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The South African Veterinary Council policy on tail docking in dogs

 Introduction

The South African Veterinary Council (SAVC) is the statutory body that regulates the veterinary and para-veterinary professions.  The SAVC is empowered by the Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Act of 1982 to set and maintain professional standards for these professions. All veterinarians are obliged by law to register with Council in order to work as veterinarians.  Council is committed to the promotion of health and well-being for all animals.

The South African Veterinary Association (SAVA), on the other hand, is a professional organisation with voluntary membership.  The SAVA is officially represented on the SAVC.

What is tail docking?

Tail docking is the amputation of a dog’s tail at varying lengths to suit the recommendations of a breed standard.  Docking involves the amputation of the puppy’s tail with scissors or a scalpel.  Sometimes rubber bands are used, although this method has never been advocated by veterinarians.  The cut goes through many highly sensitive nerves in the skin, cartilage and bone.  This procedure is usually performed without any anaesthetic, or with a local anaesthetic, at three to five days of age.  A small number of dogs are born naturally without a tail.

What does the SAVC say about tail docking?

The SAVC has decided that as of I June 2008 it will no longer condone routine tail docking of puppies by veterinarians.

The reasons for the decision are as follows:

Tail docking, even if performed with local anaesthesia, causes pain and stress to young puppies.  Recent research in pain management indicates clearly that puppies, even at a few days of age, have a fully developed nervous system and a well-developed sense of pain.  Sometimes, tail docking results in serious complications such as bleeding, infection and even the death of the puppy.  There can also be complications later in life such as neuroma formation.

Tail docking does not provide any benefit to puppies.  Traditionally, some breeders considered a docked tail necessary to fulfil the working functions of the dog.  Today many working breeds are kept as house pets and only a small percentage are used for field work, which is a recreational activity for people and not an essential function.  If dogs of breeds that are customarily docked are left with intact tails, they are not more likely to get tail injuries than dogs of other breeds.  Dogs need their tails for balance and body language.

If a procedure that causes pain has no immediate or future benefit for the animal and may lead to complications, it is unnecessary and should not be performed.

The history of tail docking:

The practice of tail docking started hundreds of years ago, when people were far more complacent about the welfare of animals than they are today.  It became common in the Middle Ages in Britain and Western Europe .  Many theories have been proposed for the beginning of the practice.   These include prevention of rabies, prevention of back injury, increasing the speed of the docked dog and prevention of tail damage due to fighting. Some breeds are born without tails or with a stumpy tail due to a genetic abnormality.  Normal littermates of these breeds were usually docked to give the breed a uniform appearance.  Today, there is no justifiable reason to dock a puppy’s tail.

How do vets feel about tail docking?

Many veterinarians reluctantly perform tail docking in order to ensure that the procedure is at least done by a veterinarian, and to minimise the pain and suffering caused to the pups.  Some vets refuse to perform the procedure because of welfare reasons, while there are some vets still willing to continue doing it.  Most vets condemn the practice.

What the decision means:

Veterinarians who perform tail docking, unless for justifiable medical reasons, will be liable for prosecution under the Animal Protection Act no 71 of 1962.  Veterinarians found guilty under this act, will automatically be investigated for unprofessional conduct by the SAVC under the Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Act, 1982.

The National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA), as the body primarily responsible with applying the tenets of the Animal Protection Act has in the past not enforced the relevant clause in the Act due to the fact that the SAVC has in the past “condoned” the performing of the procedure.  This created a legal loophole that would have made successful prosecution of any person based on the Animal Protection Act unlikely to succeed.  This has now changed with the SAVC decision.  Although the SAVC decision only directly affects veterinarians, lay people who perform the procedure will now also be liable under the Animal Protection Act.   

Why hasn’t the SAVC said anything about tail docking in sheep?

The SAVC has invited input from veterinarians on all procedures such as tail docking in other species, dehorning, declawing, removal of vocal chords and other similar procedures.  Each of these has different risks and benefits, all of which will be carefully considered before the SAVC decides whether the procedure should be condoned or not.  If the benefit of a procedure outweighs the risk to the animal, then it is in the animal’s best interest to have the procedure done.  If the procedure provides no benefit or a very small benefit compared to the risks, then the procedure should not be performed.  Tail docking in sheep is done for different reasons than in dogs, thus it cannot be judged on the same basis in different species.  

How you can help:

You can help the SAVC implement the decision by doing the following:
Do not buy puppies without tails.
Insist that the breeder from whom you buy your dogs does not dock tails.
Encourage your dog club or organisation to stop advocating tail docking.

Contact details:

For more information, contact the SAVC at Tel: 27 (012) 345 6347 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Australian Veterinary Association is acknowledged for use of material from their pamphlet on tail docking.

SAVC Login

Links to African Council websites

Veterinary Statutory Bodies in Africa
http://www.rr-africa.oie.int/en/RC/en_vsbs.html

Veterinary Council of Namibia
http://www.van.org.na/section.php?secid=10

Veterinary Council of Zimbabwe (department of livestock and veterinary services)
http://www.dlvs.gov.zw/

Kenya Veterinary Board
http://kenyavetboard.org/

Veterinary Council of Tanzania
http://www.mifugouvuvi.go.tz/vertinary-council-of-tanzania/

Botswana Veterinary Association
http://www.bva.org.bw/bva_content.php?id=2

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