A Jack Russel with a docked tail standing in a crop field with a harness on

What is tail docking?

The practice of removing or shortening a dog’s tail used to be commonplace, but it is now illegal in the UK, apart from a few limited exceptions. Why would you ever dock a dog’s tail, and what are the circumstances in which you can still do so under the law?

If your dog has a particularly waggy tail, it may get injured as it explores in hedges and woodland.

While tail docking isn’t the answer, insurance for your pet can help cover vet bills if your pup needs emergency medical treatment.


Docking dog’s tails in history

The sight of a dog with a wagging tail is a thing of joy to most dog lovers, but throughout history many dogs have had their tails removed. The reasoning behind the practice was varied.

There was an ancient (incorrect) belief, dating back to Roman times, that the tail tip and the tongue was involved in dogs contracting rabies, so tails and tongue tips were removed to prevent the disease.

In the 17th century a tax was imposed on pet dogs, kept as companions, as opposed to working dogs used in pursuits such as farming and hunting.

To avoid paying the tax, many dogs had their tails removed to indicate that they were working dogs and therefore not taxable.

There was also a belief that working dogs may injure their tails in the course of their duties, making removal a safer option, especially for breeds with long tails.

For many breeds, removal was also an aesthetic choice. For example, in the past, pedigree shows sometimes specified that dogs of particular breeds must have dock tails to qualify for entry. 

A dog with a docked tail running through a water logged field creating a splash

The ban on tail docking

In 2007, the practice of tail docking was banned in England and Wales.

The law states that it is an offence to have tail docking carried out and the penalty for doing so is up to two years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine. Similar laws apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The law has some exceptions, particularly in relation to working dogs.

If a dog is a spaniel, terrier, or a dog commonly used for hunting, pointing, retrieving or is a crossbreed involving one of these breeds, the dog may have its tail docked in order to work in law enforcement, pest control, or lawful shooting of animals.

There is also an exemption for dogs whose tails need to be removed for therapeutic reasons, as advised by a vet.

Insurance for a pet is important for dog owners to ensure you do not face significant vet bills as you help your pet recover from such an operation.

In order to dock a dog’s tail using one of these exemptions, a vet must complete a certification process confirming that the dog meets one of the criteria.

Supporting evidence is required, such as: a statement confirming the dog is one of the listed breeds and will be used as a working dog; identification from an authority such as police, HMRC, or the prison service confirming the dog will be used for one of the given reasons such as law enforcement; or a letter from a relevant person, such as a gamekeeper or shoot organiser.

A dog with a docked tail standing in a shallow section of a lake

The process of docking

Before the procedure was outlawed, dogs used to have docking carried out at home by either snipping off the tail of a very young pup with scissors, or wrapping the tail with a tight elastic tie so the blood circulation is restricted and the tail eventually falls off. Now it’s best left to a professional vet.

Unless it is carried out for therapeutic reasons, docking is carried out when a pup is very young.

A vet removes the tail as a surgical procedure, without anaesthetic if the pup is under five days old, or with anaesthetic up to eight weeks.

The procedure is controversial, with some claiming that the pups experience pain and can lead to chronic pain if poorly carried out.

Others claim that discomfort is only momentary and that the puppies are so small that their tissues are soft and nerve systems are underdeveloped, preventing real pain.

Opponents of the procedure say that dogs without a tail are deprived of a means of expression in later life and that the risk of tail injury in working dogs is not significant to justify the procedure.

Some dogs can even develop tumours or nerve damage around the removal site.

Once a dog’s tail has been docked, the owner must keep paperwork to show the procedure was carried out in the approved manner.

A puppy must be microchipped at the same clinic that carried out the docking. If the dog is sold, the docking certificate should be transferred to the new owner.

dog with a docked tail running through a flowery field carrying a training toy

How well is the law on tail docking enforced?

In theory, dogs with docked tails should be working dogs, rather than reared to be pets.

In practice, unscrupulous breeders dock the tails of dogs who will be kept as pets and the chances of being caught for this offence are fairly slim.

For example, in 2017 only one person was convicted for illegal docking, and in 2016 there were no convictions.

Some breeders dock their puppies’ tails themselves, leaving the dogs vulnerable to pain and long-term health problems if the procedure is not carried out properly.

For example, in March 2019, a married couple from Rotherham was banned from keeping dogs for five years after they removed four terrier pups’ tails.

A vet said the procedure had caused unnecessary suffering to the dogs and represented ‘an act of mutilation.’ The owners were ordered to pay £600 costs and carry out 150 hours’ unpaid work.

If your dog injures its tail and you’re not sure what to do, Purely Pets customers can call the 24-Hour Vet Helpline and get advice from a qualified veterinary professional.

Are you looking for specialist pets insurance for your beloved pup? Why not get a quote from Purely Pets today?