Cosmetic Surgeries of Pets

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Cosmetic surgeries are performed on people all the time. Animals, like their human companions can also have cosmetic surgeries. Tail docking, ear cropping, devocalization, and declawing are the most common unneeded surgeries performed on pets.  Each surgery in special circumstances benefits the pet and always benefits the owner. I would like to know if these surgeries can cause harm, if they do, what kind. Do the benefits outweigh the problems? Is it ethical to put an owner’s desires above the pet’s?

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Tail docking is the amputation of a part or all of a dog’s tail. The amputation of the tail is generally done when the puppies are a few days to a week old. There are several ways it can be accomplished—one of the most common being the application of a rubber band around the tail. The band is squeezed tight enough to stop blood from flowing to the tissue underneath of it eventually causing the necrosis and loss of that region. Docking can also be accomplished through a surgical removal of the tail using a blade or scissors. Bleeding can be stopped by a suture or two. Tail docking can be traced back to the Roman empire where dog’s tails were cut to avoid the contraction of rabies. Later in history docking was believed to increase agility and strength of the dog. It was also used to decrease the chances of a dog getting injured during dogfights [1]. Tail docking today is generally used for working/hunting dogs to prevent injury of the tail. It can also be used for dogs whose tails become matted easily or have an increased risk of fecal material and urine becoming lodged in the coarse hair. Another far more popular reason to justify docking is because it is a traditional look for the breed in question [2].

According to the AVMA, only two states have regulations on tail docking in the United States. Maryland law stipulates that only a licensed veterinarian may perform the surgery under anesthesia when it is appropriate. Pennsylvania prohibits a dog’s tail from being amputated from five days to twelve weeks of age. It is legal for a veterinarian to amputate the tail during that age but only if it is medically necessary. The law does not prohibit a veterinarian from performing the surgery after the dog is twelve weeks old as long as anesthesia is used [3].

Hunting dogs have an increased risk of breaking or damaging their tails while on a hunt. The alternative is to remove the tail to decrease the odds of that happening. Dogs can sometimes leave fecal matter and urine on their tails and the hair can become matted and smell. Animals that have this issue can have their tail removed to improve their hygiene [4]. Short-haired dogs who are excessively flamboyant or hyper can also have their tails docked in order to decrease injury to themselves.

Like any other surgical procedure, tail docking can have complications. Pain during and after the operation is likely. Hemorrhaging, infection, and toxemia can occur. The amputation area may also delay healing. Necrosis of the site is also possible without proper veterinary care [5].  Neuromas are also a possible complication and is often seen with severe pain. Shock can also be a byproduct of surgery which can be fatal [6]. Behavioral effects of tail docking has had little research done on it. Dogs mainly use their tails to communicate with other dogs and humans [5]. A slight shift or small movement in a dog’s tail can signal submissiveness, anxiety, uneasiness, and playfulness. Therefore, the removal of the tail could hinder the animal from displaying their emotions and effect a dog’s interaction with humans and other dogs [6].

The public’s perception of tail docking is an important issue to discuss. A recent study was done to assess the public view on physically altered dogs. The experiment found that natural looking dogs were perceived as more playful and attractive than the modified dog of the same breed. The modified dog was perceived as being more aggressive and more dominant [7].  Assuming a person wanted a more aggressive looking dog for protection, a modified dog may be the way to go. Adopting out a modified breed as a family dog may be more difficult given the negative perception of them.  

Ear cropping is another controversial cosmetic surgery surrounding dogs. Ear cropping involves the surgical removal of part of a dog’s ear. Cropping usually takes place when the dog is between six and twelve weeks of age. The dog is placed under anesthesia and scissors/scalpel is used to remove part of the ear flap. There are various lengths the ears can be cut to depending on the breed’s traditional style or personal preference. After surgery, some breeds require the positioning of the ears in an upright position; tape and bandages are the most commonly used [8]. Ear cropping is commonly seen in Doberman Pinschers and Great Danes. Ear cropping was used on Great Danes in order to keep their ears from ripping when hunting wild boar [9]. Today, cropping is used to keep the tradition of the dogs’ breed. It can also be used to make security dogs look more alert [8]. 

Only nine states regulate ear cropping of dogs. New York, New Hampshire, Maine, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts prohibit ear cropping unless it is performed by a licensed veterinarian and under anesthesia. Maryland also has the same regulation but stipulates that it must also be appropriate for the animal [3].

According to the AVMA, ear cropping has been thought to stop dogs from getting ear infections that are common to hanging ears. However, there is not enough scientific evidence for this claim. Many believe that cropping a dog’s ears keeps the animal from being injured during a fight or horseplay. There is no scientific proof that dogs hear better with cropped ears, but it is considered a benefit for the dog by some owners.

Ear cropping may not be considered a major invasive surgery, but the animal is still put under anesthesia. There is always a risk of death when an animal is surgically operated on.  Infection is also a risk of ear cropping. Post-surgical care involves taping, bandaging, and stretching of the ears. There is also a risk of the sutures on the ears being pulled out [8].

A study done on the perception of the public of dogs with altered ears was done at James Madison University.  The participants were asked to rate an altered dog and a normal floppy eared dog on agreeableness, emotional stability, extraversion, openness, and conscientiousness. The dogs were identical aside from the ears. The results showed that the altered dog scored higher on extraversion, while the normal dog scored higher on agreeableness and emotional stability. The dogs did not significantly differ in either openness to experience or conscientiousness [10]. Another study found that the surgically altered dog was perceived as more aggressive and dominant and less playful and attractive than the natural-looking dog of the same breed [7].

Another form of cosmetic surgery performed is an onychectomy or declawing. Declawing is the surgical removal of a cat’s claws and toes bones. It is usually done on a cat’s front paws but could be performed on the back paws as well.  Veterinarians can use a scalpel or a surgical laser. There is no specific age a cat has to be to have the surgery.  However, it has been suggested that performing the surgery on younger cats decreases psychological issues often heard of after surgery. There is no scientific evidence to support this claim at this time. Declawing became popular in the 20th century. Declawing is usually used to prevent cats from scratching and ruining furniture, curtains, and carpets. It is also used to keep people safe from scratches that could occur during horseplay [11]. Hollywood, California banned declawing in 2003. The United Kingdom only allows declawing if it is medically necessary. Currently, no other states have regulations or prohibitions against declawing [3].

Having a cat declawed decreases the chances of it being abandoned or given to an animal shelter. It is also an alternative to leaving the cat outdoors and being euthanized. Scratching is a normal behavior in cats and that can present a lot of issues for owners [11]. Declawing would solve the behavioral problem and also keep the cat with their family. It has also been suggested that cats affected by neoplasia and paronychia would benefit from declawing [12].

There are several welfare concerns about declawing. Like any surgery, declawing has risks such as, profusely bleeding, reopening of the wound, and infections. Scratching is a normal cat behavior and taking that away could lead to unwanted stress. Problem behaviors such as biting and urinating in unwanted places in declawed cats have been noted by opposers of declawing [11].  A declawed cat effectively loses its ability to protect itself. Therefore, cats that have this surgery must stay inside at all times or be closely watched while outdoors.

Ventriculocordectomy or devocalization is the surgical removal all or part of the vocal cords. Devocalization is performed by an oral or a laryngeal approach. During an oral surgery, surgical equipment is used to go through the mouth of the patient and into the vocal cord region. It is less invasive and less costly than the alternative approach. A laryngotomy must first be performed by creating an incision into the larynx, providing better access to the vocal cords. Anesthesia is either given through a temporary tracheotomy or through injection [13]. There is no particular age a dog has to be to receive this surgery. However, younger animals tend to recover from surgery faster than older ones. Devocalization was developed to decrease the volume of a dog’s bark. It is commonly done as a last resort when training, therapies, and punishment techniques have failed to keep the dog from barking [14].

Four states have laws that regulate/prohibit devocalization of dogs except under certain circumstances. Unless deemed necessary by a veterinarian; New Jersey, Massachusetts and Ohio do not allow the surgery to take place. Pennsylvania delegates that only a licensed veterinarian can perform the surgery, but it does not have to be deemed necessary. California and Rhode Island have legislation that prohibits landlords from forcing tenants to get their dogs the surgery [15].

Allowing a dog to stay with its family is a great benefit of devocalization. If training and behavioral interventions have failed to decrease barking, devocalization is a good alternative. The surgery could possibly save the dog from euthanasia or abandonment. Debarking can also reduce the noise caused by loud barking and noise complaints from neighbors.

There are some issues that arise from debarking. Barking is a normal behavior carried out by all canines. Barking can be used to communicate when visual cues cannot be seen or are not understood. Making the bark softer and harder to hear could disrupt normal communication. The reasoning behind the uncontrollable or excessive barking has not been reduced. Therefore, other symptoms of an underlying condition may creep up after the surgery. Some of these reasons could be boredom, anxiety, and obsessive disorders [14]. Devocalization is a major surgery and many risks and complications accompany it. Swelling of the airway, pneumonia, and infection are some potential complications that could arise during the recovery process [15]. There is also risk of scarring inside the laryngeal tube. Scarring could cause noisy breathing and respiratory problems [16].

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Cosmetic Surgeries Of Pets. (2019, Oct 30). Retrieved December 4, 2022 , from

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