Archive for November, 2008

Triangle Ears

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

Ear cropping is still a common procedure in puppies, here in Omaha and throughout America and many other parts of the world.   I believe that this surgery is never warranted, and sometimes even detrimental. I realize that most of you are not currently deciding whether or not to choose this surgery for your pet, but I still  think it is worth looking at together.   You may come to a completely different conclusion than I have about ear cropping, which is fine–I think that the process of thinking through the human-pet bond from yet another angle is always healthy.

About three fourths of the breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), as well as most mixed breeds, do not traditionally have cropped ears.   The remainder of the breeds, and some not officially recognized by AKC, have traditionally had portions of their ear flaps surgically removed as puppies, to meet breed standards and to allow them to be shown and excel in conformation-based dog shows.   Non-showing dogs also often have this surgical procedure done to meet breed standards and to “look like” the breed that they are.

Here is a very incomplete list of common breeds that traditionally have had their ears cropped:   Great Danes, Schnauzers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Dobermans, and Miniature Pinchers.   Many breeds are born with ears that are standing (such as German Shepherds and Corgis), so just because you see a dog with pointy ears does not mean that he has had them surgically altered.

Here in America, it is becoming more widely accepted for breeds that have traditionally had cropped ears to have uncropped (floppy) ears.   It is slowly becoming accepted in show circles as well–cropped ears are no longer a requirement for any breed to be shown in AKC conformation shows.   However, breeds that have traditionally had their ears cropped still usually need to be shown with triangle ears to impress judges and win competitions.   In England, dogs with cropped ears are not allowed to be shown.   It is also illegal in England for veterinarians to perform the surgery.

Yes, cropped ears are cute.  (Sorry Dobbie and Pit owners, I meant gorgeous, awe-inspiring, even).  But at what cost?  Without trying to cause those of you with artificially triangle-eared pets to feel false guilt at this late date (That was way back when he was a pup.  He’s fine now, isn’t he??) I would like to walk through this with you and give you some tools to decide whether or not to choose this procedure in the future, should you ever be in a position to decide.

The ear cropping procedure is usually done between eight and sixteen weeks of age.   The puppy is put under general anesthesia and the ear flaps are cut from one half to most of the way off according to breed standards.   This is done with a scalpel or a laser.   The ear flap is shaped either with a metal template or freehand, matching both ears to each other.   Bleeding is controlled with pressure, hemostats, laser, and/or electrocautery.   The edges of each incision are sutured together and the ears are bandaged.   The bandages are changed weekly and the sutures removed after two weeks.   The pet is typically on pain medication before, during and after the procedure.

I give you this detailed information for two reasons.  First, I do not want you to imagine the procedure being worse than it is.  The pups are anesthetized and medicated for pain.  The surgical teams who choose to do ear crops are skilled at the procedure.  My second reason for telling you exactly how the procedure is done is that I want you to realize that this is a major event in the life of a puppy.  The reason I am opposed to ear cropping is that it does not medically benefit them in any way, and thus, I believe, is not worth the risks involved with anesthesia, surgery, and post-operative pain.

Anesthesia is a risk factor to consider for any procedure your pet undergoes.  Please do not decide against any procedure that may be important to your pet until you talk through all of your concerns with the veterinary team.  I am very much in favor of medically important procedures involving general anesthesia, but am unable to justify even the small anesthetic risk involved for a purely cosmetic procedure such as ear cropping.

Secondly, ear cropping, as you read in the play-by-play description (I hope I didn’t gross you out), is major surgery.  The ear is very vascular, and the procedure is very involved and takes a high level of surgical skill.  I believe our skills as veterinary surgeons can better be used in life saving and life extending surgeries our pets need.  I realize that no ear cropping doctor chooses one over the other…he can create beautiful triangle ears on the same day that he performs a life-saving surgery.  However, I believe it is a matter of focus.  If a veterinarian becomes discouraged because he or she is unable to focus solely on preserving and restoring health, I do not think he or she should be called on to do more.

And thirdly, no matter how well we manage pain, we are doing just that, managing it, not negating it all together.  Simply put, having both ears cut off hurts. Having bandages changed disrupts the healing process and causes pain.  Having a surgery site heal is achy.

And all this is occurring during the eight to sixteen-week-old socialization window of puppies.  This is the time when they are most impressionable, when they are figuring out their relationship to the world, people and each other.  If we are spending a part of that precious timeframe ripping bandages off of sore ears, that can play into their impression of How to Feel about People.

These three factors (anesthetic risk, surgical risk, and pain management) have shaped my opinions of every procedure available for pets.  Partnering these three factors with the question, “Will this benefit the pet?” has helped form my views on ear cropping, debarking, tail docking (all of which I am against), declawing cats (which I am for in certain circumstances), and spaying and neutering, tumor removal, and dental procedures (all of which I am for).

You may have brought your pet in to talk about any one of these and had me discuss it with you seemingly at ease.  But I promise you I have thought through every procedure at length.  And I have thought through it “from scratch” with your pet.  I always recommend what I believe to be best for you and your pet.

When we disagree, I will always find you the resources to do what you believe is best for your pet.  You live with him or her.  You see them day to day.  You know them better than anyone.  Never underestimate the very strong bond that creates between the two of you.  You are an expert on your pet as well as their most qualified advocate.  If you feel you need to look into this surgery, I will refer you to an excellent veterinary surgeon here in Omaha.  And if you end up with a pointy eared pup, I will love him or her and their triangle ears as much as I ever would have had they kept their floppy ears.

Together we will come up with the very best health plan for your pet at every step.  My team (my awesome staff) and your team (your awesome family) will aid us in reaching our health goals for your pet, and your pet, being none the wiser, will never know how much thought, love and struggle went into each of our decisions on their behalf, but they will still, with that residual puppy intuition, always know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are looking out for their best interests, that we can be completely trusted, and that we love them like crazy.


For an excellent article on this topic written for veterinarians, see  Ethical decision making and cosmetic surgery. McMillan, FD. Clinician’s Brief 9:61-62, 2008.

UPDATE! December 1, 2008  The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) has just updated their position statement on ear cropping and tail docking!

AVMA denounces ear cropping and tail docking

UPDATE…January 23, 2009:

“AVMA gets mixed reaction to ear-crop policy” in dvm Newsmagazine, January 2009.  Stand strong AVMA!  AKC…go pet your triangle-eared Boxer…petting a dog always makes me feel better!  You will be ok…

UPDATE…As of June 25, 2009, Banfield has changed their NATIONAL policy.  “We” officially no longer perform ear crops or tail docks!  YAY Banfield! That feels like taking my stand and multiplying it by 1000.  I have requested permission to link Banfield’s internal written policy to this site.  I hope you get to see it…it is very well written, and includes research from AVMA.  If you would like to read more about the medical and scientific research behind the decisions, and the history behind the origins of ear cropping and tail docking, the bibliography of AVMA’s position statement would be a great springboard.  More info here as soon as I get the ok!

UPDATE…8/4/09  So I never got official word from Banfield, but I found this article, so I suppose it is ok to link.  Yay Banfield!

January 6, 2010 A friend on twitter just sent a link to this very well written article on ear cropping and tail docking.  It was written by Linda Chavez of i Love Dogs Inc.

October 9, 2010 I never have to wonder what Dino Dogan thinks!  Haha, I love it!  This article on cosmetic procedures in dogs is on one of my favorite websites, Dawg Business.