By: Patti Strand  Date: 06/20/1999 Category: | Canine Issues |

For several years the radical veterinarian group Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR) has been pressing the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to adopt a statement opposing ear cropping and tail docking. This year, however, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) has upstaged AVAR with an anti-crop and dock statement of its own.

At the July AVMA meeting, delegates will be asked to vote on the AAHA proposal and if adopted, it will become an official AVMA animal welfare position. This is how the statement reads: "Ear cropping and tail docking in dogs for cosmetic reasons are not medically indicated nor of benefit to the patient. These procedures cause pain and distress, and, as with all surgical procedures, are accompanied by inherent risks of anesthesia, blood loss, and infection. Therefore, veterinarians should counsel dog owners about these matters before agreeing to perform these surgeries."

As one might expect, the AAHA proposal has been surrounded in controversy from the beginning. Coming on the heels of AVAR's request, critics have questioned AAHA's timing, its motives and judgment for what appears to them to be an attempt to appease the radical fringe rather than an honest effort to promote good husbandry or medical practice. So strong are feelings over this issue, some veterinarians have actually given up their membership in AAHA because of the group's handling of this matter.

Some think that because the proposal doesn't actually call for a ban, it offers a reasonable compromise. A few defenders actually imagine that passage of the statement will prevent or at least slow the radicals' campaign. History, however, teaches a different reality. In fact, the interplay between AVAR, AAHA and the AVMA on this issue provides a classic text book example of how radical change occurs. The process is a result of interaction among participants positioned along a political continuum of interest. Until AAHA drafted its proposal only two political contestants were engaged in the debate: Veterinarians who - whether or not they perform crop and dock surgeries - wish to retain decision-making control over such matters, and those who seek to remove individual choice in the matter. In the final analysis, the issue is not about cropping and docking, it's about control.

When a third entity positions itself between the two entities, radical flank effect occurs, moving the debate in the direction of radical change. Put simply, AAHA's position on the political landscape assures that if their proposal succeeds, the middle position will move toward the extreme. Typically, movement toward any extreme position is incremental and facilitated by people who see themselves as moderates.

Since few veterinarians perform these surgeries or earn substantial income from them, few are true stakeholders in the outcome. For that reason, even though the debate may be framed in ethical terms, many veterinarians will view it as a throwaway issue - a cheap price to pay and a minor compromise to end the acrimony. Despite its mild packaging, its passage has critical implications for other elective surgeries.

Veterinarians might ask, why was this procedure singled out as the one elective surgery so questionable that it requires client counseling? Is the veterinary profession really prepared to move in this direction? What about early spaying and neutering? For these procedures, negative side effects are already well documented. To be consistent perhaps the AAHA or AVMA should draft new position statements warning clients of the negative side effects of all elective procedures.

Cropping and docking, like spaying or neutering are elective procedures, done because of the owners' commitment to a particular set of values. For many people, a dog's appearance, including whether it is cropped or docked is an important ingredient in the total package that attracts them to a particular dog.

However foolish, shallow or whimsical such tastes may appear to another person, these tastes may also help keep that dog in a particular home or help get it adopted from a shelter. The veterinary profession would be wise to keep in mind that in many European countries where cropping and docking are viewed with disdain, so are surgical procedures that alter the reproductive lives of pets.

There are also questions about the scientific basis for AAHA's statement. Does the AAHA actually have scientific evidence for stating that these procedures are "not medically indicated nor of benefit to the patient"? Many responsible and experienced dog breeders and professional groomers draw different conclusions. They believe, as I do, that cropping and docking are, or can be, beneficial to the dog. Raising an uncropped breed in a wet, temperate climate, one learns quickly, after spending huge sums at the veterinarian (oops, maybe veterinarians are stakeholders) that bacterial and fungal infections thrive in warm, dark, wet enclosures - such as the ear canals of uncropped, drop-eared dogs. Similarly, owners of undocked hunting or working dogs cite significant tail injuries as reasons for docking.

Who's right?

Certainly the politically active members of the AAHA have as much right to express their opinions as do dog breeders and groomers, but there is something rather disturbing to me about their willingness, as trained scientists, to claim as medical fact, something for which there is little or no scientific evidence. What is worse is asking the national veterinary group to sign on! When non-scientists promote claims in similar ways, scientists belittle the anecdotal nature of their evidence. If AAHA has more than anecdotal evidence to support its claim, they should make their findings available for peer review. If they do not have such evidence, they should consider retracting or modifying their statement to reflect that it is simply their unverified opinion. Most people would agree that it is irresponsible for medically trained people to provide unsubstantiated opinions in a form that implies some degree of scientific legitimacy. Doing so weakens the value of the credentials they carry and reduces their credibility to a level approaching that of AVAR.

A few years ago, I recall seeing an opinion poll purporting to show the relative popularity and respect enjoyed by various professions. Lawyers, politicians and certain salesmen were at one end of the continuum. At the popular end, were veterinarians, pharmacists, farmers, and firemen. Veterinarians were close to the top. At the time I read it, I found myself agreeing with the ratings. I wonder how well vets will fare in opinion polls held 10 or 15 years from now if they continue down the path blazed by AAHA and others who encourage veterinarians to forsake their medical training and join the ranks of the politically correct.

Instead of taking on the impossible task of trying to control others' ethical choices, or declaring without evidence that certain elective procedures are without medical value, why not conduct a scientific study to establish whether cropping and docking have medical value? Why not establish meaningful risk-benefit models for a number of elective procedures? Why not publish and distribute a medical brochure or paper on proper after-care for dogs following ear cropping and tail cropping and other elective procedures? Through such efforts the veterinary medical profession will genuinely advance the welfare of animals instead of wasting time trying to satisfy people who will never be satisfied.

Author’s Note: The AVMA’s voting delegates represent their state veterinary medical associations. Accordingly, people interested in expressing their opinions should contact their state associations, their state delegates, and the AVMA before July 5, 1999. The AVMA’s address follows: American Veterinary Medical Association, Dr. Richard C. Swanson, 1931 N. Meacham Rd., Suite 100, Schaumburg, IL 60173

About The Author

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Patti Strand - NAIA President

Patti is a recognized expert and consultant on contemporary animal issues, most notably responsible dog ownership and the animal rights movement. She often appears on radio and television and her articles on canine issues, animal welfare, public policy and animal rights have appeared in major US news publications and in trade, professional and scientific journals. Patti and her…

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