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How Late Can You Dock a Dog's Tail?

Docking a Dog's Tail

How late can you dock a dog's tail may be something puppy owners may be wondering about, considering that most tail docking is mostly done when the puppies are just days-old. Tail docking is a cosmetic procedure performed on several dog breeds to adhere to certain looks and breed standards. The procedure may be carried out by a veterinarian and sometimes by the breeders themselves through a procedure known as "banding." Knowing the exact age to dock a puppy's tail is important, considering that things get much more complicated as puppies develop.

boxer docked

An Insight into Tail Docking 

In the past, the practice of tail docking in puppies was believed to have several beneficial functions. The Romans believed that docking a dog's tail could have prevented rabies. Other beliefs included that docking strengthened the dog's back and also increased a dog's speed. Nowadays, with better education, these myths have been debunked.

In the past though, tail docking may have turned helpful in certain working dog breeds for the purpose of preventing injury. Dogs working in the field were subjected to injuries from running through thick bush and a long bushy tail had a tendency to collect burrs and foxtails.

On top of that, in the United Kingdom, owners of working dogs who were docked were levied from paying a tax. While this tax was removed in 1796, the practice of tail docking persisted.

Nowadays, considering that most dogs are companions, rather than working dogs, tail docking is mostly carried out for cosmetic reasons.

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The topic of tail docking remains a subject of controversy, with proponents advocating docking to preserve breed character, while opponents feel it to be only cosmetic, depriving dogs from an important tool used for balance and communication.

Commonly docked dog breeds include Rottweilers, boxers, German shorthaired pointers, Brittany spaniels, Weimaraners, schnauzers, miniature pinschers, old English sheepdogs etc.

The Tail Docking Procedure

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Tail docking in puppies can take place in two different ways: severance of the tail using a scalpel, mostly performed by a veterinarian in sterile veterinary hospital settings, and banding, which is often carried out by breeders.

The length of the tail docking may vary based on the specific dog breed and its specific standard.

Tail docking done by a vet takes place in sterile conditions to minimize the chances for infections. The tail is clipped off using surgical tools and a suture is then placed to hold the skin together.

Many dog breeders elect to perform banding, which consists of using strong rubber rings along with a special tool meant to slip it to the right spot on the puppy's tail.

The tail, deprived from blood supply, tends to shrink and eventually drops off after several days (usually within 3 days). Banding should be done only by experienced hands, since done incorrectly, it can lead to an infection that may result in life threatening gangrene.

How Late Can You Dock a Dog's Tail?

If you have a new litter of puppies and are planning to have their tails docked, time is ticking. In general, most veterinarians and breeders will dock a puppy's tail between the age of 2 to 5 days. The reason tail docking in puppies is done at such a young age is because, after this time, there is belief that the nervous system is more developed and the procedure would therefore turn painful requiring to be done under a general anesthetic.

Anesthesia cannot be used in very young puppies and puppy owners may therefore have to wait until the puppies are old enough. In general, not earlier than 8 weeks of age and ideally closer to 12 to 16 weeks.

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Older puppies may still have the procedure done, but it would turn into a much more involved procedure, and at the point, it's considered more like an amputation, since by this time, blood vessels, nerves, muscles, and bones have developed more. Not all vets will be comfortable carrying this out solely for cosmetic reasons, unless the dog has a history of a tail injury.

Tail docking taking place in an older pup is a painful procedure to recover from, bandages are difficult to keep on after surgery and the pups will try to repeatedly chew at the stump, explains veterinarian Dr. Jodi Smith. On top of being a painful procedure to recover from, tal docking in older puppies will likely also be more costly compared to having it done on day-old pups.

Despite this, some dog owners may still elect to have the docking done at a later time once the puppy is put under anesthesia for neutering or spaying or another elective surgery such as ear cropping, which is usually done around 12 weeks. Combining two procedures helps minimize costs considering that the anesthesia will have to be only done once and anesthesia can be costly.

"Personally, I do not recommend docking tails if it cannot be done when the pups are under 5 days of age. Please do not feel pressured by some "breed" stigma or standard that would make you feel like your pet has to have a dock or ear crop done. "~Dr. Jodi Smith

A Word About Pain 

heart murmur puppy

Tail docking is done in puppies under 5 days of age due to the belief that puppies do not having a fully developed nervous system at this age, and therefore, do not feel pain. This belief is supported by the fact that after being docked, once returned to their moms and littermates, the docked puppies resume nursing or fall fast asleep.

However, whether a puppy feels acute pain or not during the procedure remains a subject of controversy. According to a study, vocalizations were emitted from puppies at the moment of being docked and these were suggestive that the puppies do feel pain. Such vocalizations took place during the tail amputation itself, and then upon the needle being inserted into the skin of the tail when stitching and then when knotting the stitch.

A more recent study though suggests that, because puppies are neurologically immature when the tail docking is done, this makes them incapable of consciously experiencing pain. The vocalizations generated in the previous study are believed to occur due to subcortical processing of the associated nociceptive barrages.

While acute pain during tail docking may not be consciously experienced due to a puppy's rudimentary or absent functional cortical-subcortical connectivity, a study found that tail docking done within 7 days of birth is likely to cause an ongoing heightened generalised sensitivity to pain (hyperalgesia). Not to mention chronic pain arising from tail stump neuromas which have been reported.

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Puppy tail docking costs

How Much Does Puppy Tail Docking Cost? 

In general, for puppies under 5 days of age, the veterinarians will firstly charge an examination fee which can cost anywhere between 35 and 85 dollars.

On top of the examination fee, the veterinarian will charge for each individual tail docking. The cost for each tail dock can range anywhere between 10 and 30 dollars. Usually, the whole litter can be done for close to $100-$180.

If the tail docking is done in an older puppy, the costs can increase dramatically. In an older puppy, general anesthesia will be needed, as the procedure will be considered an amputation, and can therefore, the cost for puppy tail docking can easily amount to over 500 dollars for each puppy.

These are of course, just rough estimates. The costs for tail docking of puppies can vary based on different locations and different veterinary offices.

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  • Amputation neuroma of docked tails in dogs.Gross TL, Carr SH Vet Pathol. 1990 Jan; 27(1):61-2
  • Ren K., Anseloni V., Zou S.-P., Wade E., Novikova S., Ennis M., Traub R., Gold M., Dubner R., Lidow M. The sensitive period and developmental time course for long-term alterations in pain responsivity after neonatal local inflammatory insult. Pain. 2004;110:588–596. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2004.04.006
  • Tail Docking of Canine Puppies: Reassessment of the Tail’s Role in Communication, the Acute Pain Caused by Docking and Interpretation of Behavioural Responses, David J. Mellor

    Animals (Basel) 2018 Jun; 8(6): 82. Published online 2018 May 31. doi: 10.3390/ani8060082

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