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Cosmetic Surgery in North America and Latin America

Alice Crook Canada

This paper summarizes legislation, position statements, and veterinary attitudes regarding cosmetic surgery in North America and Latin America. Practices under consideration include ear cropping, tail docking, and debarking (devocalization) in the dog, and declawing (onychectomy) in the cat.


In Canada, the only jurisdiction with specific regulations concerning these practices is the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Animal Protection Act stipulates: �A person who cuts or crops the ear of a dog mistreats an animal.�(1)

In the United States, some states restrict the amount of the ear that can be cropped. In Maine, the cropping of a dog�s ear is prohibited and constitutes unlawful mutilation.(2) In Argentina, according to the 1954 law on the protection of animals, it is considered an act of cruelty to �mutilate any part of an animal�s body, unless it is for the improvement, marking, or hygiene of the species, or is performed as an act of mercy.�(3) However, this is not interpreted to include ear cropping or tail docking, which are commonly done in Argentina.(4)


Position Statements

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) opposes ear cropping and tail docking in the dog for cosmetic purposes (Appendix I, a). The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) encourages veterinarians to counsel owners about the risks and lack of medical benefits before agreeing to perform these procedures (Appendix II, a).

Veterinary Attitudes

In North America, many veterinarians prefer not to crop ears. Some do it anyway because they fear that if they don�t, non-veterinarians may do it. Other experienced veterinarians crop ears on a regular basis for their own and for referred clients. Although the procedure is not taught or performed at many North American veterinary schools (including all four Canadian schools), explicit instructions for cosmetic otoplasty can be found in some current surgery texts. An example is the Textbook of Small Animal Surgery that prefaces a description of the technique with: �Cosmetic otoplasty is performed on the ears of certain breeds to meet breed specifications. There are no medical reasons for these techniques to be performed.�(5) There is a footnote to this description as follows: �Editor�s note: This technique is not considered ethical and is illegal in some areas. Local details should be sought.�

There is also a range of attitudes among Latin American veterinarians. There are no relevant veterinary association position statements, but there is ongoing discussion and controversy about ear cropping. For example, the Ethics Committee of the Small Animal Veterinary Association of Chile has decided not to regulate ear cropping, but instead to �suggest� that veterinarians discontinue the practice.(6) In Brazil, there is a project to bring discussion of animal welfare issues, including ear cropping, into veterinary schools.(7) In some parts of Latin America such as larger cities in Mexico, parts of Chile, Colombia, and Brazil, some veterinarians are reluctant to perform ear cropping and try to dissuade owners from having it done.(6-11) In other parts of these same countries and in other Latin American countries including Argentina and Peru, ear cropping is carried out routinely in relevant breeds.(4,6-12)

So why is there still a demand for a procedure with no medical indications, with all the inherent risks and complications? Unlike the United Kingdom, where since 1898 dogs with cropped ears have been ineligible for competition under Kennel Club rules, breed standards for the Canadian and American Kennel Clubs (CKC, AKC) still encourage or require that ears be cropped in certain breeds before they can be shown.(13,14)

Tail docking for cosmetic purposes to meet breed specifications, is widely performed in pups of a few days of age by North American and Latin American veterinarians, and sometimes by breeders (although in many jurisdictions this constitutes the practice of veterinary medicine without a license and is illegal.). Both AKC and CKC breed standards specify docked tails as the standard for many breeds.(13,14)


The CVMA and AVMA position statements on declawing/onychectomy (Appendices I, b and II, b) accept that this practice is justifiable for behaviour reasons. There is a range in veterinary attitudes from veterinarians who won�t do it, to those who will do it if clients have been unsuccessful in trying alternatives, to those who feel it is an appropriate elective procedure in cats. The second group appears to represent the majority.

Neither veterinary association has a position on devocalization (debarking). In general, in Latin America, declawing and debarking are done only rarely. However, in Argentina, debarking is commonly done in some small purebreds such as the Bichon Frise before the pup is sold.(3)


a) Cosmetic Surgery

Position: The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) opposes surgical alteration of any animal, for purely cosmetic purposes.

Background: The CVMA believes that cosmetic surgery is unnecessary. Surgical alterations in cases of injury or for reasons of health are not considered cosmetic. Examples of cosmetic procedures include:

1.   Tail docking in the equine, bovine, or canine species;

2.   Tail nicking/setting in the equine species;

3.   Ear cropping in the canine species; and

4.   Onychectomy in species other than the domestic cat.

The CVMA recommends that breed associations change their breed standards so that cosmetic procedures are not required. (Revised, November 2000)

b) Onychectomy (Declawing) of the Domestic Feline

Position: The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) recognizes that onychectomy is an option for domestic cats that would otherwise be denied a home or face euthanasia.

Background: A review of the literature suggests there are no behavioral abnormalities associated with onychectomy. As with any elective surgery, the client should be advised of the advantages, disadvantages, and available options. As with any surgery, attention should be given to appropriate post-operative pain management. Onychectomy on the forefeet is usually sufficient. (Revised, March 1997)


a) Ear Cropping and Tail Docking

Ear cropping and tail docking in dogs for cosmetic reasons are not medically indicated nor of benefit to the patient. These procedures cause pain and distress, and, as with all surgical procedures, are accompanied by inherent risks of anesthesia, blood loss, and infection. Therefore, veterinarians should counsel dog owners about these matters before agreeing to perform these surgeries

b) Declawing of Domestic Cats

Declawing of domestic cats is justifiable when the cat cannot be trained to refrain from using its claws destructively. (The Veterinarian�s Role in Animal Welfare, AVMA, September 2000)


In summary, there is little relevant legislation coupled with a broad spectrum of attitudes among veterinarians in North America and Latin America regarding carrying out these procedures. Although still widely practiced, ear cropping in particular is coming under increasing scrutiny.


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