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Studies Reveal Puppy Tail Docking Procedure is Painful

A Lesson in Anatomy

Is the puppy tail docking procedure painful? We often hear claims about tail docking being a pretty much painless procedure when carried out in young puppies, but many may wonder: How can a procedure like tail docking be painless when we're talking about cutting through skin, nerves, cartilage and bones? The belief seems to stem from the fact that since tail docking takes place when a puppy is only three-days old, chances are high that his nervous system is immature. New studies today though seem to disprove this belief and suggest that the pain is there and it can be even quite significant.

wagging tail

The dog's tail is much more than just an appendage, it actually carries many roles including balance and communication.

Composed of several highly mobile vertebrae surrounded by muscles, tendons and nerves, the tail has been shown to work as a means for counterbalance when the dog is leaping, climbing or walking on narrow structures.

The muscles of the tail also help stabilize the dog's vertebral column and support the extensor muscles of the back, croup and buttocks.

The muscles of the tail therefore also play a role during defecation helping the dog evacuate properly. Docking the tail early can therefore mean failure for the muscles of the tail and pelvis to develop to their complete potential.

The problem is not limited to defecation though. A study conducted by Holt and Thrusifield in 1993, also showed increased risks for urethral sphincter mechanism incompetence which leads to urinary incontinence.

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The Pup's Nervous System

The Tail Docking Procedure

There's no denial over the fact that a dog's tail is an important structure of the dog's body from both an anatomical and physiological standpoint.

Tail docking is a procedure that has been dictated by tradition for many years and nowadays involves the amputation of the dog's tail for cosmetic purposes. It takes place when the puppy is 2 to 5 days old without any anesthesia.

More and more veterinarians have stopped performing the procedure and tail docking has been nowadays banned in many countries as it "cannot be justified medically or scientifically."

In 1992, Professor David Morton already questioned whether carrying out the procedure should be considered disgraceful professional conduct for veterinarians. In order to dock a dog's tail, muscles, tendons and 4 to 7 pairs of nerves along with bone and cartilage are severed.


Dogs are an altricial species, meaning that when they are born, they are in a pretty much helpless state. Indeed, day-old puppies are born blind, deaf and barely capable of moving around.

On top of that, during their first days on earth, puppies are also unable to regulate their temperature and require mother dog's assistance in order to eliminate.

Along with these traits, there has been belief for many years that puppies are born with an immature central nervous system along with an immature brain and limited sensory and motor processes.

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A recent study conducted by Australian veterinarian Robert K. Wansbrough has seem to have finally refuted the premise that "puppies do not feel pain therefore tail docking is not inhumane."

"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."~Wansbrough RK.

countries that have banned tail docking

Debunking Pain Myths

Robert Wansbrough has debunked several myths about pain surrounding tail docking such as the belief that animals do not feel pain as humans do. Even though animals may manifest pain in different ways than humans, we share with them a similar nervous system capable of perceiving pain.

Feelman in 1995 found that the pain threshold in humans and animals is actually the same. When it comes to puppies, the myth that their immature nervous system makes them incapable of feeling pain has been debunked courtesy of several studies.

One by Anand and Cart in 1989 found that the nerve endings in the skin in newborn animals equals or even exceeds that of adult skin. This suggests the ability to detect pain. According to Wansbrough, the level of pain in day-old pups could be actually greater than an adult because their inhibitory pain pathways are not developed.

Observation of puppies following tail docking is also suggestive of pain. The whimpering and movements suggest substantial pain. Just because puppies may not show pain in the same ways humans do, doesn't mean it's not present.

Dogs can be quite stoic and dogs tend to hide pain as a form of self-preservation. There is also common belief that, just because puppies go back to nursing right after being docked, means that the procedure is painless, but studies on this seem to reveal quite the opposite.

Veterinarian Jean Hofve points out that there is research showing that suckling releases endorphins, natural pain relievers which can explain the desire to nurse after a painful procedure. Dr. Hofve also point out that in the human medical literature newborn humans, who are also altricial, are known to feel pain - "and neonatal pain management in humans is therefore taken seriously. "

"Although it is difficult to objectively quantify the stress experienced by puppies undergoing tail docking, observations recorded during this study suggest that the animals do experience pain."~ Noonan et al.

Did you know? According to Veterinary Practice News, Banfield, a company with more than 730 veterinary hospitals in the United States, has stopped docking tails and supporting unnecessary cosmetic procedures since 2009.

idea tip


  • WANSBROUGH, R. K. (1996), Cosmetic tail docking of dogs. Australian Veterinary Journal, 74: 59–63. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-0813.1996.tb13737.x
  • Docking of dogs: practical and ethical aspects, by D Morton, Veterinary Record1992;131:301-306 doi:10.1136/vr.131.14.301
  • Holt PE and Thruslield MV (1993) Vet rec 133:177
  • Anand KJS and Carr DB (1989) Paediatric Clinics Of North Am. 36:795
  • Noonan, GJ, JS Rand, JK Blackshaw, and J. Priest. “Behavioural Observations of Puppies Undergoing Tail Docking." Applied Animal Behaviour Science 49 (1996): 335-42. Michigan State University. Web. 8 May 2016.
  • World Animal Foundation, Cosmetic Surgery for Dogs and Cats, by Jean Hofve, retrived from the web on June 2nd, 2016.

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