Five misleading arguments being used to justify weakening Scotland’s tail-docking ban

Harry Huyton's avatar
Harry Huyton
20 June 2017

Last week, MSPs on the Environment Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee concluded their debate over the Scottish Government’s proposal to introduce an exemption to the tail-docking ban for ‘working dogs’. There was a majority vote in support of the proposal, with SNP and Conservative MSPs voting in favour and Scottish Green and Labour MSPs voting against.

OneKind summarises the evidence in favour of retaining the ban in this report. Since we published this, the key arguments in support of the proposal have become clear. Here’s the top five we’ve heard so far and why we think they’re misleading.

1. This isn’t tail-docking, it’s tail shortening

Aware of the public’s distaste for tail-docking, the Scottish Government tried to sidestep controversy by reducing tail-docking to one-third of the tail and branding this operation ‘tail shortening’ rather than docking. 

Legally, tail-docking is a “mutilation” – defined as a procedure which involves interference with the sensitive tissues or bone structures of an animal. Inevitably, that’s going to hurt.  And in that respect, tail shortening is exactly the same. In fact, the accepted definition of tail-docking is the removal of whole or any part of a dog’s tail. This is the language used, for example, in the Animal Health and Welfare Act (2006) in England and Wales, and is presumably why the British Veterinary Association pointedly refuse to use the Scottish Government’s creative language.  

2. It’s only for working dogs

It is absolutely true that (thankfully), the Scottish Government’s proposal will only see tail-docking introduced for specific breeds of dogs of Spaniels and Hunt Point Retrievers, and only for puppies that are intended for use as ‘working’ dogs. But how can a dog’s future be guaranteed at only five days old?

In reality, any vet who agrees to carry out tail-docking of a litter will be entirely reliant on the pups’ breeder to give this undertaking.

Vets who dock the tails of puppies in England and Wales need to sign a certificate to say that certain evidence – a firearms or shotgun certificate, plus a written declaration by the owner – has been produced to show that the puppies are likely to be used for work, and to say that the dog is of a certain type. The Scottish proposals, however, only require that the veterinary surgeon must be satisfied that evidence of some sort has been presented by the dog’s owner that the dog is likely to be used in connection with the lawful shooting of animals. This evidence is not defined and indeed, one of the witnesses to the Committee stated: “a lot of these determinations may be based on the fact that the vets have known the breeders for 20 or 30 years – that they have known them as friends down the pub and so on.”

That doesn’t sound particularly independent or reliable to us.

Puppies have their tails docked during the first few days of life.  No matter how genuine the intention, at this stage it’s unlikely that a breeder or owner could guarantee that the dog will be ‘worked’. It might show no aptitude, for example, or a family looking for a pet might end up buying it instead.

So, it’s inevitable that this law will result in the docking of dogs’ tails that don’t end up being worked. A procedure that has no animal welfare justification whatsoever.

But even if they do go on to work, what does a ‘working dog’ even mean?

Working dogs that get tail injuries are in reality mostly dogs used in shooting, either for carcass retrieval or for flushing wild animals out of cover so they can be shot. They’re not working dogs in the sense of sheepdogs or police dogs. In fact, a more accurate description would be hobby dogs given that shooting of this type is largely recreational.

3. It will prevent horrific tail injuries in adult dogs

Yes it will. Cut the tail off, and it’s clear that any future tail injury is off the cards. OneKind accepts that tail injuries to adult dogs are a concern, and we promote other methods to try and prevent these. But there are two problems with this argument: is the cost worth the benefit? And where does this logic stop?

Every single puppy that is tail-docked suffers an injury.  That’s a 100% injury rate.  And that to prevent even one tail amputation in an adult working Spaniel, 320 Spaniel puppies would have to be docked shortly after birth. It just doesn’t add up.

In addition, research shows that dogs commonly injure their ears, paws, faces and abdomens when working in rough terrain. Yet working dogs don’t have their ears cropped, far less have other more vital parts removed to prevent injury. Why is the dog’s tail – an essential part of its anatomy, used for movement, balance and communication – somehow seen as dispensable? 

4. This would bring Scotland in line with the law in England and Wales

In fact, the Scottish Government proposal would give Scotland’s puppies worse protection than those in England and Wales. Scottish vets will receive less guidance and support regarding the evidence they should see before they carry out tail-docking.

And unlike Wales, the draft Regulations do not specify exactly which Spaniels and Hunt Point Retriever breeds or combinations of these breeds may be docked, which would have been useful in controlling and limiting the numbers to be docked.

5. This will improve animal welfare

The Scottish Government has failed to support its proposals by providing conclusive scientific evidence regarding the short- and long-term pain of tail-docking, long-term health and behavioural effects, or any full analysis of these welfare costs versus the pain suffered by dogs that experience tail injuries in later life.

We cannot see how this proposal, creating one law for the shooting industry and one law for everyone else, in any sense offers an overall animal benefit for animal welfare.  If there was any such benefit, dog owners in Scotland who see their dogs hurt their tails at home, in kennels and while out of doors, would be clamouring for the right to cut them off and spare these consequences. Unsurprisingly, they are not.

But if you’re in any doubt, here’s a final fact:

The Scottish Government’s proposal is not supported by any animal welfare or veterinary organisation in Scotland. In fact, the British Veterinary Association describe it as a ‘retrograde step for animal welfare'.

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