Health & Management / Ruminants Pain Management / Techniques and protocols OVERVIEW:
Pain Prevention for Tail Docking of Cattle:

Introduction and General Information

Tail docking is a management procedures which is carried out in some parts of the world.

  • Tail docking is carried out on cattle at several ages: calves, preparturient heifers and occasionally (particularly when a farmer decides to start docking) adult lactating dairy cows. (J306.38.w1, P58.24.w1)

Current welfare concerns call for re-evaluation of the need for such husbandry practices as standard (P61.53.w1) and for consideration of ways in which pain and distress associated with such procedures may be minimised. (P61.53.w1)

Methods of tail docking

  • Rubber ring:  A rubber ring (as used in castration) is placed around the tail, at least a few centimetres below the level of the vulva. (J294.82.w1)
    • If the tail does not drop off after a period of time it may be removed manually. (J306.38.w1)
    • A level of eight to ten inches (20 to 25 cm) below the lower tip of the vulva is suggested. (P58.24.w1)
  • Heated docking iron: A docking iron is used, with two blunt jaws, one of which is kept heated; firm pressure on the handles severs the tail within a few seconds. Severing the tail between two vertebrae has been suggested as preferable. (J294.82.w1)
  • Knives, shears and guillotine may be used. (J24.77.w2)
Published Guidelines linked in Wildpro
  • --

Return to top of page

Reasons for the procedure

Tail docking is carried out on many dairy farms in New Zealand, Australia and the USA. It aims to:
  • Increase the cleanliness of the udder, teats and milking parlours. (P61.53.w1,  P61.55.w1, J295.85.w1, P58.24.w1)
    • However several studies have shown that while some areas of the cow (those likely to be swatted when the tail is flicked) are cleaner in docked cows, the cleanliness of the udder is NOT increased by docking. (J295.84.w1)
  • Increase comfort for milkers during milking and facilitate milking. (P61.55.w1, J10.44.w1, J295.83.w1)
  • Reduce fly numbers around cows. (P61.53.w1, P58.24.w1)
    • However, a study comparing fly numbers on docked versus non-docked heifers showed that fly numbers were actually INCREASED around docked cows and in particular were increased on the hind legs. (J295.84.w1)
  • Reduce risk of zoonotic disease. (J4.221.w4)
A study in Victoria, Australia, found tail docking to be an "entrenched" practice in the dairy industry of Victoria. Although not all farmers docked their cows, those who did believed it to be a highly desirable farming practice with particular benefits for the stock keeper. Those respondents who docked believed tail docking to allow milking to be finished quicker, to reduce fly numbers, risks of leptospirosis and mastitis and to improve milk quality and ease of handling of cattle. (J4.220.w1)
Associated techniques linked from Wildpro --

Return to top of page

Arguments against use of the procedure

  • A number of studies have failed to find any positive animal of human health or animal welfare benefits or justifications for tail docking of cattle. (J4.220.w1)
  • "Contrary to popular opinion, tail docking does not appear to affect cleanliness of udders or legs, not does there appear to be a relationship between tail docking and milk quality." (J306.38.w1)
  • Tail docking is not essential for milking and maintenance of adequate hygiene. (P61.53.w1)
  • Tail docking removes the cow's natural fly swat, and thus may compromise welfare, particularly in summer. (J3.95.w2, P61.53.w1, J295.83.w1)
    • It has been shown that the presence of stable flies on cattle causes irritation and annoyance, behaviours such as foot stomping, throwing the head towards the front legs, ear movements, skin twitching, tail swishing and licking wounds. (J288.35.w1)
    • The presence of flies may alter grazing habits and cause restlessness, and may also cause reduced growth rates and milk production. (J288.35.w1)
    • Docked cows spent more time standing when fly numbers rose, in comparison to intact cows, which may have indicated discomfort. (J295.84.w1)
  • Docked cows spend more time flicking their tail stump and using other fly-reducing behaviours than do cows with intact tails. (J10.44.w1)
  • Docked cows spend more time tail-flicking and also show foot-stomping. (J295.84.w1)
  • Docked calves in calf hutches were found to have significantly higher numbers of flies on them (specifically on the hind legs, not on the front legs) than were on undocked control calves, and to show more ear twitching and more licking. They showed less tail swings than did undocked calves, possibly due to "learned helplessness", i.e. because the behaviour did not have a beneficial effect. (J295.85.w1)
  • Docked cows appear to be harassed more by biting flies than are undocked cows and this may lead to altered grazing behaviour, increased stress levels and decreased production. (P61.53.w1, P61.55.w2,  P61.52.w1)
    • A study comparing docked Holstein-Friesian cows with twin sister non-docked cows found that the number of biting flies on the rear of docked cows was consistently higher than the numbers on non-docked cows and that the frequencies of behaviours (tail flicking and leg stamping) used to dislodge flies from the rear end was higher in the docked cows. (P61.55.w2)
      • There was no significant difference in cortisol responses to ACTH in the docked versus the non-docked cows in this study. This was not unexpected as such responses would be expected to be different only if severe long-term stress was present. (P61.55.w2)
      • The study was considered to show that cows which are docked are subjected to an additional irritation in comparison to non-docked cows; further measurements of physiological parameters would be required to quantify the associated level of physiological stress. (P61.55.w2)
    • Docked cows may have reduced liveweight gain compared with their undocked twins. (J10.44.w1)
  • Loss of the tail may remove an important mode of communication in cows. (J10.44.w1, J295.83.w1)
  • Possibility of chronic pain from the tail stump. Neuromas have been identified in the stumps of docked dairy cows [unpublished data]. (J295.83.w1)
  • While tail docking does not appear to produce great pain and distress at the time of and shortly after docking, putative benefits to the animal and the producer have not been proved, while it is probable that there are other adverse effects on the docked animal such as increased irritation by flies. (J294.82.w1)
  • A study involving more than 400 cows, some docked and some undocked, for a period of up to eight weeks, failed to find any difference between the two groups in cow cleanliness, udder cleanliness or udder health (assessed by the somatic cell count of milk samples and by diagnosis of mastitis). (J295.84.w2)
  • A study of 1250 cows from eight Wisconsin dairy herds failed to identify any differences in udder hygiene, leg hygiene or milk quality (somatic cell count or intramammary infection) between docked and undocked cows. (J295.85.w4)
  • If the tail is docked too short it may increase the risk of vaginitis since the tail stump may get into the vagina and cause irritation. (P58.24.w1)
  • Tail docking may carry a risk of development of tetanus, particularly in geographical locations where tetanus is a problem. This risk can be eliminated by vaccinating prior to tail docking. (P58.24.w1)
  • NOTE: Tail docking of cattle is prohibited in several countries including Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the UK (J4.202.w1). 
    • In the UK, under the Welfare of Livestock (Prohibited Operations) Regulations 1982 SI No. 1884, tail docking of cattle is prohibited "except in an emergency or by a veterinary surgeon when disease or injury is present and proper treatment requires the operation." (D158)
Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

Return to top of page

Signs/Evidence of pain associated with the procedure

Studies have indicated that tail docking of cattle generally results in only mild acute pain. However the possibility of chronic pain as seen with "phantom limb" pain in humans, has not been shown or disproved.
  • Calves tail docked at three to four months old (standard age) by application of tight rubber rings to the tail were compared with control, non-docked calves. (P61.55.w1)
    • Behaviours such as tail shaking, vocalisation and restlessness were seen in about 67% of docked calves and were not seen in undocked calves. these behaviours were considered to probably indicate "discomfort and pain due to the pressure of the ring or the onset of ischaemic tissue damage". (P61.55.w1)
    • In calves docked without local anaesthesia these behaviours were seen immediately following application of the rings and continued in some individuals for up to two hours. (P61.55.w1)
    • In calves provided with local anaesthesia in the form of an epidural injection of 3 ml lidocaine, injected between the first and second coccygeal vertebrae ten minutes before application of the rings, these behaviours were seen after about two hours, when the local anaesthesia would have been expected to have worn off. It was not known whether this was due to irritation caused by the local anaesthetic wearing off, or to a return of sensitivity in the area immediately cranial to or beneath the ring, or to a return of sensitivity in deeper tissues of the tail. (P61.55.w1)
    • Behaviours such as standing, walking, grazing and ruminating were not different between treated and control calves. (P61.55.w1)
    • Minor changes in plasma cortisol levels have also been seen in calves tail docked using rubber rings. (P61.55.w1)
    • It was considered that the study showed mild distress in some calves, for up to two hours, following application of rubber rings for tail docking. (P61.55.w1)
  • Calves tail docked by either application of tight rubber rings to the tail or application of a heated docking iron, showed either very low or only mild responses as measured by plasma cortisol concentration. Most animals showed low response and a few animals showed a mild response. Responses were not significantly different from those of control calves which were restrained and had their tails handled, nor was there a detectable benefit from use of local anaesthesia prior to either method of docking. (J10.44.w1)
  • Calves tail docked by banding at three weeks old showed behavioural indicators of pain in the first two hours after band application, including significant decrease in the amount of time spent lying, significant increase in the amount of time spent walking or running, a trend (P<0.08) to shorter durations of standing time and higher frequencies of standing and lying, indicative of general restlessness. A specific behaviour indicative of pain, a head-to-tail movement, was more than eight times as frequent in banded calves than in non-banded controls. A heat test with hot (60C) water showed that the area of the tail distal to (below) the band ceased to be sensitive to heat by 70 minutes (five of ten calves) to 105 minutes (five of ten calves) after banding; any pain after this time must originate proximal to the banding site. There was no significant effect of banding on levels of acute phase proteins. It was noted that another study had shown an increase in cortisol at one hour post banding. (J295.85.w1)
  • Heifers of about 24 months old, tail docked by banding prior to their first calving, either with or without local application of lidocaine , "showed little behavioural or physiological effects of banding"; the only significant behavioural change was in time spent eating, which increased following band placement and reduced again after the tail was removed a week later. Plasma haptoglobin levels did increase when the necrotic tail was removed one week after banding. (J295.83.w1)
  • Calves of seven to 17 days old, kept in individual pens, tail docked with either rubber rings or a heated docking iron, were considered to show few acute effects of the procedure; more effects were noted with rubber ring docking than with use of the heated docking iron. Plasma cortisol levels were significantly raised (p<0.03, compared to control handled calves) in rubber ring docked calves at 60 minutes after application of the rings, but were never above 14.3 ng/ml, a level not considered indicative of stress and certainly lower that that seen after procedures such as dehorning. Some behaviours were affected, with rubber ring docked animals showing significantly higher frequency of lying and standing (restlessness) (P<0.006 compared to calves docked with the heated iron and P<0.02 compared to control calves), and also lower mean duration of standing bouts (P<0.02 compared to the heated iron group, P<0.08 compared to control calves), and lower mean duration of lying bouts (P<0.07 compared to heated iron docked calves and P<0.08 compared to the control calves) on the day of the procedure, with lower times spent lying on the brisket with the head tucked in, resting for rubber ring docked calves on the first day after the procedure and for hot iron docked calves on the fifth day. Also calves docked with rubber rings showed significantly more tail grooming on the day of the procedure (P<0.05 against heated iron docked calves; P<0.05 against control calves) and on the first and fifth days after the procedure (P<0.05 and P<0.01 against heated iron docked calves; P<0.04 and P<0.008 against control calves). No vocalisation was noted. Infection occurred in only one tail stump, of a rubber ring castrated calf, noted after the necrotic tail stump fell off at 25 days and the tail, which was oozing pus, was "swollen and sensitive to the touch" at this time. No effect was seen on body weight in the three weeks after the procedure. In was noted in the methods that efforts were made to place the ring, or sever the tail, between two vertebrae.(J294.82.w1)
  • It has been noted that "neuromas have been found in the tails of calves that were docked" (unpublished data). (J294.82.w1)
  • Tail docking of lactating dairy cows using rubber rings was considered to cause only mild discomfort at the time of ring application and some mild discomfort when the tail below the ring was amputated six days later. (J295.85.w2)
    • Docked cows showed decreased time with the tail in a raised position on the day of docking (P<0.02) and decreased tail shaking (P<0.05) in the six days following docking. Docking did not have any significant effect on eating, ruminating, respiratory rate, head turning behaviour, easing quarters, food intake or milk production. Docked cows did spend a significantly greater proportion of their time with the tail pressed against the body after the tail was amputated below the ring on the sixth day after ring placement. Behaviours considered indicative of acute pain, noted following other procedures in cattle such as castration, dehorning and branding, were not seen. Provision of epidural analgesia did not appear to be of benefit. (J295.85.w2)
  • Preparturient heifers showed little response to tail docking with rubber rings. "Some restlessness" was noted in the docked heifers in the first hour after application of the rings but this was not statistically significant (P<0.39). There were no differences in plasma cortisol concentration between docked and undocked heifers.(J295.85.w4)
  • Calves tail docked at 22-42 days old showed some behavioural responses to tail docking by application of rubber bands while no significant changes in behaviour were noted with docking of younger calves (less than 22 days old). (J295.85.w4)
    • Pre-weaned calves docked at 22 to 42 days old showed significantly (P<0.01) more restlessness than control undocked calves of the same age on the day of treatment and on days eight and nine after treatment, and tended to show more time in "rear visualization" than the control calves (P=0.056). There were no significant differences observed between docked and undocked control calves for other behaviours, eating, standing or walking, and no abnormal postures were observed. In calves less than 22 days old, responses were not significantly different from those of control undocked calves. (J295.85.w4)
Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

Return to top of page

Suggested methods of pain prevention

Age considerations:
  • A study found less behavioural response to tail docking of calves by rubber rings at less than 22 days old than at 22 to 42 days old. Pre-parturient heifers also showed little response to docking by rubber rings. (J295.85.w4)

Use of least painful methods:

  • Use of either rubber ring or a heated docking iron appears not to produce unacceptable levels of pain or stress in calves. However following use of the docking iron a proportion of calves may haemorrhage, requiring bandaging of the tail. (J10.44.w1)
  • Proper placement of the band, between two vertebrae, may affect degree of pain resulting from tail docking by banding. (J295.83.w1)

Use of epidural anaesthetic:

  • A study of the use of epidural anaesthesia in heifers for tail docking did not show any clear benefit. (P61.55.w1)
    • In calves provided with local anaesthesia in the form of an epidural injection of 3 ml lidocaine, injected between the first and second coccygeal vertebrae ten minutes before application of the tail docking ring, behaviours such as tail shaking and vocalisation were not seen in the period immediately following application of the rings (while they were seen in calves not given an epidural).(P61.55.w1)
    • However such behaviours were seen after about two hours, when the local anaesthesia would have been expected to have worn off. It was not known whether this was due to irritation caused by the local anaesthetic wearing off or to a return of sensitivity in the area immediately cranial to or beneath the ring or to a return of sensitivity in deeper tissues of the tail. (P61.55.w1)
  • A study of the use of epidural anaesthesia (injection of 3 ml of 2% lidocaine into the epidural space between the first and second caudal vertebrae) in female Friesian calves, three to four months old, at 20 minutes prior to tail docking by either rubber ring application or the use of a heated docking iron, found that the procedure did successfully abolish pain sensation from the tail, as indicated by the skin prick test, but did not have a significant effect on cortisol responses to either method of tail docking. (J10.44.w1)
    • The results of the study suggested that epidural anaesthesia was not warranted for either rubber ring or heated docking iron tail docking as it produced no obvious advantage while it did increase the time and handling required and risks the development of a spinal abscess. (J10.44.w1)
Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

Return to top of page

Reasons why adequate pain relief is not always provided

Pain prevention techniques may not be used because they are not perceived as being required, because the benefits gained are not adequate to offset pain or distress associated with application of the pain prevention method (e.g. local anaesthetic injection may itself distress an individual) or because of practical and/or economic constraints. (P61.53.w1)

Reasons why adequate pain prevention may not be provided are described in detail in: Reasons for Failure to Provide Pain Relief. In brief, these include:

  • Attitudes towards pain in animals;
  • Tradition;
  • Failure to recognise pain;
  • Failure to recognise the importance of the adverse effects of pain;
  • Concern about removing possible protective effects of pain [this concern is generally excessive];
  • Concern that providing pain relief may itself stress the animal and have a negative impact on it;
  • Concern that treating pain may interfere with diagnosis;
  • Lack of information about analgesics;
  • Concern about toxicity and side-effects of analgesics;
  • Concerns about the safety and legislative controls associated with some analgesics such as opiates;
  • Economic and practical considerations.
Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

Return to top of page

Authors & Referees

Authors Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee A.B.Forbes BVM&S.,CBiol.,MIBiol.,DipEVPC.,MRCVS (V.w66)

Return to top of page