While we all think our pet is the cutest and nothing could make her cuter, except perhaps a new collar or a pretty bandana, there are those who believe in cosmetic surgery to improve their pet’s appearance. Two of the most common cosmetic surgeries performed in dogs are tail docking and ear cropping. Two less common procedures are the placement of prostheses either in the eye or after neutering. Despite a lengthy history, questions remain as to whether or not cosmetic surgery should be performed in dogs.
Docking is a cosmetic procedure which is thought to have originated during the Roman Empire. The Romans believed rabies could be prevented by removing the tip of a dog’s tail. After the virus causing rabies was identified, farmers, shepherds, and property owners began docking their dogs’ tails in attempts to prevent work-related tail injuries. As working dogs evolved into pedigreed show dogs, tail cropping became part of some breed standards. Today, many countries prohibit tail docking in dogs for cosmetic reasons. Tail docking should not be confused with tail amputation, a medically necessary procedure to correct a tail injury or to remove a tail tumor.
Like tail docking, ear cropping is an ancient procedure and is documented in ancient sculptures of Greek and Roman dogs. Perhaps initially, removal of the pinna or ear flap was to prevent bite injury from predators or other dogs. Other proposed health benefits attributed to ear cropping included improved hearing and a decrease in ear infections; although, a scientific rationale for these claims is lacking. Today, dogs with cropped ears undergo surgery to give the dog a particular “look” or to meet the standard in breeds such as the Doberman pinscher, Boxer, Great Dane and Pit Bull terrier. The list of countries prohibiting ear cropping surgery is similar to the list prohibiting tail docking. Both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association oppose both tail docking and ear cropping.
Veterinarians commonly remove or enucleate a dog’s eye when it has a painful condition, is nonvisual or has developed a tumor. In some canine patients, a prosthesis can be placed inside the eyeball after the nonfunctional contents of the eyeball have been removed. The prosthesis is a silicon globe selected to replicate the size of the eyeball. Even though the dog remains blind in that eye, the eyelids function normally and the dog retains a normal enough appearance to prevent awkward questions from strangers on the street than if the eyeball was removed and the lids sutured shut. While the placement of the intraocular prosthesis is a cosmetic procedure, it differs from tail docking and ear cropping in that the procedure is performed in response to a medically necessary procedure and restores a somewhat normal appearance to the dog’s face.
The decision to place an intraocular prosthesis may be influenced by a dog’s haircoat and certain, more sensitive, family members. A missing eye is less obvious in dogs with dark coats or furry faces. A missing eye may be more upsetting for a family with small children who may not comprehend the need for an enucleation in their beloved companion. The good news is enucleation with or without placement of a prosthesis will quickly resolve a dog’s painful eye condition.
Neutering is probably the most common surgical procedure performed in male dogs. Neutering promotes population control, behavior modification, and disease prevention. Even though a neutered male dog is the norm, some dog families dislike the appearance of a neutered male dog. Similar to the intraocular prosthesis, there are also silicon testicular prostheses which can be implanted at the time of neutering to recreate the dog’s normal male anatomy. Having never managed a patient with testicular prosthesis, I cannot comment on the outcome in these patients, but see this as closer to the more unnecessary tail docking and ear cropping procedures than to the implantation of an intraocular prosthesis; although, dogs undergoing a standard enucleation without a prosthesis and neutered dogs both have an excellent outcome and quality of life.
So, then what is the answer to my original question regarding cosmetic surgery in pets? Clearly, tail docking and ear cropping are driven by cosmetics and competition. Do cosmetics and competition matter to your dog? That is the real unanswered question.