Welfare in Practice 4: How to Deal With Ethical Dilemmas Like Taildocking and Exotic Pets
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2008
Caroline J. Hewson, MVB, PhD, MRCVS
Richmond, Surrey, UK

The title specifies two general ethical questions but, in clinical practice, many questions are more specific and nuanced, depending on the animal's condition and the owner's circumstances. In this interactive presentation, we will review a systematic approach to addressing ethical questions, and then apply it to a case solicited from the audience.

Different Points of View

To some readers, the notion that the cosmetic taildocking of puppies or the treatment of exotic pets pose a dilemma of any kind may be, at worst, insulting. This is because the demand for both services exists, and it is surely better for the animals that a qualified professional meet the demand. If a veterinary practice does not provide the services, there may be adverse consequences for the animals concerned, and for the veterinary business, with attendant ill effects on the business owner, employees and dependents. Furthermore, the notion that a policy of providing the services may be a failing in duty of care is very offensive, understandably. Such feelings reflect a utilitarian ethical position that is based on weighing up the consequences of the provision or nonprovision of services for the general good of all concerned.

To other readers, it may be clear that taildocking should never be provided, and exotic animals not treated, regardless of any net good consequences of providing those services. In this analysis, removing a healthy puppy's tail when there is no clinical indication for it, and indirectly supporting the removal of exotic species from their native environments for keeping as pets does not respect those animals' worth. Here, the notion that not providing the services concerned is a failure in duty of care is very offensive, understandably. These feelings reflect a rights-based ethical position, under which animals have inherent worth. This gives rise to absolute rules of behaviour (Mullan and Main, 2006) such as 'Do not dock puppies' tails' and 'Do not take or directly or indirectly support the taking of, exotic species from their natural habitats in order to create new categories of pet'.

In a third viewpoint, concerns about taildocking puppies or about the growth in exotic pets may seem peripheral in today's world where so many more animals and humans alike suffer on a much grander scale, with no prospect of medical or any other basic professional support or care. In particular, if it's not illegal to dock the tails of piglets or lambs, why should we worry about docking the tails of puppies, particularly when so many more piglets and lambs are affected and no one objects to that? The number of puppies affected is just a drop in the ocean, in comparison. This perspective considers the services and their consequences in relation to other, comparable situations in the wider sphere (relativism). The approach recognises that there is inconsistency and difficulty in trying to treat all animals well. The approach avoids taking direct account of the feelings or needs of the animals in question (puppies, exotic pets).

Legal and Scientific Aspects

The above are only three of several possible ethical perspectives. However, there has been very little research on what ethical positions prevail among veterinarians. Research in Canada has suggested a mixture of rights and utilitarianism (Schneider, 2001). A further consideration is that ethical considerations do not exist in a vacuum. They overlap with legal aspects. For example: in the UK, the cosmetic tail-docking of puppies has been a matter of serious professional misconduct for veterinarians for more than a decade. With the new Animal Welfare Acts of England, Scotland and Wales the procedure has also become illegal in most cases. Thus, even if a veterinarian had no personal objections to performing the procedure in, e.g., a Yorkshire terrier, they would not perform it because of the double risk in law, both under their professional regulations and under the Animal Welfare Act. Thus, in the UK, the law trumps all other considerations so it is easy to refuse to tail-dock a Yorkshire terrier. In some other countries however, (e.g., Ireland, the US and Canada), cosmetic taildocking is not illegal either within or without veterinary regulations. This forces the individual veterinarians in those countries to reach a considered ethical position on the matter, and the lack of legal opposition to taildocking makes a decision not to dock potentially more difficult to reach or to maintain.

Scientific information is an essential element in ethical decision-making. For example, there is abundant research from farm species indicating that puppies also are likely to suffer pain when taildocking is conducted without pain relief (see Bennet and Perini (2003) for a review). Other evidence from rats and human infants strongly suggests that some puppies who are docked without adequate analgesia are likely to develop hyperalgesia, in the tail region or more distally (Clancy, 2007; Ren, et al., 2004; Taddio, 1997, 2004).

Addressing Ethical Concerns

Taking issues of ethics, science and law into account, Mullan and Main (2006) from the University of Bristol have outlined a step-wise approach to addressing ethical concerns:

 Identify all possible courses of action (e.g., dock puppies' tails with no analgesia; dock tails using a ring block; dock tails using an epidural anaesthetic and an opioid; don't dock puppies' tails).

 Establish the interests of the affected parties. Here, the ethical matrix is helpful. The matrix considers three types of interest for each party concerned (Food Ethics Council 2008). The three interests are: well-being (welfare including health), autonomy (freedom and choice), and justice (fairness). In the case of tail-docking, the parties include: the puppies; the breeder; the breeders and showers of the breed concerned; the veterinarian; the veterinary profession; and the future owners of the puppies.

 Identify ethical issues involved (e.g., should a vet always do what a client wants? Does it matter if puppies undergo pain during tail-docking?)

 Establish how the law is involved in addressing the dilemma.

 Decide on a course of action.

 Minimise the impact of the decision.

To sum up, daily veterinary practice often presents situations that create ethical challenges. Being aware of the main ethical approaches (rights-based etc), and our own in particular, can help us understand any gut reactions we and those around use may have to the challenges concerned. (To help identify your main ethical position, see Hanlon (2008) for a quiz). However, to make a considered ethical response to the case at issue, it is important to take a systematic approach. This can take time. Good client communication can help us here: as necessary and where possible we can explain to the owner that, in order to provide them with the best advice, we would like to take some time to review the case and will call them later in the day to discuss it. Almost every ethical dilemma is different, but useful primers describing real cases are found in the Everyday Ethics series in In Practice, and in the long-running ethics column in the Canadian Veterinary Journal.


1.  Bennett P, Perini E. (2003). Tail docking in dogs: a review of the issues. Australian Veterinary Journal 81: 208-221.

2.  Clancy B, Finlay BL, Darlington RB, Anand KJS. (2007). Extrapolating brain development from experimental species to humans. NeuroToxicology 28: 931-937.

3.  Food Ethics Council (2008). The Ethical Matrix. Available at: http://www.foodethicscouncil.org/ourwork/tools/ethicalmatrix/introduction. Last accessed: March 28 2008. Food Ethics Council, Brighton, UK

4.  Hanlon A. (2008) Everyday ethics: what is your approach? In Practice 30:52-53.

5.  Mullan S, Main D. (2001) Principles of ethical decision-making in veterinary practice. In Practice. 23: 394-400

6.  Ren K, Anseloni V, Zou S-P, Wade EB, Novika SI, Ennis M, Traub RJ, Gold MS, Dubner R, Lidow MS. (2004). Characterization of basal and re-inflammation-associated long-term alteration in pain responsivity following short-lasting neonatal local inflammatory insult. Pain 110: 588-596.

7.  Schneider BJ. (2001). A study in animal ethics in New Brunswick Canadian Veterinary Journal 42:540-7

8.  Taddio A, Katz J, Ilersich AL, Koren G. (1997). Effect of neonatal circumcision on pain response during subsequent routine vaccination. The Lancet 349: 599-603.

9.  Taddio A, Shah V, Gilbert-McLeod C, Katz J. (2002). Conditioning and hyperalgesia in newborns exposed to repeated heel lances. Journal of the American Medical Association 288: 857-861.

Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Caroline J Hewson, MVB, PhD, MRCVS
Richmond, Surrey, UK

MAIN : Animal Welfare : Welfare in Practice 4
Powered By VIN