Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons advisory committee report to Council

The Docking Working Party Report


    1. At the advisory committee meeting Sept. 9 1994 a small working party was established to review the progress of the docking legislation since its introduction in July 1993.
    2. Walter Beswick was asked to chair the working party and to select appropriate members to take part. Mr John S.M.Bower BVSc, MRCVS was invited to join the working party and the intention was that it should report to the June 1995 meeting of the \Council.
    3. In the event, shortly before the working party was due to report, it became known that an allegation in connection with repeated docking had been referred to the RCVS disciplinary committee to be heard in September 1995, and it was decided that the report should be held back so that the outcome of the disciplinary case could be taken into consideration.
    4. Following upon the disciplinary hearing, the working party was enlarged by the addition of Mr Neal King BVSc, MRCVS senior vice-president and Mrs D Sinclair, LLB MABE assistant registrar (legal).
    1. There is nothing new about a proposal to stop the docking of dogs. As long ago as 1854 a veterinary surgeon by the name of William Youatt said in his book "The Dog" that dogs were docked because "the tail of the dog does not suit the fancy of the owner".
    2. The Kennel Club which says that should be ended by education and agreement as long ago as 1896 debated the motion: "No dog born after March 31 1896 can, if docked, win a prize at a show held under KC rules".
    3. The motion was defeated but it shows that even then there were people active in the dog fancy who realised that docking was an undesirable procedure.
    4. In 1920, Captain Jocelyn Lucas, a well known writer of his day on canine topics, wrote in his book, "Hints on Dog Management", which incidentally had a forward by Charles Crufts "All running dogs such as hounds, Greyhounds and retrievers - animals used to catch as well as pursue game - have their tails left long so that they can twist and turn, using their tails as rudders. Dogs such as the Spaniel used for hunting out game but not for catching it, formally had their tails cut to impede them. Thus the bobtailed Sheepdog was originally docked to prevent him catching hares".
    5. More recently, veterinary interest in docking was rekindled at the 1969 British Veterinary Association congress in Dublin. At the AGM a large majority of members attending, voted their opposition to docking.
    6. The debate went on with increasing support and in 1985, questions were being asked in Parliament. These were related to the decision of the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals to include a clause recommending the banning of docking.
    7. A survey of the members of the British Small Animals Veterinary Association in 1992 showed overwhelming support for a ban on docking: Total membership of the BSAVA 3,300; response 2214 (67%). Against docking 2036 (92% of response:62% of membership). A recent (September 1995) letter from the president of the BSAVA to the RCVS indicates that the view of the BSAVA has not altered.
    8. In 1992 the Government announced that following upon consultation with the RCVS and other representative bodies, its intention was to make the docking of dogs tails illegal. To this end, from July 1 1993 docking could legally be carried out only by veterinary surgeons. This, for the Government, was an easy option. A total ban on docking except for therapeutic purposes would have been much more straightforward. Nevertheless, in comments made in the House by the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mr David McLean MO, when moving the amendment to the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 that would ban docking by lay people from JULY 1 1993 said; "Home Office Ministers with a responsibility for animals held several meetings with interested bodies, including the RCVS and KC, and the Council For Docked Breeds. Following those meetings, and further consultation by my department, Ministers concluded that steps should be taken to phase out docking. The veterinary profession is unanimous that tail docking is a mutilation that is cosmetic, and serves no useful purpose, and the Government entirely agrees". (Ref Hansard, May 21 1991).
    9. In 1992 after taking Councils opinion, the council of the RCVS passed a resolution reasserting that it considered docking unethical unless done for therapeutic reasons. The College position was set out in appendix 3 of the 1993 edition of the RCVS Guide to Professional Conduct describing in lay terms when prophylactic docking could not be considered to be acceptable. Veterinary Surgeons who read the Guide carefully and followed the guidelines were under no threat from the College when exercising their professional judgement in deciding to dock.
    1. A survey of more than 500 individual clients in three practices, one in Scotland, one in South West England, and one in South East England, carried out in the summer of 1995, showed an overwhelming support for the end of docking. Un-selected clients were invited to complete unaided, the following questionnaire; Dogs such as Boxers, Dobermanns, Spaniels, Poodles and many other breeds customarily have had their tails shortened (docked) at three to five days old. For over a year now, it has been illegal for anyone other than a vet to do this. Our Governing body, the RCVS, has advised vets not to do this except where it is beneficial to the individual dog.

    We would value your opinion

    I think puppies of those breeds should have their tails removed or shortened

    I think puppies of those breeds should not have their tails shortened

    I own a dog/cat/both


    The results from 549 dog owners were as follows:

    62 Docked breed Owners were for docking, 186 against, 75 % against

    30 Undocked Breed Owners were for docking, 271 against, 90% against

    92 in total were for docking, 457 against, 83% against

    The numbers involved may not be significant but the trend is obvious.


    1. Many reasons are advanced for docking. There is a reference to one reason dating from medieval times, to protect the Lord of the Manors ground game, which presumably is no longer relevant. Modern reasons for docking are broadly separated into "Therapeutic", "Prophylactic or Preventative" and "Cosmetic".
    2. Therapeutic docking: surgical treatment of tail injuries where conservative treatment has been, or is likely to be, ineffective.
    3. Prophylactic (preventative) docking: it has been suggested that docking of, for instance, the tails of working gundogs is a true prophylactic measure to prevent damage when working in thick cover.
    4. Cosmetic Docking: to satisfy fashion and tradition.
    5. The CDB advances a variety of reasons to justify docking, most of which centre round hygiene and possible future injury.
    6. All the evidence considered by the working party indicates that the vast majority of pups are docked for cosmetic purposes and most customarily docked breeds are docked because they have always been docked.
    7. The working party believes that removal of a tail deprives the dog of a means of expression and an organ of balance, and it is an unacceptable mutilation.
    8. Individual undocked animals which do develop tail problems later in life can, with modern anaesthesia, analgesia and surgery, be treated appropriately at less total welfare cost than the wholesale docking of all pups at birth, regardless of their anticipated lifestyle.
    9. A retrospective survey carried out at the Edinburgh Veterinary School showed that out of 12,129 clinical cases seen at the small animal practice there between January 1977 and October 1984, the incidence of tail problems were not significantly different between docked and undocked breeds. (ref Association between tail injuries and docking in dogs. Darke et al, Vet Record, April 13, 1985).


    1. The great majority - estimates are around 90% - of members in practise chose to cease docking any puppies, of whatever breed, after July 1993. A number of members continued to dock, but scrupulously followed the Guide to Professional Conduct. Indeed the RCVS received many requests for advice on docking for Prophylactic reasons.
    2. A small number of members continued to dock on request, any puppy presented. These members were largely promoted by the CDB, and of them, most held the opinion that the RCVS stand on docking was improperly restricting their clinical freedom. Others no doubt saw a commercial opportunity and took advantage of it.
    3. The RCVS has received many complaints from members who have ceased docking about other members who were continuing to dock, including litters of breeders not their clients. Complaints frequently arise because of problems appear as a result of docking, the complainant has been expected to resolve them.
    4. The RSPCA and the SSPCA have investigated cases of alleged lay docking. The defence has all to often been that an unnamed veterinary surgeon has performed the operation. The working party believes that docking by lay persons is continuing.
    5. The working party, in a letter in the Veterinary Record of Feb. 25 1994, asked members for evidence of tail damage in undocked working gundogs, and some cases were reported by letter and telephone. Bearing in mind that the majority of gundogs are still being docked, and that working dogs undocked as a result of the new legislation would still be only eighteen months old, the working party accepts that there is evidence that there may be an increased rise of injury to the undocked tail of some gundogs working in very thick cover, and that in these circumstances, subject to the veterinary surgeon being completely satisfied that the animal presented to be docked fulfils the criteria laid down in the guide to Professional Conduct, docking for truly prophylactic reasons is acceptable.
    6. Having said that, however, many veterinary surgeons will refuse to dock in any circumstances on grounds of conscience. This they are fully entitled to do.
    7. The Swedish Experience. The working party has looked at the CDB's translation of the Swedish German Pointer Society's research report and has also obtained a separate translation for itself. It appears that the evidence suggests that there may be an increase in the incidence of tail damage in undocked examples of this breed working in thick cover, but the Swedish Veterinary Association has expressed reservations about the survey and it concluded insofar as it was carried out by an active pro-docking organisation.
    8. Certification. Several members of the profession and the RSPCA have suggested that when a veterinary surgeon has docked a puppy for truly prophylactic reasons, he should issue a certificate that he has done so. The working party has some difficulty in agreeing on this, because of the impossibility of enforcing the proposal, and also the problem of having to rely upon the breeder's declaration that the dog was intended for working.
    9. It may be appropriate to suggest to the BSAVA that hey advise their members on this matter. The working party has carefully considered the many submissions hat the RCVS has received from interested parties, including members of the College, members of the CDB, gundog trainers and breeders and many members of the public. It has also considered in some depth the recent disciplinary case and the implications of the outcome.
    1. Arguments advanced in favour of docking, except for therapeutic reasons, are for the most part, unconvincing.
    2. There is overwhelming support from the veterinary profession to see an end to tail docking, and a clear indication that the procedure is becoming increasingly abhorrent to the general public.
    3. It will take time to persuade the breeders of traditionally docked breeds that, with very few exceptions, it is in the best interest of their animals to stop docking. The process of educating the public - the purchasers of puppies - that they can have an undocked pup is already having an impact, and must continue. The veterinary profession itself, in waiting room literature, in discussion, and advice, and by example, must lead the way in the education process. The BVA AWF docking poster is an excellent example.
    4. The KC in revising the breed standards, to remove mandatory docking so that dogs may be shown and judged with or without tails, without prejudice to their placings, is to be congratulated for thus indicating that docking is no longer considered necessary.
    5. The working party has concluded that there is no evidence that invalidates the position taken by the RCVS in 1992.


    1. The working party wishes to advise council to re-affirm the Colleges position on cosmetic docking.
    2. The section on docking in the 1996 Guide to Professional Conduct should be drafted in appropriate legal terminology.
    3. The RCVS should continue to press Government for a change in the law, so as to render all docking for cosmetic purposes, which should be defined, illegal.


    Council of Docked Breeds Observations:

    The report contains little that will improve relationships between breeders and the veterinary profession. Its recommendations for the review of the RCVS guidelines to vets on tail docking do no more than tinker with the present wording and are a recipe for misunderstanding and legal wrangling.

    We have been waiting a year for this report in the hope that it would pave the way to an acceptance by the RCVS of the individual vet's right to dock when he or she believes it to be in the interest of the dog.

    Instead, we see a flimsy report which merely reiterates a number of hoary old quotations and pads them out with an unrepresentative public opinion survey that makes no pretence at objectivity. Any evidence favouring docking is treated dismissively.

    None of this report is likely to clarify the issue for the working vet, and whilst declaring that the Government has fudged the issue, this working party report is no better. Although docking to prevent future tail damage in working dogs is grudgingly acknowledged, there is no new concession on this point.

    The RCVS is urged to press Government for a change in legislation so as to render illegal, so-called "cosmetic" docking. This would open up endless argument over what is and what is not, cosmetic docking, along the lines of the current "Dangerous Dogs Act".

    Vets who are docking today, are not docking for purely cosmetic reasons. Their actions are justified on a variety of grounds, out of genuine concern for the welfare of the dogs in their care. Any attempt at definition is certain to lead to endless legal wrangling, in which the Government would be unwise to get involved.