Tail docking of cattle
Ratification Date: 27 Jul 2012
Tail docking in cattle should be performed only for therapeutic reasons on veterinary advice.
Tail docking (i.e. removal of tails by amputation or by the use of rubber rings of dairy cows) is performed because some farmers believe that it improves milking shed and udder hygiene, cow health and workplace health and safety (by preventing tails from hitting the faces of workers and reducing the transfer of microorganisms to workers). Existing scientific evidence (Tucker et al. 2001, Schreiner & Ruegg 2002) does not support claims that tail docking of dairy cows reduces the prevalence of mastitis, improves the clinical health of cows, reduces the soiling of teats and udders, reduces bacterial contamination of milk or reduces the incidence of leptospirosis in staff. Docking does remove physical interference to milking staff from the cows’ tails, but there is no evidence that tail docking significantly improves workplace safety.
The Australian dairy industry does not support tail docking and recommends alternative practices to tail docking including switch trimming. The general public, farmers, veterinarians and livestock officers are concerned about the effects of tail docking on the welfare of cows.
Tail docking in Victoria and Tasmania can be carried out by farmers; in South Australia, tail docking can be carried out by a qualified veterinary surgeon; in the Northern Territory, tail docking of cattle is prohibited under the Animal Welfare Act 2005; in Queensland, tail docking is prohibited under the Animal Care and Protection Act 2001 and veterinary surgeons may only dock an animal’s tail if it is in the interests of the animal’s welfare; in New South Wales, under Section 12 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979, docking the tail of a calf up to 6 months of age is allowed. Acts in some other states are silent on the issue of tail docking.
Tail docking of cattle is banned in Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom, but is common in Ireland and the USA. There is evidence (Eicher et al. 2001, Eicher & Dailey 2002) that tail docking has long-term effects on cattle welfare through increased levels of predation from biting flies, and increased efforts by farmers to counter these flies using insecticides and other measures. At high levels of biting fly predation, grazing is more likely to be disrupted in docked than in intact cows. There is also evidence that neuromas may develop in cows with docked tails, causing ongoing discomfort and pain (Gentle 1986, French & Morgan 1992, Eicher et al. 2000).
When docking tails for therapeutic reasons, the research indicates that tail docking of heifers or cows using rubber rings is the method of tail amputation that causes the least pain and distress. Tail banding rapidly desensitises the tail distal to the banded area. The use of local or regional anaesthesia has not been shown to significantly reduce physiological or behavioural responses of adult cattle tail docked with bands.
Although tails are richly supplied with nerves and blood vessels, tail docking adult animals using rubber rings is more likely to cause chronic irritation, rather than intense pain, and has minimal effects on behaviour, cortisol concentrations, physiological parameters or immune function (Wilson 1972; Eicher et al. 2000; Schreiner & Ruegg 2002a, b). The docking iron, in contrast, produces second- or third-degree burns and so may destroy nerve endings after initial intense pain. Both banding and hot iron cautery methods cause considerably less pain and distress than surgical techniques of tail removal, which are also associated with greater risks of bleeding and infection (NAWAC 2005).
Eicher et al. (2000) found that the use of lidocaine to anaesthetise the tail before banding affected lymphocyte phenotypes and TNF-α, parameters associated with pain, but banding alone did not alter these parameters. Tom et al. (2002) found no observable differences in the behaviour of lactating dairy cows docked by rubber rings with or without epidural anaesthesia and concluded that tail docking by banding was associated with minimal discomfort in cows, and that the use of epidural anaesthesia provided no benefit.
Collectively, these studies suggest that tail docking by banding in adult cattle can cause mild discomfort of limited duration and that there is little or no apparent benefit gained through the use of anaesthesia. In fact, in some cases, the use of a local anaesthetic seemed to increase the cortisol response to the rubber ring, suggesting that the anaesthetic may be more stressful in cattle than the actual application of the rubber ring and the ischaemia that follows (Petrie et al 1995, 1996).
Necrotic tissue, such as the ischaemic distal tail after banding or severe tail fracture, is prone to infection with pathogens. Clostridial organisms, ubiquitous in soil, may colonise the wound and result in local or systemic infection. Tetanus and gangrene have been reported after tail docking and vaccination against clostridia is recommended prior to performing the procedure (Stull et al. 2002).
Other relevant policies and position statements
- EicherSD and Dailey JW (2002). Indicators of acute pain and fly avoidance behaviors in Holstein calves following tail-docking. J Dairy Sci 85:2850–2858.
- EicherSD, Morrow-Tesch JL, Albright JL and Williams RE (2001). Tail-docking alters fly numbers, fly-avoidance behaviors, and cleanliness, but not physiological measures. J Dairy Sci 84:1822–1828.
- Eicher SD, Morrow-Tesch JL, Albright JL et al.(2000). Tail-docking influences on behavioral, immunological and endocrine responses in dairy heifers. J Dairy Sci 83:1456–1462.
- French NP and Morgan KL (1992). Neuromata in docked lambs’ tails. Res Vet Sci 52:389–390.
- Gentle MJ (1986). Neuroma formation following partial beak amputation (beak trimming) in the chicken. Res Vet Sci 41:383–385.
- NAWAC (2005). Animal Welfare (Painful Husbandry Procedures) Code of Welfare 2005. (updated 2018) National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee Code of Welfare https://www.mpi.govt.nz/dmsdocument/1443/direct Accessed October 2019
- Petrie NJ, Stafford KJ, Mellor DJ, Bruce RA and Ward RN (1995). The behaviour of calves tail docked with a rubber ring used with or without local anaesthetic. Proc NZ Soc Anim Prod 55:58-60.
- Petrie NJ, Mellor DJ, Stafford KJ, Bruce RA and Ward RN (1996). Cortisol responses of calves to two methods of tail docking used with or without local anaesthetic. NZ Vet J 44:4-8.
- Schreiner DA and Ruegg PL (2002a). Effects of tail docking on milk quality and cow cleanliness. J Dairy Sci 85:2503–2511.
- Schreiner DA and Ruegg PL (2002b). Responses to tail docking in calves and heifers. J Dairy Sci 85:3287-3296.
- Stull CL, Payne MA, Berry SL and Hullinger PJ (2002). Evaluation of the scientific justification for tail docking in dairy cattle. J Am Vet Med Assoc 220:1298-1303.
- Tom EM, Duncan IJH, Widowski TM, Bateman KG, Leslie KE (2002). Effects of tail docking using a rubber ring with or without anesthetic on behavior and production of lactating cows. J Dairy Sci 85:2257-2265
- Tucker CB, Fraser D and Weary DM (2001). Tail docking dairy cattle: effects on cow cleanliness and udder health. J Dairy Sci 84:84–87.
Date of ratification by AVA Board 27 July 2012