We can all agree that we are a nation of animal lovers. Therefore, most of us would rightly be angry knowing that dogs are having essential parts of their bodies removed for cosmetic reasons. Yet we may walk past a dog like this every day, follow them on social media or even own one. We are talking, of course, about cropped ears. What is ear cropping? Why is it such an issue? And how, despite being illegal, is this still an issue you should be concerned about?
What is Ear Cropping?
Ear cropping is the act of removing part (or sometimes all) of a dog’s ears, and is often followed by taping the remaining ear upright so that it heals vertically, giving the ears an upright triangular appearance, rather than the hanging-down floppy ears of most dogs. Breeds where cropping is prevalent are Dobermanns, American bullies, pitbulls, Staffordshire bull terriers and other similar breeds. Do note that some breeds have naturally upright ears like huskies, German shepherds, westies and corgis.
Why is it done?
The practice has been performed since ancient times for a number of reasons – there was a belief (which is not unfounded) that long hanging ears are more likely to get ear infections, become damaged or swell with blood. As many dogs back then were hunting dogs or sheepherders, there was some evidence this was correct.
There was also a belief that dogs with cropped ears could hear better, as they could more easily swivel their ears in the direction of sound, versus uncropped normal ears. Cropping was normally carried out on very young puppies by their owner with shears, using no pain relief.
In modern times, cropping is mainly performed for purely cosmetic reasons. Many people like the look, believing it makes the dog look fierce, or more natural (like wolves that have upright ears). This can be made worse as some official breed standards are not unclear if some ears should be ‘upright’; an example of this is The Kennel Club (KC) website, which states that Dobermanns should have ears that are “normally dropped, but may be erect”. Dobermanns do not often have erect ears without being cropped, so this statement could be interpreted as saying that cropped ears are acceptable.
The KC have banned competing dogs with cropped ears – but you have to dig into the small print to find this! Social media, as it often does, worsens this trend further. The high prevalence of dogs with cropped ears can make the look seem normal. All these factors contribute to the reason why many people do not know that ear mutilation is still taking place around the world and is not normal.
The Problems with Ear Cropping
The biggest issue with ear cropping is that it is unnecessary mutilation and a non-essential procedure. Traditional cropping performed by owners is painful, stressful, potentially dangerous for both the dog and owner, and could lead to hearing loss or infection. However, even if cropped surgically by a vet, the practice carries risks. All surgeries are dangerous to some degree and we try to put animals under general anaesthesia only when necessary. An elective cosmetic procedure is not a necessary surgery.
How is it any different from neutering?
You may find that some proponents of ear cropping argue that surgical neutering, also an elective procedure, is widespread and recommended by vets, therefore the elective surgery of cropping a dog’s ears should be acceptable as well. This is a flawed argument. Spaying or castrating a dog carries a number of benefits, including reducing unwanted pregnancies and thus unwanted puppies, reducing the incidence of some kinds of cancer, and increasing longevity. It does carry risks, like all surgery, but the benefits outweigh the costs in almost all cases. Ear cropping, on the other hand, brings with it very few advantages and is primarily done for cosmetic reasons not in the dog’s best interest, so is not recommended.
What about the reasons you listed above?
Most of the traditional reasons for cropping a dog’s ears are no longer relevant – most dogs are not working dogs, so the risk of ear damage to a pet droopy-eared dog is low. Ear infections can be more common in dogs with droopy ears, but that does not mean all dogs with droopy ears get ear infections. Other factors we cannot control, such as the narrowness of the ear canal, the ear’s ability to remove bacteria, and genetic factors, play a greater role.
In fact, studies have found that in breeds where cropping has become less common over time, there has not been an increased incidence of ear infections. Furthermore, the dogs that are more predisposed to ear infections are not breeds that have their ears commonly cropped anyway. Overall, we feel it is much kinder to be aware of the risk of ear infections if you have a dog with floppy ears, and monitor and clean them more frequently – simply removing the ears is hugely unfair to the dog.
Other arguments for ear cropping are equally as invalid – there has been no evidence dogs with cropped ears hear better than those with droopy ears, and incorrectly cropping an ear can actually make hearing worse. The other arguments that dogs with cropped ears look more fierce or natural are entirely subjective, and not enough of a reason to perform the procedure.
The social problem
Finally, dogs with cropped ears can have problems with expression compared to dogs with normal mobile ears. Dogs’ ears are relied on heavily for communication, but if they are cropped this can be difficult. It is unknown if this affects how dogs interact with each other, but there has been some evidence that it affects how dogs interact with people. Because some people think a dog with cropped ears looks fiercer, they may subconsciously treat dogs like this more negatively, causing all sorts of welfare issues. Furthermore, dogs with cropped ears may not be able to show the traditional ears-back expression when aggressive – this appearance is a ‘stay-back’ warning, and if it is not obvious, people may not take appropriate precautions. This is especially important for us vets, as we deal with dangerous dogs every day and need these subtle early warning signs to know when to be wary.
The Laws on Ear Cropping and the Problems Still Faced
Hopefully you all agree that cropping a dog’s ears is unnecessary, risky and inhumane, and should be banned. Thankfully, much of the world, including the UK, agrees – the UK Animal Welfare Act 2006 states that mutilation of an animal except “for the purpose of its medical treatment” is illegal. This means that all ear cropping is illegal unless a vet recommends it for medical reasons; no UK vet can perform ear cropping for cosmetic reasons. Ear cropping does still occur in the UK illegally, and there have been a number of cases in the news recently where breeders have been arrested for doing so – please report anyone you suspect of doing this to the RSPCA or police.
Other countries have not yet gone this far
Although much of the world has outlawed ear cropping, some countries have not – cropping ears is still practised in the USA. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) does recommend against ear cropping, but no state has explicitly banned it and the practice is still widespread (though thankfully getting rarer). The American Kennel Club has stated that they disagree with the AVMA’s statement on ear cropping, and many breed standards still require cropped ears. This means that, particularly at dog shows, cropped ears are a common sight.
While we are glad UK law bans cropping a dog’s ears, it does not state that it is illegal to own a dog with cropped ears or to import one into the country. There are increasing numbers of dogs with cropped ears in the UK, after being imported mainly from the USA – this practice perpetuates the stereotype of certain dogs having cropped ears, and creates a market for American breeders to keep cropping ears.
Furthermore, as mentioned above, The Kennel Club has not updated all of its breed standards to explicitly state which dogs should have naturally upright ears and which should be floppy (as with the case of the Dobermann). This leads to confusion over whether it is normal, and could encourage the importation of dogs with cropped ears.
What Can You Do?
So what should you as a dog owner do? You’ve already made a good first step by being better informed about the issue; recognising that cropped ears are not normal in certain breeds is really important, and helps break the subconscious thought that a crop-eared dog looks ‘normal’. We would strongly advise against purchasing a dog illegally cropped in the UK, or importing one cropped legally from any other country. This should hopefully reduce the demand and discourage the practice both illegally in the UK or legally abroad.
On social media, try to resist following owners of dogs with cropped ears – exposure makes abnormal things seem normal, so reducing their popularity can help convince people that it is not normal. There are plenty of very cute dogs out there with natural floppy ears that would love a follow! All of these steps should discourage people wanting dogs with cropped ears, and mean unscrupulous breeders will be less likely to keep cropping.
It would be good of The Kennel Club to be clear on which dogs should have upright ears or not. Contacting them to voice your concerns or only owning dogs which the KC states should have floppy ears may help get the message across.
Finally, there is a petition to the UK government asking for a ban on importing dogs with cropped ears – this is a great petition that could stop almost all dogs with cropped ears coming into the country so we encourage you to sign it.
Animal rights have made huge gains in the last few decades, but there is still work to be done worldwide. You can do your bit by being aware of the specific issue of dogs with cropped ears and avoiding promoting this practice in any way. With some time and effort, we would like to see all dogs, whether their ears are naturally floppy or upright, remain in this natural-born state.
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