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Vet faces ban for docking litter

A VET faces being struck off by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons after being accused of docking a litter of puppies' tails without good reason.

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has brought disciplinary action against John McKenna, who practises in London Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Mr McKenna is accused of docking the tails of 11 Weimaraner puppies at the request of the owner, known only as Mrs M. If found guilty by the RCVS, he could be struck off.

Mr McKenna is alleged to have taken the action despite having known or ought to have known there were no therapeutic or prophylactic' benefits for doing so, according to the RCVS professional code of conduct.

Accused

He is accused by the body of carrying out an unacceptable mutilation of the puppies in January this year. He is also accused of 'disgraceful conduct in a professional respect'.

Mr McKenna was due to face the charges in front of the RCVS' disciplinary committee in London last Tuesday (December 12). The hearing was expected to last three days. If found guilty, the maximum punishment is being struck off the RCVS register, which means he would be banned from practising as a vet. The minimum penalty is a warning.

Under the terms of the newly enacted Animal Welfare Act, docking tails is only legal in the UK if the animal is a working dog. However, the Act does not fully become law until next April, so the RCVS’ action seems to be rather premature.

Geoff Gill, policy officer at the RCVS, commented in somewhat emotive fashion: ‘It isn't acceptable to hack a chunk of an animal's body off. But if the vet can prove the animals were intended for working purposes it may be permitted.

‘The exception exists to prevent working dogs from damaging their tails when going through bushes and undergrowth.’

Mr McKenna, who has practised for more than 30 years, said: ‘I was told these dogs might grow up to become working dogs, so I docked their tails. ‘It isn't illegal to dock the tails of working dogs.

‘It's an exception, it's something I maybe only carry out once a year. If someone rang me up and asked me to dock the tail of a greyhound I'd say no.

‘We don't make any efforts to do it. It causes so much angst in certain quarters I'd welcome a total ban.’

* The first UK veterinary surgeon to face disciplinary action for docking puppies’ tails was cleared of all charges of disgraceful professional conduct brought by the RCVS 11 years ago.

In 1995, Marshall Dale, of Hockley Essex, was alleged to have performed the procedure on at least six occasions for cosmetic reasons, in breach of a code of conduct laid down by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

Mr Dale, a practising vet for 26 years, acknowledged docking Yorkshire Terrier, Old English Sheepdogs and Giant Schnauzer puppies at his surgery, but said it was for legitimate welfare reasons.

The four-day hearing was the first since the college, which sets professional standards, issued a code of conduct in 1993, aimed at banning the procedure except in restricted circumstances.

Confusion

Mr Dale faced nine charges of disgraceful professional conduct and could have been struck off the professional register. After the hearing, Mr Dale said that he felt ‘delighted. This has been hanging over me for six months and it has been a terrible strain for my family. I don't think I would have felt worse if I had been accused of murder’. Mr Dale added that the hearing had failed to resolve the confusion surrounding the ethics of docking. ‘It has been left to the grass root vets to sort out, which is not satisfactory’.

Simon Wheatley, Mr Dales’ Council accused the college of bringing the case because of political expediency. ‘The issue had been ducked by the Government and the College, so it now falls to the individual vet to resolve an issue which is seen as so important, but which has been handled politically so maladroitly.’

Mr Wheatley said that Mr Dale had docked only for acceptable prophylactic reasons. The Yorkshire Terriers for instance, belonged to a breeder who mainly sold dogs to older women. ‘It is a fact of life that ladies of high reputation do not think it appropriate to concern themselves with the rear end of the Yorkshire Terrier’, he said. ‘There is therefore, a high risk of them suffering problems connected with soreness and fouling’.

James Badenoch, QC, for the college had argued that docking was performed only for reasons of tradition. ‘Tail docking belongs to history. Breeders will have to realise that the tail belongs to the dog’, he said.

The defence costs, which were in excess of £25,000, were covered by the Council of Docked Breeds from their Legal Fighting Fund.

The RCVS has not sought any similar disciplinary action against any of its members in the intervening 11 years until now, just weeks after the Animal Welfare Act received Royal Assent.

* With thanks to the Council of Docked Breeds.