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A plague on animal tails: Docks, crops, spirals, curls and other not-so-neat tricks

Posted Jan 31 2010 10:00pm

What is it about tails? For some reason, humanity seems to abhor nothing more than a caudal appendage. Unless an animal’s got a prehensile version, it’s only going to get in the way. Best get rid of it, we say.

Many breeds’ tails are docked within days of birth. Others have the tail-lessness bred into them through fancy genetic tricks. Cats are not immune to the shenanigans, nor are plenty of our farm animal species (consider the dairy cow cropping you can witness in this video here). 

Our strange human aversion to tails is confounding to me. You’d think we’d consider it cute, novel or mysterious, even. Instead, many of us seek any excuse to lop it off. We’ve even gone so far as to look for new ways to achieve the tail-less look without having to deal in all that blood and gore. (Never mind that disc disease, butterflied verebrae and spina bifida are all associated with the genes that truncate, spiral or twirl our animals’ tails.)

Then we offer excuses to explain our tail-chasing ways. We say its non-essential nature and the minimal pain of the two day-old dock gives us license to wield a scalpel with impunity. We say it’s about history, about safety, about sport or some other function. 

In the case of dairy cows, they say it’s all about wholesome milk. The tail, you see, hangs close to the udder. And given the state of squalid sanitation these cows often wallow in, the tail tip has a way of playing the poop paintbrush when it comes to milking time. God forbid the milking staff has to take an extra two seconds to keep the tail out of the way. Or that they actually clean their bovine home so that their tails aren’t smeared in s--- on a 24/7 basis.

No, best "trim" those tails. “It doesn’t hurt, anyway.” At least that’s what these producers say as they plumb the depths of their empathy.

***

I was planning on writing about this last week until a patient intervened. She’d been involved in an altercation with an overstuffed garage. When heavy boxes collided with piles of domestic detritus, little Macy emerged yowling from the wreckage, black tail dragging behind. 

During her interlude with unsafe family storage, Macy had suffered a traumatic “tail pull.” It’s a common injury we call a sacrocaudal subluxation. Consequently, she couldn’t move or feel her tail. And what’s worse, the pain associated with this event was obviously taking its toll. Which is why I recommended tail removal without giving the affected nerves a chance to heal (sometimes they will). 

Whisk the tail away, I’d effectively said. We don’t need that liability. Why spend the next six weeks battling the pain of a broken back when with one thirty-minute procedure it can be stopped dead in its tracks? 

But as it turns out, not every human is inclined to terminate an appendage without irrefutable cause. Indeed, some humans can’t be made to see reason when it comes to keeping a pretty, fluffy thing alive, painful though it may be. All of which makes me think that sometimes...a vet just can’t win. 

 

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