Posts Tagged ‘veterinary ethics’

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.

The Pet Savers

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

The Pet Savers

“The only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”-Edmund Burke

Did you know that you have a secret identity that is so secret, even you may not know about it??  You are the Pet Savers. I am officially commissioning you to go out into Omaha and beyond, to do what you are most likely already doing:  keeping an eye out for pets who are being neglected or abused.   If this newsletter ignites or renews your outrage, my goal will be reached.  This is a horrible topic, but I do not have many horrible stories for you.  There are a few, but they are meant only to motivate you and equip you for what needs to be done.

My first horrible story is one you may remember.  It is the March 1997 account of the Iowa feline rescue group, Noah’s Ark.  Two drunken guys with baseball bats broke into their shelter.   Seventeen of the cats were beaten to death.   I was attending Iowa State University as a veterinary student at the time.   The cats who were beaten but survived were brought to us for emergency treatment.   Every cat who made it to ISU lived and did well, and we, as a group of students and teachers, adopted all of them.   I knew then that I would never be passive about animal mistreatment, nor fail to tell others how they could help.

Included in your mission as Animal Savers, I believe, is taking down puppy mills and dog fighting rings and punk kids who beat cats to death and get misdemeanors because no one can figure out the monetary value of a stray cat.  (Can you find the five things wrong with that sentence??)  But that aspect of your mission is a newsletter for another day.   Just as important as defeating the headline-making villains, is quietly protecting pets one at a time in your everyday life.   I want to help you speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.

Fortunately, you, the Pet Savers, have some other pretty powerful super heroes on your side.   Right here in Omaha, we have the best animal shelter in the country, the Nebraska Humane Society.  We also have a very impressive population of animal rescue groups, veterinary hospitals, pet-related businesses and individual animal lovers, all of whom are working together to look out for pets.   While such groups exist throughout the country, we have no shortage of such wonderful groups right here in Omaha… I will be telling you more about these in future newsletters.

Fortunately, as a veterinarian, I have seen very few active abuse and neglect cases.  The reason I have not is that you are my clients.   You are the owners who bring your pets to me for treatment and preventative care.  Abusers and neglecters do not.   They do not tend to seek veterinary medical care at all, which is part of the reason you are so desperately needed.  You will see these pets in the “real world.”

Though I have seen few abuse and neglect cases in my practice, I do know they are out there.   One of our best clients owns an adorable little three-legged dog.   She was abandoned after being beaten so badly that our medical team was unable to save one of her back legs.   Her leg was amputated, and she was adopted by the most loving family we knew.   Now she is in a multi-dog household, always has her (12) nails painted, shows up at every dog event in Omaha, and is living the life she should have had from puppyhood.

Amy Schultz, spoiled rotten, as she should be!  Summer 2006

As a puppy, our own family pet, Noodle the Poodle, was abused. He was let out only once a day to potty and was dropkicked if he had an accident indoors.   We learned his history in bits and pieces after we adopted him when he was five years old.   We changed his name to Noodle, partially so he could make a clean break from his past, and partially because I love words that rhyme with “Poodle.”

It took about two years to help Noodle work through his fear of men.   Most dogs with his history would not recover to the point of being able to be near men, much less trust them.   He loves my Dad, my Father-in-Law and my brothers, and has bonded closely with my husband Russ.  He is calm and friendly with children, also unusual for canine abuse survivors.  He still flinches when I forget and try to pat his head from above.   Remember that dogs who have been beaten over the head prefer to be approached slowly and to have their chin or side of their face scratched first.  With all the great dog stuff I have learned over the years, that is one tidbit I really wish that I had never needed to learn.   We still get frustrated at the occasional puddles of Poodle piddle (fun to say for the first one hundred times, then the novelty wears off), but Noodle has come a remarkably long way for having had such a difficult past.

Noodle the Poodle, Cool, Calm and Collected, Summer 2009

Before I moved from Littleton, Colorado to Omaha, my boss in Littleton treated a twelve-week-old Golden Retriever puppy for diarrhea (stress colitis, it turns out).  He received a fax a few days later sent out from an emergency clinic to every veterinary hospital in town, trying to find any other vet who had seen that puppy.  My boss called the doctor at the emergency hospital.   It turns out this family had had two Golden Retriever puppies die of injuries recently, and this one had just been treated at the emergency hospital for broken ribs.   The emergency doctor was trying to keep tabs on this pup so that she could be saved.   The family came in twice more for stress colitis medication, but denied anything was going on at home.  I called the police. (Remember with abuse cases, be careful and be safe, but do not be polite, and do not mind your own business!)   The police told me that they could not arrest the owners without more than circumstantial evidence.   So I called all three local news stations.   And they called the owners.   They denied hurting any of the three pups, so there was not a news story to tell.   So Russ and I drove to their house.   (Do not do this. We shouldn’t have.)  And we sat outside their fancy iron-gated backyard in our car for hours on end, waiting for the puppy to come out.   But while we were there, she never came outside.  Shortly thereafter, we moved home to Nebraska.

I was an emotional wreck.   At a meeting in Omaha just after we moved here, one of my favorite speakers made a joke about kicking a dog (which, in context, was funny only because he is the last person in the world who ever would).   I started sobbing in the middle of this group of strangers, and, because I couldn’t pull myself together, Russ and I had to leave.   The speaker called the next day and said, “Was that you?! They said someone left crying.  You know I wouldn’t hurt a dog!   I am so sorry I even said that!”

I failed to save that baby Golden, but I know at least four very, very good veterinarians and three news stations were watching that family very closely.   So I hope she has been moved into a loving home and that she is chasing balls and starting to go gray around her muzzle like middle-aged Golden Retrievers do.  I hope at the very least that she is free from her original owners.

One last story… one of my nurses in Littleton had this unfathomable affinity for Chow-Chows.   Her Chows were all friendly, but I couldn’t figure out how she fell in love with the breed in the first place.   Then she told me about Homer.  Homer is her gorgeous 80-pound golden-blond Chow.   Years earlier, her husband noticed that a tiny yellow warm fuzzy was chained in a backyard with no food or water.  He drove his motorcycle past the yard for several days, but never saw the puppy off his chain or with something to eat.   Finally, afraid he would die, he unhooked the chain, put him under his motorcycle jacket and drove home.  This neglected puppy grew to twenty times his original size and is now a huge, beautiful, well-loved family pet.

That was a crime of passion.  You do not need to go to such extremes. You can call the Nebraska Humane Society if you see a pet in need.   They work with the Omaha police, and they will finish saving the pets you started saving with your original phone call.

And they will respond to your phone calls.   This past summer, Russ had to call the Nebraska Humane Society on two separate occasions to rescue hot dogs.   (No, not hotdogs…pets…you know…in cars with the windows rolled up in the summertime.)   The police were there both times almost before Russ was off the phone.

So please, please keep doing what you are probably already doing.   Stay alert to conditions you know are not healthy for pets.   We will continue this theme in future newsletters, because there is much to be done and much to learn.  As I mentioned, we have wonderful resources in our community.   But the Humane Society, the Omaha Police, the rescue programs and the veterinary teams cannot do it all.   We need you to remain vigilant… to talk to your friends about pet abuse and neglect…to care enough to not let abusers prosper.

If we all keep looking out for pets who need us, we can get them help while they still have four legs, and their God-given sweet temperaments, and before they start with the puddles of Poodle piddle.   (OK, I admit, it is still fun to say.)   I am, thankfully, out of stories, and, thankfully, have a very cute Poodle jumping at the back door waiting to be let back inside.  He is having a good day.