Tail Docking of Dairy Cattle

Dr. Clell V. Bagley, D.V.M.
USU Extension Veterinarian

There has been an apparent increased interest in docking the tails of dairy cattle in recent years. Many opinions have been expressed about increased cow cleanliness and happier workers. But, there have also been concerns about cow pain and discomfort from flies. Four studies have been published recently and the results and their conclusions are cited below.


�We recently tested the cow cleanliness and udder health claims by performing an experiment on a commercial free-stall dairy farm in British Columbia. The farmer had decided to dock his 500 milking-cow herd, but for the purposes of our experiment agreed to leave approximately half of the herd intact for 8 weeks. During this time, we compared cow cleanliness, udder cleanliness, and udder health. We found no difference between cows with intact tails and those that had been docked in terms of any of our cleanliness measures, somatic cell counts (a measure of udder health), or cases of mastitis as diagnosed by the herd veterinarian. Another study, conducted in New Zealand examining animals on pasture, also found no difference in cleanliness between cows with tails and those that had been docked (Matthews et al. 1995). These results suggest that with the possible exception of improved worker comfort, producers (and their cows) have little to gain from adopting this procedure. Perhaps surprisingly, existing evidence suggests that the pain due to docking is relatively mild. Work by Petrie et al. (1995, 1996) showed no changes in plasma cortisol (a measure of stress) in response to docking, and only a portion of the docked calves showed behavioral responses to the procedure, such as vocalizing and tail shaking. Adult animals do show some response in the hours that follow application of the ring, including swelling, tail swishing, and an increase in plasma cortisol (Wilson 1972). New research on the pain associated with docking is now being conducted by USDA and the University of Guelph. Even if cows do not find docking very painful, there is good evidence that docking impairs their ability to control flies. Three studies have found more flies on docked animals (Matthews et al. 1995; Phipps et al. 1995, Wilson 1972). And Phipps et al. (1995) reported more fly removal behaviors, such as tail flicking and leg stamping, by docked cows than by animals with an intact tail. Cows may also use their tails in other ways, such as in social signaling, but to date we know little about this aspect of tail use.�

�Given that there are these disadvantages and that we could find no cleanliness and udder health benefits associated with docking, we see little merit in adopting this procedure. Several European countries including Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland have prohibited tail docking of dairy cattle. However, no legislation in North America currently addresses the issue of tail docking dairy cattle.� --- AWIC Bulletin, Winter 2001, Spring 2002, Volume 11, No. 3-4, pp 8-9

�A review of the available literature suggests that the tail docking procedure causes minimal and transient acute discomfort to cattle. The role of chronic pain remains unknown. In facilities with high fly densities, especially during the warm months, tail docking is detrimental to the cow�s welfare and comfort. Proponents of tail docking believe that the practice is beneficial to the farm personnel and to the cows; however, available data do not support claims that docking improves the dairy worker�s comfort or safety or the health or cleanliness of the cow�s udder. Switch trimming may provide a compromise for milking personnel�s comfort and fly avoidance behavior of the cow.�

�On the basis of available peer-reviewed studies and governmental sponsored research, we conclude that there is ample evidence ... that there is no benefit to tail docking in dairy cattle. Presently, there are no apparent animal health, welfare, or human health justifications to support this practice. Until evidence emerges that tail docking has benefits to animal well-being, health, or public health, the routine practice of tail docking should be discouraged.� --- JAVMA 220(#9):1298-1303 (May 1, 2002)

�Our study�s objectives were to determine: (1) behavioral and hormonal effects of tail banding with rubber rings one month prior to first parturition in dairy heifers, both with and without use of an epidural, and (2) to determine the behavioral response to tail banding using rubber rings on calves 1-6 weeks of age.�

�There were no significant differences for any behavioral observation between non-lactating heifer groups during any time period (p> 0.1415). Additionally, there were no significant hormonal (p = 0.49) differences found between control and banded groups in the non-lactating heifers. ... Banded calves > 21 days old were significantly more restless (p = 0.0104) compared to control calves. Banded calves < 21 days of age had no significant behavioral response to banding compared to the control group.� --- AABP Proceedings 35:178 (September 2002)

�Pre-milking udder hygiene can affect the rate of intramammary infection and bacterial numbers in milk. A study which monitored 413 dairy cows for two months to determine effects of tail docking on cow cleanliness and udder health reported no significant effect, but the study�s ability to detect differences was low. This study looked at the specific effect of tail docking on somatic cell count (SCC), intramammary infection (IMI) and udder and leg cleanliness in commercial dairy herds.�

�While prevalence of IMI increased in all cows between December and August (p<0.001), prevalence of infection for contagious pathogens was not significantly different (p=0.11) between treatment groups. There was no significant difference (p=0.83) in udder cleanliness score between treatments.�

�We conclude that no significant benefit to cow cleanliness or quality of milk can be attributed to tail docking. Moreover, the high level of farm variation found indicated that other management decisions play a more significant role. Tail removal may still be considered due to other non-cow factors, such as operator comfort, as there are no apparent advantages or disadvantages to this practice.� --- AABP Proceedings 35:179 (September 2002) ©