Go ahead … ask any veterinarian in the US. Not one will give you a straight answer regarding the legality of tail docking, ear cropping, declawing and other surgical procedures deemed “medically unnecessary” by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
That’s because there is none. Despite the hotly contested nature of these procedures with respect to animal welfare, the shocking truth is that these procedures are almost entirely unregulated.
Most state laws either disregard these issues entirely or offer simple restrictions that hint at the unseen reality of how most of our pets’ “unwanted” bits are treated.
To help offer some perspective, I’ve broken things down by category:
Tail docking in dogs
“Docking” refers to amputating a dog’s tail. It’s most commonly performed without anesthesia at three days of age for cometic reasons. “Breed standard” is the most oft-cited reason for docking.
Functional reasons for docking are often hotly debated by those who support it, but here’s the honest truth: Dogs who might theoretically benefit from increased functionality or reduced injury rates as a result of docking are in the extreme minority. (Here's the AVMA's policy on this.)
Only two states regulate this activity.
Maryland: This is the only state that requires a veterinary license and a reason before lopping off a pet’s tail. (“Appropriate” is the term the statute applies.) It’s also the only one that considers anesthesia a requirement.
Pennsylvania: PA prohibits any docking of a dog’s tail after five days of age. But only if you’re a layperson. If you’re a veterinarian and you use anesthesia, you can perform a “tail dock,” but only after twelve weeks. In between the fifth day and twelfth week, tail docking may only be performed by a licensed veterinarian and only if it is deemed medically necessary.
Ear cropping in dogs
Ear cropping is a cosmetic procedure whereby the ear flaps are vertically incised to allow them to stand upright. It serves no other function than to help a dog adhere to a certain breed standard. It does not prevent ear infections or improve a dog’s “balance.” While it’s illegal in most of the Western world, it’s only regulated in nine US states. (Here's a past post on this and the AVMA's policy.)
Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania: These states explicitly prohibit ear cropping except when performed under anesthesia by a licensed veterinarian.
Maryland: MD takes it one step further. It also demands that the ear cropping be “appropriate for the animal,” stopping just shy of the words, “medical necessity.”
Illinois: This state prohibits “animal torture” but makes an exception for “alteration” of an animal as long as it’s done “under the direction of a licensed veterinarian.”
Maine: While Maine explicitly prohibits “mutilation,” it makes an exception for procedures performed by a licensed veterinarian. (Never thought of myself as having a license to mutilate.)
Massachusetts: This state restricts ear cropping to the purview of licensed veterinarians alone.
Washington: It states that it prohibits ear cropping except when it’s considered a “customary husbandry practice.”
Declawing in cats
Declawing a cat requires that the first knuckle of each digit be amputated so as to remove the entirety of the claw. This procedure is most often undertaken in the front limbs of cats six months of age and younger. Despite the significant pain it elicits, declawing all four paws remains a relatively common practice in the US. (Here's a past post on this and the AVMA's policy.)
California: This is such a hot and heavy animal welfare issue you’d think there would be lots of laws regulating the actual procedure. There are, however, precious few. Only California has made any serious inroads. While some municipalities in CA still retain the right to ban the procedure, the state has since prevented any additional municipalities from banning it.
Rhode Island: The good news is that both RI and CA have at least taken one extra step to help mitigate the pain of feline declawing. Both now prevent landlords from requiring that cats be declawed as a condition of tenancy.
New York: Ink and piercings may be all the rage, but NY says skin-deep fashion shouldn’t extend to pets. Rules there say tattooing is only allowable for ID purposes and piercing isn’t OK unless we’re talking ear-tag IDs for pet species who have normally been identified this way (rabbits and guinea pigs).
California and Rhode Island: As with declawing, these states have prevented landlords from requiring surgical de-barking as a condition of real estate tenancy.
Massachusetts, Maryland, and New Jersey: These states prohibit devocalization except when it’s considered a medical necessity by a licensed veterinarian.
Ohio: OH prohibits the devocalization of dogs which have been deemed dangerous. Apparently, this law helps ensure that dangerous dogs are not misunderstood.
Pennsylvania: PA prohibits devocalization unless the procedure is performed under anesthesia by a licensed veterinarian.
Why they suck
The states whose animal welfare laws have been either created or amended to help regulate how and when pets should undergo medically unnecessary procedures, if at all, are to be commended. They are, after all, in the minority. As such, they’re on the vanguard of a slow moving front that champions the welfare of animals over human vanity and personal convenience.
Nevertheless, I’ll be frank: It’s my take that these state laws almost uniformly suck. But not just because they hedge, waffle and prevaricate. Rather, they suck because in their embarrassing degree of equivocation and side-stepping, they testify to the presence of an insidious streak of animal treatment most of us either deny or simply don’t think about.
I mean, after reading what the states who regulate these procedures have to say, am I the only one who wonders about all the other states?
Think about it:
- All states but Maryland will allow you to cut off your own dog’s tail for any reason whatsoever. Pennsylvania is the only state that says you’ve got only a five-day window to make up your mind if you want to DIY your dog’s tail dock.
- When Washington state says that it prohibits ear cropping except when it’s considered a “customary husbandry practice,” it opens the door not only for veterinarian-performed ear crops but for veterinarian-directed ear crops (which means a veterinarian does not actually have to perform the procedure), and, indeed, for anyone else who wants to crop ears.
- All but five states allow that pets de-barked by non-veterinary laypersons with no requirement for anesthesia or pain relief whatsoever. (Have you ever seen what this procedure entails?)
So does that mean that in all forty-eight, forty-one, and forty-five other states (respectively) you can slice and dice your own dogs’ tails, ears and throats? Well … yes.
In fact, here’s the thing: While there are no solid stats on this, it’s a safe bet that most ear crops, dewclaw removals and tail docks undertaken in this country are not performed by veterinarians.
Why? Not only because veterinarians are increasingly principled about performing unnecessary cosmetic procedures (though it’s true that we are), but also because we veterinarians are expensive. (It’s pricey to be educated, use drugs and keep things clean.)
And since the bulk of purebred pets no longer comes from responsible individuals but from commercial breeders looking for the least expensive product, you can be sure they’ll be cropping, docking, de-dewclawing, declawing (and anything else they think future purebred owners will want) as inexpensively as possible.
What’s more, it’s also a safe bet that the animals who undergo these procedures are not being treated according to the high veterinary standards of care you might envision in your mind’s eye when you buy that pet shop Min-Pin. After all, when a handful of “progressive” laws have to mandate anesthesia, it’s because it’s considered common practice by some to perform these procedures without it.
If you love animals you should be. There’s no reason to defend these practices. And if you still choose to –– for whatever semi-considered reason you might still cling to –– consider the reality of these procedures: They’re most likely undertaken on an unclean table by someone with no formal education who’s using no anesthetics and hasn’t even considered the possibility that administering pain medication might be the humane thing to do.
Now, that’s a picture worth a whole lot of words –– one I’m hoping we’ll one day put into laws that’ll actually protect our pets’ welfare.
Not that I’m holding my breath or nothin' …