Ear-cropping rise in dogs prompts plan for UK import ban

Proposed crackdown brings global attention to elective surgeries in pets

May 13, 2021 (published)
By Ross Kelly

Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals photo
A young Doberman's ears are splinted following cropping, a controversial procedure in which the outer floppy part of the ear is surgically removed.

The United Kingdom is moving to ban the importation of dogs with cropped ears, amid an apparent surge in the practice driven by pop stars and other celebrities that prompted veterinarians to call for stricter rules.

Britain's ruling conservative government this week said it will introduce the import ban as part of a range of measures designed to improve animal welfare, including the compulsory microchipping of cats and prohibition of electric-shock training collars. The new rules will be introduced for parliamentary votes via a series of bills, the government said Wednesday.

The decision is a win for the British Veterinary Association, a U.K. lobby group for the profession, which last year joined an animal welfare outfit, The Foal Group, to start a petition calling for a ban on importing cropped dogs. The petition amassed more than 100,000 signatures, forcing lawmakers to consider the issue.

The push for change in Britain adds to global debate over whether to forbid or at least restrict procedures with zero or little benefit to animal health, such as ear cropping, tail docking and cat declawing.

The U.K. banned ear cropping long ago but owners may import cropped dogs — a loophole the BVA fears acts as a smokescreen for illegal cropping occurring at home.

Ear cropping is banned in many locations, including Europe and Australasia, but is permitted in the United States. The process, also known as cosmetic otoplasty, involves cutting off part of a dog's ear flaps — and sometimes propping up what's left with tape and splints — to make the ears erect. Erect ears are thought to make the animal look more intimidating.

At worst, cropping is performed crudely by non-veterinarians using scalpels or scissors and no anesthetic. When performed by veterinary professionals, the process potentially exposes animals to the ordinary surgical risks of infection and complications during anesthesia.

In brief

Cropped dogs experience discomfort during healing, stretching, re-taping and bandaging, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, which discourages the practice. Moreover, dogs use their bodies, including ears and tails, to communicate. It is widely understood that erect ears, for example, can indicate attentiveness, slightly flattened ears friendliness and tightly flattened ears aggression. The effect of ear-cropping on dog communication does not appear to have been extensively researched.

Veterinarians, charities eye celebrity influencers

Dr. Daniella Dos Santos is seeing "more and more" dogs with cropped ears being brought into practice, most of them puppies and young adults. "I'm not tending to see older dogs with cropped ears, which fits with the theory that this is an emerging trend that we're seeing," Dos Santos, who is BVA senior vice-president, told the VIN News Service.

Dos Santos' experiences at a practice in Kent, England, from which she recently moved, are backed by anecdotal evidence from Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, an animal welfare charity.
In February, it claimed to have seen a 236% increase in ear-cropping cases, from 14 in 2015 to 47 in 2019, with a total of 178 reports over the five-year period.

The rise, Dos Santos and others observe, has correlated with celebrities increasingly showcasing cropped dogs on social media and in music videos. British stars recently named in the popular press for being associated with the practice include pop star Rita Ora and Manchester United soccer player Marcus Rashford.

How strictly the practice should be regulated is a contentious question internationally. On a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of VIN News, more than a dozen veterinarians recently chimed in on the subect. Several expressed a desire for the practice to be prohibited in the U.S., while another suggested bans would drive owners to seek the operation from unscrupulous actors. One described cropping as an art form, if done correctly; others doubted whether many older veterinarians would teach cropping skills to the next generation.

Dr. Victoria Bentley, who practices in Medina, New York, personally finds cropping distasteful, but opposes strict regulation. "I don't want anyone telling me how to practice medicine," Bentley wrote on VIN. "I prefer that decision to be made between myself, and the client. Let's not regulate ourselves to death."

Public outrage over cropping appears to be more muted in the U.S., although at least one celebrity there, Scott Disick, in 2017 drew flak on social media for having his pit bull's ears cropped. Other American celebrities, such as comedian and actor Kevin Hart, proudly share photographs of their cropped dogs (in Hart's case, two Doberman pinschers) with little apparent blowback.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told VIN News that it has no data on whether the practice of ear cropping in the U.S. has risen, fallen or remained steady. "Responsible breeders reject cruel practices and do not subject their dogs to permanent physical alterations that are done solely for cosmetic purposes," a spokesperson for the charity said.

Declawing bans show scope for US regulatory change

Nine U.S. states regulate ear cropping, though none of them ban it, according to the AVMA. Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania prohibit ear cropping except by a licensed veterinarian. Washington allows it when considered a "customary husbandry practice." A number of states have rules about docking the tails of horses or cattle, but only two — Maryland and Pennsylvania — apply restrictions to docking dogs' tails, according to the AVMA. Lawmakers in New York have proposed bills to ban ear cropping and tail docking in dogs for cosmetic purposes, but none has made it over the line.

Lawmakers there recently moved successfully against another controversial surgery. In 2019, New York became the first U.S. state to ban declawing in cats. Eleven major U.S. cities also ban the practice, according to the advocacy group Alley Cat Allies — the latest being Austin, Texas, in March.

Cat declawing, or onychectomy, is amputation of the third phalanx, or bone, of a cat's toes to stop scratching behaviors that could otherwise lead owners to abandon or euthanize the animal. The AVMA discourages declawing, which opponents of the practice say causes pain, lameness and behavioral issues, but the national group and some state-based veterinary associations stop short of advocating bans.

Last month, a bill to prohibit declawing in California was withdrawn after it received pushback from the California Veterinary Medical Association, which called it an "inappropriate attempt to legislate veterinary medicine's scope of practice and interfere with clinical decision making made in the context of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship."

When it comes to ear cropping, Bentley, the practitioner in New York state, suggests that rather than targeting politicians, advocates for change in the U.S. could target breed registers and dog shows that still support the practice. The American Kennel Club includes cropping and tail docking in certain breed standards, such as for the Doberman pinscher, saying they are "acceptable practices integral to the defining and preserving breed character and/or enhancing good health." The AKC adds that "appropriate veterinary care should be provided." The Kennel Club in the U.K., by contrast, does not allow dogs with cropped ears in its events.

Dos Santos, the veterinarian in England, believes ear cropping does not belong within veterinary medicine's scope of practice because it does not pertain to animal health. "The reality is that it's an unnecessary mutilation with no medical benefits whatsoever — and rightly an illegal mutilation in this country," she said in a recent interview.

On Wednesday, Dos Santos described the government's commitment to change the rules in the U.K. as a "huge victory" for animal welfare. "The BVA and our members are happy to help the government with whatever is needed to help bring these measures into play at the earliest possible opportunity," she said.

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