A perfect little baby girl is born. After meeting their child for the first time, the following discussion takes places between the parents and their doctor:

Parents: “She is so lovely! But we don’t really like the shape of her ears. Can we pop in next week for a quick surgery to sort that out?”

Doctor: “Oh dear, we can’t have that! Sure, let’s cut those ears straight!”

If this happened in real life there would probably be a massive public outcry about these heartless parents. How is it then, that some people reckon it’s okay to do this to dogs?

maim verb wound or injure (a person or animal) so that part of the body is permanently damaged

What am I talking about? The practice of ear cropping. Now some might say that you can’t compare children and dogs. I beg to differ. Both are capable of feeling pain. Both are capable of experiencing severe distress. Cognitively dogs are on par with small children. The only real difference is that dogs cannot tell us that they are scared or in pain – but shouldn’t this motivate us to be even more careful to prevent them from suffering?

What is ear cropping?

Ear cropping is the removal of part of the dog’s outer ear. The surgery is sometimes followed by taping the ears, and the purpose of all of this is to get the ears to stand upright with a pointy appearance – often because the dog’s owner wants the dog to appear more intimidating. The fact that ear cropping is illegal in SA doesn’t seem to be much of a deterrent for supporters of this practice. In Britain, an increase in ear cropping has been reported this year, despite it being illegal there for 10 years already! Can you imagine what happens if ethical, law-abiding vets refuse to crop ears? Yep, people will do it themselves, thinking that a quick internet search qualifies them to perform surgery on a dog. The results are horrific.

So why do people insist on cutting off pieces of their dog’s ears? Let’s take a look at the most common reasons, and explore how flawed this thinking really is.

“It will prevent my dog from suffering with ear infections.”

Some will argue that floppy-eared dogs are prone to getting ear infections and that the procedure of ear cropping is therefore beneficial for the dog, similar to sterilisation. Truth is that any dog can develop ear infections – even with cropped ears. Ironically, the procedure of cutting the ears comes with a risk of infection!

If this argument was valid at all, surely a breed that’s more prone to ear infections should have its ears cropped? With this in mind – have you ever seen a Spaniel with cropped ears?

“Ear cropping will improve my dog’s hearing.”

This is not something that any dog owner needs to worry about, as nature already did an exceptional job. Hearing is one of the dog’s strongest senses, second only after smell. In fact, dogs can hear sounds from four times further than we can hear them. Yes, dogs with naturally upright ears can hear better than those with pendulous ears, but still, all dogs are well-equipped to use their ears optimally. In dogs with naturally erect ears, the earflap serves as a surface against which sound ‘bounces’ into the ear, thus actually assisting with hearing. In dogs with hanging ears, the ears perk up when the dog hears something, and the dog will turn its head and ears towards the noise. Doing this allows the dog to effectively ‘catch’ the sounds. Ear cropping clearly interferes with this natural process, by damaging the nerves and muscles needed to move the ears around.

“I like the way it looks.”

This is probably the worst way to justify chopping off pieces of a dog’s ear as it simply doesn’t take the dog’s welfare into consideration. This ‘excuse’ comes in two forms:

  • Wanting the dog to appear vicious.
  • Adhering to a breed standard.

Some people like the idea of having a ferocious dog, or one that at least looks that way, especially with crime being rife in SA. This screams of pure arrogance. Are we as humans really so special that we get to cut off pieces of an animal that we share such a close bond with – just because we think it looks pretty awesome? Do we really not care enough to protect them from physical pain and emotional distress because a certain type of appearance appeals to us? If we lack this basic empathy, does it not mean that something is seriously wrong in our society?

Besides, those cropped ears will do nothing to protect your family. A guard dog that lives out its days outside, without being part of the family, will inevitably not have its emotional needs met, resulting in behaviour problems and in some cases the surrender of the dog. Not to mention how easy it is to poison an outside dog. Once again, how are we as a society okay with this?

As for the second point, the American Kennel Union still accepts cropped ears in certain breeds, as part of the breed standard. A breed standard is a list of qualities describing each breed, and is used to judge show dogs. Defining the appearance of a breed is not a bad thing, but subjecting a dog to a surgical procedure to get the appearance we think it should have? Once again, pure arrogance.

The psychological effects of ear cropping

How gorgeous are those ears?

Dogs may not talk, but they communicate. A lot. Body language is how dogs share valuable information with both us and other dogs, and they use most of their bodies for this: mouth, eyes, ears, paws, tails and even their coats. Ears are not just for listening, they are for talking too, and simply by the position of its ears a dog can convey uncertainty, alertness, nervousness, happiness and fearfulness, to give a few examples. Altering the ear leaves the dog unable to communicate with his peers. Now, imagine going through life completely misunderstood? What happens emotionally to a dog that is trying to communicate that he is friendly, but the other dogs in his family cannot see this due to cropped ears, and constantly treats this dog with mistrust? Something to think about.

In conclusion, most of us are aware of the Five Freedoms. The concept of the Five Freedoms was born in the 1960s, and were formalised in 1979 in a press statement by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council. Originally created out of concern for the welfare of farm animals, they are still used today as an outline describing responsible animal ownership. They are as follows:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
  2. Freedom from discomfort – by providing an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease – by prevention and by rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress – by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

Ear cropping is a direct violation of four of the above points, yet it is still commonly practised. What does that say about the human race?