Cosmetic Ear Cropping: An Open Letter

The College of Veterinarians of British Columbia has a policy entitled “Cosmetic Ear Cropping of Dogs” which admonishes its members to cease ear-cropping surgery. This policy is the result of what some describe as a minority faction exerting its ideological hegemony over the majority of members, many of whom are largely disengaged and otherwise apathetic or conflicted about this issue.

As a veterinarian for over 30 years, and one deeply involved with veterinary medical organizations for most of that time, I can tell you that the membership of our associations are just as divided as the general public on which elective surgical interventions should be considered acceptable to be performed on our animals. The ethics of performing any given procedure on animals, especially for other than the animals’ immediate medical needs, is contentious and remains in flux. As with the public, many veterinarians see their role as solely and primarily concerned with animal welfare, rather than as one balanced between the needs of animals and their owners. The very idea of “ownership” has been called into question, with animals sometimes accorded full negotiating partner status, through human proxies, in debates on particular procedures or interventions. That is a sea change from previous generations of veterinarians, and the source of much discord in our profession today in the United States, as well as in other developed nations.

In the United States, the Veterinarians Oath begins with the phrase “for the benefit of society” before it goes on to detail the various specific roles veterinarians fill that actually do benefit society. In contrast, many veterinarians define their role as one concerned with animals needs first, as they believe them to be, with animal owners and society concerns, a distant second, if at all.

The loudest opponents of procedures such as ear cropping often have little connection to the given breed  or interest in breed preservation.

When it comes to surgeries such as partial pinnectomy (ear cropping), onychectomy (declaw of cats), digitectomy (dewclaw removal) and partial caudectomy (tail docking) many activists among the public and many members of our profession believe there is no need for these procedures, advocate against them and expect everyone else to do likewise. Often however, these advocates have little or no connection to the given breed or the activities conducted by animal owners who desire these surgeries and couldn’t care less about breed preservation or the dog fancy and its traditions. In contrast, those who care for or work with specific breeds or who believe that a breed that participates in certain activities and has a defined, longstanding identity that makes such procedures necessary, see the need for cosmetic surgeries differently. The key point here however, is that the former believe they are entitled to define how others must manage their animals and what they must not be allowed to do to remain acceptable to society. The latter resent being told they must change by those they regard as lacking standing to interfere, and suspect their motives. As a veterinarian I tend to see all elective surgeries the same way: surgery that is performed for the convenience or the needs of animal owners, and which makes an animal acceptable for the life, role or circumstances in which it lives. I do not believe, for other than medical necessity, that we ought to tell animal owners what they can or can’t have done to their animals, as long as in doing so, proper standards of animal welfare are met. In the case of elective surgery of any kind, appropriate anesthesia, proper surgical technique, adequate pain relief, follow-up and client education are the factors necessary to facilitate any ethical surgery, whether for disease or for cosmetic result.

I also find it disingenuous that we minimize or ignore the surgical risks or medical downsides to sterilization surgeries, because of course those surgeries are seen as societally beneficial, regardless of what affect they may have on the individual animal, for good or for ill. Indeed, more and more evidence has been accumulating that sterilization, including removal of the endocrine organs of reproduction, may not be as benign an intervention as previously asserted. That is, however, off topic.

In my opinion, partial pinnectomy, as practiced for certain breeds of dogs that compete in the show ring, for example Doberman pinschers, Great Danes and Boxers, may be ethically performed when the factors I mentioned above (proper anesthesia, proper surgical technique, adequate pain relief, follow-up and client education) are attended to. Just as with the widely accepted castration and ovariohysterectomy procedures, we perform all elective surgeries with benefits that accrue primarily to owners, not to animals. Ear cropping is really no different.

To force a ban on fanciers, breed clubs, veterinarians and the public by social pressure from professional societies or from regulatory authorities influenced by activists is wrong and will only result in a backlash, which will include civil disobedience and a likely decrement in animal welfare.

This effort is one more example of activists forcing minority views on an unwilling public, this time through the imprimatur of a professional society. It is also another way in which those holding a certain point of view that disdains “purebred” or purpose bred dogs in the first place, i.e. defined breeds, exert adverse pressure on purebred dog breeders, breeding and potential purebred owners. These individuals hope to make it shameful for anyone to breed, purchase or own a purebred dog.

The social space in which the purpose bred dog remains acceptable has already shrunk in many ways, due to activist efforts to narrow the number of breeds available, lessen available puppies of any given breed, eliminate the circumstances in which purebred dogs may be obtained such as retail stores, and as in this case, attempt to alter breed standards to undermine a breed based on claims of harm. Indeed, many purebred dog breeds are close to extinction today as a result of the push to instead place random origin, largely mixed breed, shelter dogs in as many pet owning homes as possible. This occurs while far less energetic efforts are made to staunch the continual increase in random mixed breed dog reproduction, that leads to full shelters and unfortunate euthanasia in the first place. Indeed, such dogs are even being intentionally bred, both here and on foreign shores, to supply a false “rescue industry.” That is not right, and it’s also not fair.

Thousands of years of purposeful breeding have led to many unique, individual dog breeds with acute aptitudes that are used for human work every day the world over. It is our responsibility to prevent the extinction of these breeds and that historical, human effort. We can only do that by ensuring we maintain the social space necessary to own, breed, show and work with purebred dogs of various breeds, and by avoiding altering breed standards by fiat or coercion. We may not choose to own a dog that is cropped, but we also ought not to tell others they cannot do so.

Unless the whole of society rejects the purpose bred dog entirely, and the unique and special characteristics that define them, we ought to resist activist demands that dogs be required to suit their definition of what is appropriate. If sterilization is acceptable, knowing full well it deeply affects animal physiology, then these other, less invasive, elective surgeries, cosmetic though they may be, ought to be acceptable also.

Read the original article by Arnold L. Goldman at here.

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