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The long dark road to banning tail docking in New Zealand

The New Zealand Veterinary Association’s companion animal spokesperson Rochelle Ferguson is one of thousands of veterinarians celebrating today’s ban on tail docking. She explains why this cause is so close to her heart and the long dark road taken to get here.

In 1995, when I entered my first practice as a new veterinary graduate, there was a bright yellow “Every Dog Has a Tail to Tell” poster on the consultation room wall.

It was put out by the British Veterinary Association and showed Rottweilers and fox terriers in all their tailed glory. Heartened by the campaign poster, I and the other associates at the practice dutifully abstained from non-therapeutic tail docking on moral grounds.

However, the practice owner still performed tail docking. His reasoning was that if we didn’t offer the service then breeders would take matters into their own hands.

Nobody enjoyed these visits – and cleaning up a row of cute puppy tails that had been severed from their canine owners was always particularly sad.

Despite the shiny poster on the wall telling us every dog had a tail to tell, it turned out that for New Zealand dogs, this tale was not going to be a short story. It would be a novel with many chapters that would play out for another 22 years.

A poster on the wall of the NZVA Wellington office.

In certain breeds, like the fox terrier and Rottweiler, breeders dock tails so that they conform to a desired look, continuing a tradition from the Middle Ages, a time when a tax was applied to every dog with a tail.

Docking is carried out in young puppies without any anaesthetic or pain relief.

Apart from the obvious pain and discomfort this causes, docking puppies’ tails can give rise to ongoing pain from changes to the nerves caused by severing them.

Tails help dogs with balance and communication, and while they do sometimes get injured, studies show that around 500 dogs need to be docked to avoid one tail injury.

Given the benefits of having a tail, the risks associated with docking, the lack of serious injury to tails and that dogs never check themselves out in the mirror to admire their short tails, the benefits of tail docking for non-therapeutic purposes just don’t stack up.

A proposal to ban non-therapeutic tail docking was contained in the original draft of the Animal Welfare Act 1999. Opposition to this proposal was the basis on which the New Zealand Council of Docked Breeds (NZCDB) was formed in 1997. This group of tail docking supporters spearheaded campaigns to oppose the bans that veterinarians were fighting for. With links to similar groups in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States of America, South Africa and Canada, they regurgitated arguments that were being used around the world to support tail docking.

Their campaigning was successful. The non-therapeutic tail docking ban was removed from the Animal Welfare Act before it passed into legislation in 1999.

In 2004, Diane Yates introduced a Private Members Bill to Parliament to restrict the docking of dogs’ tails. The NZCDB reformed again to oppose this move. In their submissions, they argued that lamb tail docking and circumcision were evidence that the practice was not cruel and emphasised the importance of maintaining traditions that had been around since the Middle Ages.

Interestingly, when it came to the select committee submissions they found support from a small group of around 30 veterinarians, who gave their evidence secretly. The majority of the veterinary profession however, was firmly against the practice.

Public opinion was also in support of the ban, with a Colmar Brunton poll showing 68% in favour of outlawing tail docking. Some breeders of traditionally docked dogs also broke ranks to support the ban, although again this was largely done anonymously for fear of reprisals from their peers.

Despite the public sentiment in favour of the ban, strong submissions from both the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RNZSPCA) and the New Zealand Veterinary Association in support of the bill, and increasing support from dog breeders, in 2007 the bill was dropped due to a lack of support from both the Labour and National parties.

Sadly, New Zealand now lagged internationally accepted standards of animal welfare. Tail docking for reasons other than for health had been banned in the UK, Australia, and at least nine other European countries.

Australian bitches were being flown to New Zealand to whelp by breeders who supported tail docking. They would then have their puppies’ tails legally docked before going back to Australia to sell their puppies for a premium price.

Some New Zealand breeders also did a roaring trade (currently estimated to be worth around $750,000 a year) providing docked puppies to overseas markets in which the practice is banned.

A still from a video on Youtube of a puppy having his tail docked.

Another opportunity to outlaw non-therapeutic tail docking arose when the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) issued a proposed code of welfare for dogs to accompany the Animal Welfare Act. It included a section on tail docking.

If adopted, this welfare code would have banned the docking of dogs’ tails except for therapeutic purposes. Submissions were made during 2009 in favour of the ban from the New Zealand Veterinary Association, Veterinary Council of New Zealand (VCNZ), and the RNZSPCA.

To clearly convey the veterinary profession’s position on tail docking, the NZVA adopted a policy that banned tail docking unless it was to treat injury or disease. The VCNZ further strengthened this position through a 2011 revision of the code of professional conduct that prohibited veterinarians from removing dogs’ tails, unless for justifiable medical reasons.

The subsequent code, included a recommendation that tail docking should not be performed unless for therapeutic purposes. Unfortunately, it got around the voluntary ban taken by veterinarians, by allowing the practice to continue under a quality assurance scheme.

This scheme, would allow an accredited person to legally dock tails in puppies up to four days of age by using a tail band.

New Zealand animal welfare law was now at serious odds with veterinary practice.

In 2012 the quality assurance scheme, the NZCDB Accredited Banders Panel, was established and administered by Dogs New Zealand (formally the New Zealand Kennel Club). This allowed the practice of tail docking (which is a significant surgical procedure) to be conducted by lay persons with no veterinary oversight.

But 2012 was also the year that the Government called from submissions on amendments to the Animal Welfare Act and proposed a New Zealand Animal Welfare Strategy. While tail docking wasn’t on the amendment agenda, the NZVA, VCNZ and RNZSPCA took the opportunity to lobby the Government for an end to this practice.

Recent New Zealand research from Massey University was supportive of banning the procedure. Knowledge on pain perception in neonates had also advanced and lent further support to the argument against the practice. Despite this continued pressure, there were no changes.

During 2014 and 2015, the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) put together a committee to begin the process of developing regulations under the Animal Welfare Act and its amendments, with the aim of making enforcement of the legislation easier. Chaired by John Hellström, membership included other NAWAC members, the VCNZ and the RNZSPCA, as well as MPI staff. Regulatory proposals were tested before public consultation.

In 2016, MPI, called for submissions on proposed regulations that would make tail docking, unless for therapeutic purposes, an illegal activity. It was also proposed that only veterinarians could dock tails. Following these submissions, MPI again conducted a number of additional workshops.

Drawing on the previous work that had been done by the profession and including national and international scientific evidence, the New Zealand Veterinary Association put forward both written and oral submissions.

The pro-tail docking supporters, NZCDB, predictably brought their best game to the table, including legal counsel for the oral submissions.

This time however, things were different.

A 2014 Dogs New Zealand survey had shown that the majority of their members opposed tail docking. Dogs New Zealand, having previously been a stalwart of the pro tail docking brigade, now had an official position on tail docking that was neutral.

There was also mounting scientific evidence against the practice and the argument had moved away from determining if the practice was painful to determining if the practice was necessary. This time the profession was firmly united against the practice.

The New Zealand Veterinary Association combined forces with VCNZ, RNZSPCA, and Massey University to put forward a supplemental submission on tail docking when further consultation was requested from MPI on the proposed tail docking regulation. This was followed up with a submission on the financial impacts of a ban on tail docking to the profession.

Given the polarised views on this proposal, and pressure from the NZCDB regarding the process of consultation, MPI engaged an independent expert to conduct a review of all written submissions and relevant science. The expert, Dr Emily Patterson-Kane (the Animal Welfare Scientist for the American Veterinary Medical Association), agreed with the arguments put forward in the submissions by the NZVA, VCNA and RNZSPCA. She found that tail docking is a significant surgical procedure with the potential to cause considerable pain and distress to the animal and that it is not justified by any animal welfare benefit to the dog.

A further final comment was made by the New Zealand Veterinary Association on this independent review, as there were concerns that the NZCDB would look to argue for exemptions to a ban for certain categories of dogs, as had happened in Scotland.

It is with great relief and joy that we received the news today that Minister Guy, in consideration of international practice, the submissions, the findings from the independent expert, and New Zealand’s strong reputation for high animal welfare standards, holds the view that it is time to prohibit non-therapeutic docking of dog tails.

Credit: Pixabay

This has been a long journey, containing plenty of setbacks. The baton has passed along to successive veterinarians for over two decades as we collectively worked to speak up for animals that did not have a voice.

NZVA records show the amount of work and dedication veterinarians such as Catherine Smith, Virginia Williams, Jodi Salinsky, Raewyn Frater, Rachel Griffiths, Helen Beban, Kate Hill, Kevin Stafford, Amber Wells, Sue Blaikie, Pieter Verhoek and Cath Watson have done to keep the pressure on the government for this change. These veterinarians have remained steadfastly resolute to this cause and we are all grateful for their dedication and commitment.

It is a privilege for me, New Zealand Veterinary Council Professional Advisor Wayne Ricketts, New Zealand Veterinary Association Head of Veterinary Services Callum Irvine, and New Zealand Veterinary Association Chief Veterinary Officer Helen Beattie to be the last veterinarians in this chain as we cross this finish line.

Rochelle Ferguson is a veterinarian and companion animal veterinarians operations manager at the New Zealand Veterinary Association. She loves dogs, from the tip of their noses to the end of their tails.


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