Tail Docking of Dairy Cattle: A Veterinary Perspective

March 10, 2010

By Holly Cheever, DVM

At the time of my graduation from Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1980 and my entrance into dairy production medicine, I had heard dimly of tail docking in bovines as an unnecessary oddity practiced only in New Zealand. None of the farmers whose herds I cared for in Cortland County, New York were aware of tail docking, so I never had any personal exposure to this practice.

In the 1980's and 1990's, however, it spread to the United States and Europe and now, by one 2005-2006 report, it is done in 82.3% of American dairies1 up from the USDA's 2001 report stating that docking was practiced at the rate of 50.5%.2

Its original purported aim was to minimize the spread of leptospirosis to milking staff from an infected cow's soaking her tail's switch in her urine and spraying the workers when swatting flies. In addition, the removal of two-thirds of a cow's tail was claimed to promote greater udder cleanliness, therefore improving milk quality and hygiene, and at the same time providing increased comfort for the farm workers.

An Inhumane Procedure

Dairy cow
Heifers express distress and pain during the tail docking procedure.

Tail docking in the United States is typically done to heifers pre-or post-calving, though it can be done as early as day one in the newborn calf.3 The procedure can be done by the use of the elastrator band system (most common), the use of emasculators, or by surgical excision. Anesthesia and pain management are not employed. The heifers express distress and pain both during the procedure itself and for long periods post-operatively.

During the healing period, they move what is left of their tails less and instead hold them pressed against their hindquarters;4 they may be more restless and exhibit more displacement behaviors than they did prior to their banding.5,6 Additionally, neuromas (tangled nests of axons growing from damaged nerves) at the amputation site are a known sequela to docking,7,8 but there are no studies detailing their rate of occurrence. Since neuromas are the cause of the phantom pain in humans with amputated limbs and beak pain in debeaked chickens,9 we can assume that such growths produce chronic pain in cattle as well, as evinced by the increased sensitivity to heat and cold in docked cows' stumps.1

In addition to pain, tail docking increases the heifers' risk of contracting gangrene, tetanus, and other pathogens in the stump's necrotic tissue,11 especially with the elastrator band method. Their discomfort increases dramatically with fly season, since they are no longer able to eliminate flies from their hindquarters. Flies can be so disruptive to cattle welfare that cows without tails have been seen to exhibit lowered milk production, less weight gain, and disrupted grazing behavior due to their inability to rid themselves of their biting pests.12 One final welfare concern is that cattle use their tails as behavioral and communication cues to their herd mates, and removal of this appendage may impair their abilities to interact naturally and appropriately.13,14

Disproving the Claims

Dairy shed
Studies show that claims of increased udder cleanliness and milk hygiene and quality are unfounded.

Clearly, the pain associated with the procedure and the long-term distress and chronic pain make tail docking very controversial, even if its touted benefits are true—but are they?

Internationally, studies have determined conclusively that there is no basis for the claims for increased udder cleanliness, improved milk hygiene (including lowered somatic cell counts), and greater milk quality.15,16; The evidence is, in fact, overwhelming that the purported benefits of tail docking are completely unfounded, as seen in all studies examining these claims. As for the concern that worker comfort is impaired by receiving a wet switch across the face, the tails' switches can be trimmed a couple of times a year (but not in fly season) and the environment may be kept cleaner to keep the switches cleaner.17

Since the studies have disproved the claims and for legitimate welfare concerns, tail docking is, at this time, banned in Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, as well as in some states in Australia.18,19 The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association opposes the practice20 and stipulates that, if it must be done, it must be performed by properly trained personnel and must include pain management.21

Industry and Veterinary Opposition

In the United States, the American Veterinary Medical Association also opposes this practice, and states that if "medically necessary", it must be performed by a licensed veterinarian;22 the American Association of Bovine Practitioners acknowledges that it "is not aware of sufficient scientific evidence in the literature to support tail docking in cattle."23 However, acceding to member pressure, rather than expressing opposition, it requests that they "counsel clients on proper procedures, benefits, and risks" and also recommends that it be done as young "as practical". Industry groups have also weighed in against the practice. The National Milk Producers Federation recommends against tail docking of dairy calves in its National Dairy Farm Program Animal Care Manual and instead recommends switch trimming.24

In what we hope will be a move state by state, California became the first state to outlaw bovine tail docks, thanks to HSUS-sponsored legislation, starting January 1, 2010. The broad-based support for this legislation included representatives of the livestock industry, including the California Cattlemen's Association and California Farm Bureau. A bill (A.9732) authored by New York State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal has just been introduced in that state, spurred on by the distressing video footage from an undercover investigation by Mercy For Animals in an upstate NY dairy, in which the agony of heifers undergoing tail docks by burdizzo, a castration device with a large clamp that crushes the cord and blood vessels, is very clear.25

With industry and veterinary support for the abolition of this practice, it must face a short future. We should all speak to our state legislators and encourage the passage of legislative bans to minimize the pain and stress that dairy cattle endure due to the perpetuation of an unnecessary practice.

Dr. Cheever graduated from Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1980 with a class rank of #1. She spent her first 3 years in an active dairy practice in upstate New York before moving out of dairy country. Though she now works in a companion animal and wildlife rehabilitation practice, she remains active in dairy issues: she manages a small sanctuary including resident cows rescued from local cruelty cases and also teaches New York State law officers on the proper use of New York State's animal cruelty laws, advising them as a consultant on proper and humane cattle husbandry. She serves as an expert witness in cruelty cases involving dairy farms at the request of local law officers, local humane societies, and national advocacy groups conducting undercover investigations. In addition, she was the keynote speaker at the 2009 North East Dairy Production Medicine Symposium, with a presentation entitled "Animal Advocacy and the Dairy Practitioner: Bridge Building in the 21st Century". Dr. Cheever serves as a member of the HSVMA Leadership Council.

1 Fulwider WK, Grandin T, Rollins BE, Engle TE, Dalstead NL, and Lamm WD. 2008. Survey of dairy management practices on one hundred thirteen north central and northeast United States dairies. Journal of Dairy Science 91 (4):1686-92.
2 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Veterinary Services. 2003. Part III: Reference of dairy cattle health and health management practices in the United States, 2002. National Animal Health Monitoring System, Fort Collins, CO #N400.1203.
3 Fulwider WK, Grandin T, Rollins BE, Engle TE, Dalstead NL, and Lamm WD. Ibid
4 Tom EM, Duncan IJH, Widowski TM, Bateman KG, and Leslie KE. Effects of tail docking using a rubber ring with or without anesthetic on behavior and production of lactating cows. J Dairy Sci 2002; 85:2257-2265.
5 Schreiner DA, Ruegg PL. Responses to tail docking in calves and heifers. J Dairy Sci 2002; 85: 3287-3296
6 Eicher, SD, Morrow-Tesch JL, Albright JL, et al. Tail-docking influences on behavioral, immunological, and endocrine responses in dairy heifers. J Dairy Sci 2000; 83:1456-62.
7 Eicher S, Morrow-Tesch JL, Albright JL, et al. Ibid
8 Barnett JL, Coleman GJ, Hemsworth PH, Newman EA, Fewings-Hall S and Ziini C. Tail docking and beliefs about the practice in the Victorian dairy industry, Aust Vet J 1999; Vol.77(11): 742-747.
9 Breward J and Gentle MJ. 1985. Neuroma formation and abnormal afferent nerve discharges after partial beak amputation (beak trimming) in poultry. Experientia 41 (9): 1132-4.
10 Eicher, SD, Cheng HW, Sorrells AD, et al. Short communications: behavioral and physiological indicators of sensitivity or chronic pain following tail-docking. Accepted, J Dairy Sci. 2005. Manuscript on file.
11 Stull CL, Payne MA, Berry SL, et al. Evaluation of the scientific justification for tail docking in dairy cattle. J Amer Vet Med Assoc 2002; 220 (9):1298-1302.
12 Campbell JB, Berry IL. Economic threshold for stable flies on confined livestock. Misc Publ Entomol Sco Am No 1989; 74:18-22.
13 Stull CL, Payne MA,Berry SL. et al. ibid
14 American Veterinary Medical Association. DiNita LJ. Natural bovine behavior key to evaluating management practices. Available at: www.avma.org/onlnews/javma/jan01/s011501pp.asp
15 Stull CL, Payne MA, Berry SL, et al. ibid
16 Schreiner DA, Ruegg PL. Effects of tail docking on milk quality and cow cleanliness. J Dairy Sci 2002; 85:2503-2511
17 Stull CL, Payne MA, Berry SL, et al. ibid
18 AVMA Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of Dairy Cow Tail Docking,
http://www.avma.org/reference/backgrounders/tail_docking_cattle_bgnd.asp, (Accessed March 10, 2010).
19 Tucker CB and Weary DM, Tail Docking in Dairy Cattle, Animal Welfare Information Center Bulletin, Winter 2001-Spring 2002; 11:3-4.
20 Tail Docking of Dairy Cattle, Position Statement of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association,
http://canadianveterinarians.net/ShowText.aspx?ResourceID=25 (Accessed March 10, 2010).
21 Stull CL, Payne MA, Berry SL, et al. ibid
22 AVMA Policy: Tail Docking of Cattle, http://www.avma.org/issues/policy/animal_welfare/tail_docking_cattle.asp , (Accessed March 10, 2010).
23 AVMA Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of Dairy Cow Tail Docking, ibid
24 Animal Care Manual, National Dairy Farm Program, National Milk Producers Federation, http://www.nationaldairyfarm.com/sites/default/files/NatlDairyFarm_Manual_online.pdf (Accessed March 10, 2010).
25 Mercy For Animals, Dairy's Dark Side: The Sour Truth Behind the Milk,
www.mercyforanimals.org/dairy/ (Accessed March 10, 2010).