the
vertical closure of the pelvic cavity formed by the coccygeal muscles. The coccygeal muscle originates on the
ischiatic spine, extends to the lateral surface of the tail and inserts on the 2nd to 5th coccygeal vertebrae The
levator ani muscle (m coccygeus medialis) originates on the ilium, pubis and pelvic symphysis, radiates
upwards surrounding the genitalia and the rectum and ends on the 4th to 7th coccygeal vertebrae. Besides
helping to contain the con-tents of the pelvic cavity the levator ani muscle moves the tail cranially and laterally,
presses the tail against the anus and the external genitalia, compresses the rectum and causes the sharp
angulation between the 6th arid 7th coccygeal vertebrae which is characteristic for defecation. Only in
carnivores does the levator muscle reach the vertebrae of the tail, thus the detri-mental effect of tail docking
on the role of this muscle will be  more significant in the dog compared with other domestic species.         



The tail is important as a means of counter-balance when the dog is carrying out complicated movements
such as leaping, walking along narrow structures, or climbing. Tail muscles are also important in stabilising
the vertebral column and supporting the action of the extensor muscles of the back as well as those of the
croup and buttocks.         


Normally the rectum, anus, and anal canal are devoid of faecal material with the walls in apposition. During
defecation the dog assumes a squatting position with elevation of the tail and subsequent relaxation of the
coccygeus, the levator ani, and the rectococcygeus muscles. This allows the migrating contractions in the colon
to push the faeces distally into the rectum with defecation ensuing. The movement of the tail during the act of
defecation has a direct influence in evacuating the  rectum and anal canal of the last part of the faecal bolus. The
coccygeus and levator ani muscles cross the rectum laterally tending to compress the tube, while the recto-
coccygeus shortens the tube. After defecation the muscles return to their normal position with oncomitant
obliteration of the empty lumen. If the tail is removed from an immature puppy the muscles of the tail and pelvis
may fail to develop to their full  potential. Removal of the tail in the mature dog may lead to atrophy and
degeneration of these muscles, in addition, if these muscles lose their distal attachments there may be a
lessening of the support and anchorage of the rectum and anus. An absence of adequate function of these
muscles may result in rectal dilatation, rectal sacculation and faecal incontinence.


Perineal hernia involves a breaching of the caudal wall of the pelvic cavity with herniation of the rectum, the
abdominal contents or the pelvic contents through an opening bordered by the anal sphincter medially, the
coccygeal muscle laterally and the internal obturator ventrolaterally. Any process resultmg in fascial weakening,
muscle atrophy, or muscle degeneration may predispose to this weakness in the pelvic diaphragm.  Often
perineal hernias occur secondary to medical conditions which cause tenesmus with resultant weakening of the
pelvic diaphragm.    Burrows and Ellison (1989) recorded a predisposition to perineal hernia in those
brachycephalic breeds, which  traditionally have their tails docked, and suggested that inherent conformational
deficiencies may contribute to the  disease in these breeds.Canfield (1986) compared long-tailed and docked
Corgis and found that the levator ani and the coccygeus muscles did not develop fully in the docked dogs. A
relationship with perineal hernia potentially exists, but she considered that further research was required before
a categorical statement could be made.         


Urinary incontinence in bitches caused by urethral sphincter mechanism ncompetence (SMI), is a multi factorial
condition. A recent study (Holt and Thrusfield 1993) noted the increased risk of SMI developing in large breeds
but it also concluded that bitches belonging to small breeds had a reduced risk and medium breeds had no
increased risk. Breeds identified in this study as having significantly increased risk of developing SMI were the
Old English Sheepdog, Rottweiler, Doberman Pinscher, Weimaraner and Irish Setter. A reduced  risk was
demonstrated in the labrador retriever, and, although the result was not statistically significant, a low risk was
observed in the German shepherd. This agreed with the observations of Arnold et al (1989).Holt and Thrusfield
(1993) noted 2 consistent association between SMI and tail docking which they interpreted as an indication that
docked breeds of whatever size are more likely to develop incontinence than undocked dogs of the same breed.
It is well recognised in women that the risk of developing genuine stress incontinence (GSI) is related to pelvic
floor muscle damage during labour. In the bitch the equivalent 'pelvic floor' muscles are the levator ani and
coccygeus muscles both of which attach to the tail base, and it is possible that these muscles are atrophied
and/or damaged in docked breeds reducing urethral resistance. A similar relationship may exist between tail
docking and submissive urinary incontinence in puppies.Holt and Thrusfield (1993) conclude that their results
provide some evidence to support the arguments against tail docking and that it would be interesting to
determine if the predisposition to urinary incontinence in currently docked breeds such as the old English
Sheepdog and Doberman Pinscher would be reduced if they cease to be docked.        


The position of the tail and the way it is moved can signal pleasure, fear, friendliness, dominance, playfulness,
defensiveness, inquisitiveness, aggression, nervousness and submissiveness. Thus tail docking can affect the
interaction of dogs with other animals and man. Some behaviourists believe the absence of a tail may
predispose a dog to show unwarranted aggression to other dogs and man, or that they may be the victim of
attacks by other dogs due to their failure to communicate (RJ Holmes personal communication)    Dogs are
playing an increasingly significant role as pets and companion animals. Their role in the reduction of emotion
and stress related diseases in western society is well recognised, as is their important role in companion
animal therapy with children, the handicapped and the elderly. Therefore, good, clear communication with
'man's best friend' is of paramount importance and anything that may impair this  communication should he
avoided. Tail docking is one such thing.       


Recent advances in our knowledge of pain physiology and anatomy are relevant to the discussion of cosmetic
tail docking. Pain is a feeling, a complex summation of nociceptive input, emotion and state of arousal.
Physiological pain is normal, has a short duration and can be protective, but pathological pain is abnormal, is
often  persistent and can be  debilitating and counterproductive. Pathological pain is the sensation perceived
from the inflammation that accompanies tissue injury or the sensation perceived from damage directly to the
nervous system. Clinically, pathological pain is characterised by one or more of the following :

  • The presence of sponataneous pain - pain that occurs in the absence of a demonstrable stimulus.    
  • Widening of the painful area - 'flare reaction.'    
  • Hyperalgesia - where (the response to a painful stimulus is exaggerated)   
  • Allodynia - where a normally innocuous stimulus is painful.     
  • Referred pain - where the pain from injured tissues spreads to intact tissues.   
  • Sympathetic dystrophy - a pathological interaction between the sensory and the sympathetic nervous

Unlike physiological pain, pathological pain has no thresh-hold.  The nervous system is a plastic, modifiable
system with a propensity for adaptation and maladaptation and peripheral and central sensitisation are the
mechanisms underlying the generation of pathological pain (Dart 1994).        


Nociceptors (pain receptors) are activated directly by mechanical and thermal stimuli and also by endogenous
substances released from inflamed, traumatised and   ischaemic tissues. Serotonin, products of the arachidonic
cascade, histamine, kinins and acetylcholine are all algogenic (directly pain producing). Prostaglandins and
nor-adrenalin may not be directly painful, but sensitise the nociceptors and potentiate the effect of other
algogenic substances. Substance P is secreted from the excited or sensitised nociceptors and induces
vasodilation, increased vascular permeability, mast cell degranularion and production of unstored inflammatory
substances. The formation of this 'sensitising soup' leads to sensitisation of adjacent nociceptors and so the
vicious cycle of 'peripheral sensitisation' is set in motion.  Sensitised nociceptors can become spontaneously
active causing depolarisation of 'dorsal' horn neurons, and thus peripheral sensitisation is one of the phenomena
involved in the development of pathological pain.          


At the spinal cord level, the balance between the afferent stimuli reaching the dorsal horn and the degree of
activity of inhibitory interneurons will determine the strength and frequency of the stimuli registering in the brain.
A cascade of  intracellular events is initiated and as a result identical but repeated stimuli can evoke a larger
and larger response because the potentials are summated. The dorsal horn neurons become hyperexcitable
this reaction is termed 'dorsal horn wind up'.  The hyperexcitability of the dorsal horn neurons increases the
activity in preganglionic sympathetic neurons and as a result postganglionic sympathetic efferents release
noradrenalin which sensitises primary afferent terminals. These in turn  initiate central sensitisation, which
further increases  sympathetic outflow and this increases afferent input. So another vicious cycle is Set in
motion. Pathological pain can he seen to he the result of peripheral  and central sensitisation.        


Several myths about pain have been propagated for years and  form the basis on which cosmetic tail docking
has been justified and allowed to he perpetuated.        

MYTH 1 - Animals don't feel pain like humans.    This is illogical. Anatomically and physiologically mammals
(and possibly all vertebrates) have the same neural transmitters, receptors, pathways and higher brain centres.
Whilst it is true that animals may show different signs of pain,  we cannot deny that they feel pain in the same
way humans do (Fleeman 1995). Because of the physiological similarity between mammals, it is valid to use
animals, including dogs, as models for human medical research. The converse applies in that man can be used
as a model for advancing veterinary knowledge. Similarity between the human and canine nervous systems
means that we can assume that anything causing pain in man will cause a painful sensation of similar intensity
in the dog.The pain threshold has been determined to be approximately equal in humans and animals
(Fleeman 1995).   

MYTH 2 - Lack of myelination is an index of immaturity in the neonatal nervous system and therefore
neonates are not capable of pain perception. We know this is no longer correct, in fact the contrary occurs.
Anatomical studies have shown that the density of cutaneous nociceptive nerve endings in the late foetus and
newborn animal may equal or exceed that of adult skin (Anand and Cart 1989).    Nociceptive impulses are
conducted via unmyelinated and thinly myelinated fibres. The slower conduction velocity in neonatal nerves
resulting from incomplete myelination is offset by the shorter interneuronal and neuromuscular distances that
the impulse has to travel. It has been shown, using quantitative neuroanatomical methods, that nerve tracts
associated with nociception in the spinal cord and brain stem are completely myelinated up to the thalamus
during gestation (Anand and Cart 1989).    Further development of the pain pathways occurs during puppyhood
when there is a high degree of 'brain plasticity.'The development of descending inhibitory pain pathways in the
dorsal horn of the spinal cord and the sensory brain stem nuclei also occurs during this period, therefore painful
and other experiences during this period may determine the final architecture of the adult pain system.        


Tail docking involves the removal of all or part of the tail using cutting or crushing instruments. Muscles, tendons,
4 to 7 pairs of nerves and sometimes bone or cartilage are severed. The initial pain from the direct injury to the
nervous system would be intense and at a level that would not be permitted to be inflicted on humans. The
subsequent tissue injury and inflammation, especially if the tail is left to heal as an open wound will produce
the algogenic substances, the 'sensitising soup' and the 'dorsal horn wind up' required for peripheral and central
sensitisation and the development of ongoing pathological pain.  Puppies are usually subjected to this pain and
trauma at 2 to 5 days of age when the level of pain would he much greater than an adult would experience
because the afferent stimuli  reaching the dorsal horn from a greater density of sensitised cutaneous nociceptors
will exceed that of the adult and the strength and frequency of painful stimuli reaching the brain will he greater
because inhibitory pain pathways will not be developed.

  • The whimpering and the 'escape response' (continual movements) exhibited by most puppies
    following tail docking, are evidence that they are feeling substantial pain. Animals tend to be
    more stoic than humans due to an inherent preservation instinct.
  • Because some puppies do not show signs of intense suffering, it does not mean that the pain
    inflicted on them has not registered in their central nervous system.

Cosmetic tail docking is most often performed without any anaesthesia or analgesia and only manual restraint
is used. General anaesthesia, if used, produces  unconsciousness and muscle relaxation but does not affect the
sensory nerves and will not necessarily prevent 'dorsal horn wind' up or the development of pathological pain.
Movement of the patient may be controlled, but sensory stimuli will still register in the higher centres of the
central nervous system. On recovery from anaesthesia peripheral and central sensitisation, the mechanisms 
underlying the generation of pathological pain will still he present.

General anaesthesia in very young animals entails a high degree of risk  Local anaesthesia, because of the
practical difficulties of injecting into such a small area and the potential for systemic toxicosis, also has a high
risk. The maximum dose of lignocaine in the dog is 5 mg/kg making use of the 2% (20 mg/ml.) solution urealistic
in the average puppy up to a week of age.  Use of local anaesthetics to which adrenalin has been added could
increase the risk of cardiovascular and CNS problems occurring, although some proponents of tail docking
recommend the use of these solutions to prolong analgesia and to help control haemorrhage (RA Zammit in a
submission prepared for the New South Wales Canine Council). Understanding the phenomena of peripheral
and central sensitisation and their role in the generation of pathological pain, has changed the approach to pain
management. The emphasis is now on preventing pain and treating pain before it occurs.

About 90% of human amputees suffer pathological pain in the form of phantom limb pain. Docked dogs
similarly may suffer phantom limb pain but, if their inherent stoicism masks the symptoms, this may he
misdiagnosed or go undiagnosed. The currently  recommended anaesthetic procedure for  a human
undergoing surgery where major peripheral nerves are to he severed, would involve epidural anaesthesia for
48 h before surgery and 24 h after surgery.local anaesthesia around the surgical site at the time of surgery
and for 24 h after surgery.


Other sequelae that may result from tail docking are :-       

  •  Haemorrhage or ischaemia.        
  • Infection, gangrene, toxaemia/septicaemia.        
  • Meningitis.        
  • Hypoglycaemia or hyperglycaemia.        
  • Amputation neuroma formation.        
  • Caudal adhesions with neurodermatitis.        
  • Deafferentation, causing loss of sensory perception from the tail.        

Many of these can potentially produce a state of shock which may prove fatal to the neonatal puppy.


  • To produce bobtail puppies - Lamarcks theory of acquired characteristics was still widely believed and
    people thought the new born puppies would look like their parents.    
  • To prevent rabies - it was thought that docked dogs were less likely to develop rabies.    
  • To avoid tax - docked dogs did not attract tax.     
  • To strengthen the back and increase speed.    
  • To prevent being bitten when ratting or fighting.    
  • To make better 'sport' of bear baiting and dog fighting.    

These reasons from which the custom of tail docking evolved are no longer valid. (Note - Have they ever been


  • Prevention of injury in hunting and working dogs.    

Most dogs in the breeds that are generally docked are kept as pets and companion animals and are never
used for hunting or working. The most popular breeds used in the field or paddock are Labradors, Kelpies,
Border Collies and Cattle dogs, none of  which are required to have their tails docked.    

  • Prevention of injury in short coated dogs especially those with exuberant and ebullient

This is inconsistent because not all breeds in this category are required to be docked, for example the Dalmatian
and the Labrador. The boxer is often cited a dog requiring docking for  this reason, but some professional dog
trainers note a difference  in the behaviour of this and other traditionally docked breeds when they are left
undocked and 'urge and encourage all breeders  to forget about what has happened in the past and now
change to keep their dogs' tails on" (Tucker 1994).        

A survey in Edinburgh by Darke et al (1985) over a 7 year period showed that there was insufficient evidence of
statistical significance, to suggest that there is a positive association between tail injuries and an undocked tail
and that tail docking could not be recommended as a measure to prevent tail injuries in any dog population
similar to the predominantly urban population surveyed.        

Of the first 1000 consultations at the North West Animal Emergency Clinic in Sydney none involved tail injury
cases. Between December 1991 and September 1992 there were 2350 consultations only 3 of which involved
tail injuries. All three of these cases were related to tail docking, the first case involved 12 three day old
Rottweiler pups which were still haemorrhaging 6 hours after being docked and required suturing.    The other
two cases involved single pups one of which was bleeding and the other had become infected (From records of
the North West Animal Emergency Centre, Baulkharn Hills, NSW.)        

Not all tail injuries require amputation, so tail docking may be routinely performed on 100% of puppies of certain
breeds as a measure to prevent injuries that would only require a bandage, some antiseptic or simply natural

  • Hygiene

Dogs such as the Old English sheepdog, poodle and  silky terrier would foul themselves and the average pet
owner would not have the time, patience or skill to carry out proper coat care.  This is inconsistent because other
breeds with the same potential problem (for  example the Bearded collie, Pekingese, Maltese terrier and Afghan)
are not required to be docked.     Regular clipping of long-haired areas and 'feathers' is far less  invasive and
painful than tail docking and has far fewer adverse  effects. Poor breed selection, lack of education in dog
husbandry or irresponsible pet ownership should not be justification for tail docking.        


Submitting dogs to a procedure known to be painful and which may have harmful consequences, just to satisfy
a centuries old custom, cannot he justified in a humane society.        


Cosmetic tail docking cannot be justified on scientific or medical grounds. Unless pecuniary or traditional
reasons are to take priority over the welfare of the animal, then the criteria to justify removal of a dogs tail are
not satisfied.  The tail is not merely an inconsequential appendage. It is an anatomically and physiologically sign
significant structure which has many biological functions that should not he underestimated. Tail docking can
predispose the dog to detrimental consequences including intense, initial pain and continuing pain related,
neurological problems. Tail amputation should only be performed on those dogs whose tail or associated
structures have been injured or where there is occult pathology of this appendage. If tail amputation is indicated
as a therapeutic measure, appropriate anaesthetic and surgical techniques should be employed. The neonate
is anatomically and  physiologically able to and in fact does feel pain. Therefore veterinarians who wish to be
seen as caring professionals and as the guardians of animal welfare must stop cosmetic tail docking and
actively oppose anyone else continuing the painful practice.


Anand KJS and Carr DB (1989) Paediatric Clinics Of North Am.     36:795        

Arnold S, Arnold P. Hubler M, Casal M and Rusch P (1989)  Schwelzer Archiv fur Tierheilkunde 131: 259. (English translation
European J. of Companion Anim Practice (1992) 2:65)       

Burrows C and Elilson G (1989) In Textbook of Veterinary  Internal Medicine, 3rd edn, edited by Ettinger SW, Saunders Philadelphia.

Canfield R (1986) Anatomical Aspects of Perineal Hernia in the  Dog, PhD Doctoral thesis, University of Sydney        

Darke PGG, Thrusfield MVand Aitken CGG (1985) Vet Rec 116:409        

Dart CM (1994) In Pain and its Control University of Sydney Post Graduate Commitee In Veterinary Science, Proceedings No 226.

Fleeman L (1995) Control of Pain - What's the  Latest? University of Melboume Veterinary Clinic and Hospital.         

Holt PE and Thruslield MV (1993) Vet rec 133:177       

 Miller M (1969) Anatomy of the Dog, Saunders, Philadelphia. p 189       

 Morton D(1992) Vet Rec 131:301        

Tucker M (1994) AVA News Oct p 16

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