Why do some rescue dogs have cropped ears?
If you've ever walked through an animal shelter, you've likely seen at least one dog with cropped ears.
It was likely a dog with a big head and solid body, a dog that most shelters would label as a 'pit bull' or 'bully breed.' The procedure may have been done for a variety of reasons - because it is the "breed standard," a misguided attempt to improve health, or perhaps simply because it makes the dog look "tough." No matter the reason, these dogs are often overlooked by adopters because of the stigma around dogs with cropped ears when, in reality, they are just like any other dog.
In this article
1. What is ear cropping?
a. How is an ear cropping procedure performed?
2. Why might someone crop a dog's ears?
a. Breed standard ear cropping
b. Ear cropping for visual appearance
c. Ear cropping for health or to avoid injury
d. Ear cropping and dog fighting
3. How does ear cropping affect an individual dog?
a. Acute and chronic pain
b. Lasting emotional trauma
c. Body language and communication
4. Why do so many rescue dogs have cropped ears?
a. Negative perceptions of dogs and their people
b. "Desirable" and "less desirable" breeds
c. Housing restrictions
5. Should you adopt a dog with cropped ears?
A quick note: In this article, we will frequently use the phrase 'pit-type.' Pit-type refers to any dog, often a mixed breed, that may be labelled as a bully breed, usually based on visual identification - dogs with a big head, stocky body, short hair, or a variety of other traits. When DNA tested, the breed make-up of many pit-type dogs doesn't include any bully breed at all. Learn more about the effects of labelling dogs as 'pit-type' or 'pit bull' in this article.
What is ear cropping?
Ear cropping is a procedure in which a dog's naturally floppy ears are cut into a pointy shape. It is a cosmetic surgery performed for looks or 'aesthetic' rather than for the dog's health.
You'll find several examples of cropped ears throughout this article.
How is an ear cropping procedure performed?
Ear cropping should be done by a vet with the dog under complete sedation. A blade or scissors are used to remove most of the dog's ears, resulting in a pointy, 'alert' shape. The procedure is performed a young age, typically between 6-12 weeks old.
The dog's ears may be taped and splinted for a period of time after the procedure, especially in breeds like the Doberman where the cropped ear is quite long. This typically helps the ears stand straight up so that the dog appears to be at attention at all times.
In some cases, ear cropping may be performed by an amateur, and may not be done under full sedation. This is extremely painful for the dog and often results in rough, uneven ears - or may look like the dog no longer has ears at all.
Why might someone crop a dog's ears?
People choose to crop a dog's ears for a variety of reasons, including adherence to breed standard, to make the dog look 'tough,' or in a misguided attempt to prevent injury or ear infection.
Breed standard ear cropping
For some breeds, such as the American Bully or Cane Corso, ear cropping is a 'breed standard' set by an organization such as the American Kennel Club (AKC). According to the AKC, breed standards "describe perfect type, structure, gait, and temperament of the breed — the characteristics that allow the breed to perform the function for which it was bred."
Breed standards are not universal; for example, the Royal Kennel Club, essentially the UK's version of the AKC, does not recognize ear cropping as a breed standard for any breed (in fact, ear cropping is illegal in the UK and many other countries.)
Many breeders will crop the ears of all puppies in a litter before the dogs move on to their homes. Individuals who are considering showing their dog may decide to crop the dog's ears once the dog is in their home. Some individuals may crop a pet dog's ears simply because it's what they think they are supposed to do.
As more organizations like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) publish official statements against practices like ear cropping, tail docking, dewclaw removal, and debarking, some kennel clubs are making the decision to revise breed standards to eliminate cosmetic procedures. Some clubs, such as the Royal Kennel Club, prohibit showing any dog with cropped ears.
Ear cropping for visual appearance
Some individuals choose to crop their dog's ears for the same reason that many people avoid adopting dogs with cropped ears - it makes them look 'tough' or 'scary.' For an individual that plans to use their dog for personal protection or as a guard dog for their property, making the dog look more intimidating may discourage strangers from approaching the dog.
Not everyone who chooses to crop their dog's ears for aesthetic plans to use the dog for protection, though. Some individuals simply like the look and may not know about the adverse effects that ear cropping can have on the dog.
Ear cropping for health or to avoid injury
There is a longstanding myth that there is a medical benefit of ear cropping, typically that it will prevent ear infections or improve hearing, however there is no reliable evidence to indicate that ear cropping has any medical benefit at all.
The myth that ear cropping prevents infection comes from the belief that removing the Pinna (ear flap) will create better air flow. While maintaining proper airflow is important to a healthy ear, a floppy ear is a far smaller risk than a narrow ear canal, which is much more common in breeds like the cocker spaniel than any bully breed, or matted hair, which is common in poodle mixes and other long-haired breeds. Other common causes of infection include food and environmental allergies and genetic predisposition (which is not the same as a breed trait; read more about genetics vs. breed traits).
Historically, ear cropping was performed to prevent injury in working dogs, primarily hunting and guardian breeds, as injuries to the ear are often very bloody, may take a long time to heal, and often leave cosmetic imperfections. While there is a potential for any dog to receive an ear injury, the risk is quite small compared to the negative effects caused by ear cropping, which we'll discuss more below.
Ear cropping and dog fighting
One of the most common assumptions about a rescue dog with cropped ears is that they must have come from a "fighting ring," been used as a "bait dog" (a myth that we'll explore in a future article), or were somehow involved in something nefarious.
While it is true that dog fighting is an ongoing problem in the US (in fact, a US Pentagon official was recently charged with running a dog fighting ring), and it's true that ear cropping sometimes takes place within those rings for aesthetics or as a way to prevent injury, the vast majority of dogs with cropped ears have absolutely nothing to do with dog fighting.
The association between dog fighting and cropped ears is likely playing a large role, consciously or unconsciously, in the average person's hesitation to adopt or even interact with a dog with cropped ears.
It's important to note here that the association between pit bulls and dog fighting as well as the overall negative stigma around pit bulls has a strong correlation with the urban poor and racism. We discuss this a bit in the article, 'Myth: it's all about how they're raised' and recommend Bronwen Dickey's ‘Pit Bull: the Battle Over an American Icon' for further exploration.
How does ear cropping affect an individual dog?
Cropping a dog's ears can have long-lasting effects that negatively affect the dog's health, behavior, and ability to form relationships with other dogs.
It's important to note that every dog is different and will experience these effects to a different degree. We must always consider each dog as an individual and cannot make assumptions about their behavior based on a single factor like cropped ears. Still, these are real, potentially serious consequences of ear cropping that must be considered.
Acute and chronic pain
Immediately after an ear cropping procedure, even when performed under sedation by a professional, a dog will certainly experience pain throughout the healing process, especially when the dog must withstand multiple bandage and post changes. Like any surgical procedure, great care must be taken to prevent infection and re-opening the incisions or ripping out stitches.
A quick google search will show countless horror stories of ear cropping gone wrong - terrible infections, ears that won't heal, repeated surgeries to try to correct the issue. We'll spare you the photos here as they are quite graphic, and the intent of this article is not fear mongering. However, any surgical procedure can go wrong, which is itself an argument against an unnecessary cosmetic surgery like ear cropping.
Because dogs have so many nerve endings in their ears, many dogs will experience chronic, lifelong pain or sensitivity after ear cropping. Some dogs may also develop small growths along the cut edge of their ear later in life, which may be painful or require an additional surgical procedure to correct.
Pain is a huge factor in reactivity and aggression. In fact, when considering behavior modification, a reputable, certified behaviorist or trainer will always consider health, nutritional, and physical factors before anything else. This isn't to say that every dog with cropped ears will display reactivity and aggression; every dog handles pain and discomfort differently. We must always consider each dog as an individual and cannot make assumptions about their behavior based on a single factor like cropped ears, but it's important to note that cropping a dog's ears can increase the likelihood of reactive and aggressive behaviors.
Lasting emotional trauma
While ear cropping at any age could have a lasting effect on a dog's behavior, the fact that most dogs undergo this surgery between 6-12 weeks old, a key socialization period, makes it even more likely that a dog will internalize emotional trauma after an ear cropping procedure. Because the dog's human will need to clean the ears and potentially change bandages during the healing process, the dog may form a connection between their human and the pain that they are experiencing.
Even if the physical pain is temporary, a dog's association of pain with humans touching their ears can result in lifelong emotional trauma. This may lead to difficulty with grooming, like ear cleaning, or basic handling, like putting a harness over the dog's head, later in life. Some dogs may struggle with humans reaching out towards them in any context, even a friendly greeting, which can develop into general discomfort around humans and/or avoiding all touch. Some dogs may simply move away in these situations, but other will bark, growl, snap, or even bite.
Rebuilding trust with a dog who has experienced emotional trauma can be a lifelong journey. In these cases, it is extremely important to work with a qualified dog trainer or behaviorist who uses only force-free, positive reinforcement methods. The use of punishment or aversive tools is much more likely to increase distrust and the likelihood of aggression.
Body language and communication
Dogs communicate with each other through body language, and their ears play a big role in communicating their emotions. Cropping a dog's ears makes this communication much more difficult. Because cropped ears mimic an alert ear position, other dogs may be more likely to perceive a dog with cropped ears as a threat, which can result in an increased likelihood of confrontation.
Any dog who has experienced a confrontation with another dog, even if they are not physically injured, is more likely to feel uneasy around other dogs. Some dogs may simply avoid interacting with other dogs, but others may present reactive behaviors such as barking and lunging when another dog is in sight. Again, when we see these behaviors, it is extremely important to work with a qualified dog trainer or behaviorist who uses only force-free, positive reinforcement methods
Why do so many rescue dogs have cropped ears?
Dogs with cropped ears find themselves in shelters and rescues for the same reasons that any other dog would - their humans can no longer care for them for any number of reasons, they are found as strays, etc. It sometimes seems like the concentration of dogs with cropped ears is higher in shelters than in the world at large, but there is no reliable evidence to support this. There is, however, evidence to support that dogs with cropped ears are perceived differently than dogs with natural ears, which is likely playing a role in adoption rates of dogs with cropped ears.
Negative perceptions of dogs and their people
A study published in 2016 found that although 42% of people were "unable to correctly explain the reason why tail docked and ear cropped dogs had short ears and tails," (in other words, they did not know that they were modified through surgery and believed them to be natural), yet dogs with these modifications were "perceived as being more aggressive, more dominant, less playful and less attractive than natural dogs." They also found that owners of these dogs were perceived as "more aggressive, more narcissistic, less playful, less talkative and less warm compared to owners of natural dogs."
This negative perception no doubt influences adoption decisions. While a dog's personality is a major factor in the decision to adopt, many adopters are first drawn to a dog based on their physical appearance. If someone's first impression of a dog, based purely on appearance, is that they are more aggressive than another dog, that dog may never even have a chance to show their personality.
"Desirable" and "less desirable" breeds
Shelter populations can vary quite a bit from one another, but they are reflective of their larger community. Visit a shelter in Southern California, and you're likely to find a lot of huskies and chihuahuas. You'll probably find hound dogs in the Southeast and herding breeds in the Pacific Northwest. You'll find a lot of pit-type and mixed breed dogs, too; not because no one wants them, but because they make up a large part of most communities. The AMVA estimates that around 53% of dogs in US homes are mixed breed, and increase from even 10 years ago.
It is true that "desirable" dogs are often the first to be adopted or to find refuge in private rescues - small dogs, "designer" breeds, pure breeds, and puppies are typically chosen much faster than the average medium-to-large mixed breed dog. There is an overlap between dogs that are "less desirable" in comparison and dogs that are more likely to have cropped ears, and these dogs are likely spending more time on the adoption floor of the average shelter. This likely plays a role in the perception that there is a higher concentration of dogs with cropped ears in the animal welfare system than anywhere else.
If you've ever tried to find housing with a bully breed dog, you know just how difficult it can be - in some cases, nearly impossible. The majority of apartment complexes and housing management companies ban bully breeds (often based on visual identification alone, which you can read more about in the article, 'What exactly is a 'pit bull?'), and entire cities, counties, and states have Breed Specific Legislation that restricts or prohibits the ownership of bully breeds in entire communities. Even if an individual adopter does not have a negative association of bully breeds or dogs with cropped ears, their current housing situation may prevent them from adopting these dogs. Housing restrictions also play a role in these same dogs being surrendered in the first place.
Should you adopt a dog with cropped ears?
The short answer: yes!
When considering any dog for adoption, whether they have cropped ears or not, that dog should be treated as an individual. Making an assumption based on their appearance in any way is a disservice to both the dog and the people who may miss out on an incredible companion.
It's true that ear cropping can have negative effects on the dog, affecting both health and behavior, but it's just one piece of the puzzle. Dogs are affected by any number of factors, and every dog will react differently to its own set of circumstances.
While we at Detezi advocate against ear cropping for all of the negative effects discussed, dogs who have already been through this procedure at no fault of their own should not be further penalized. The next time that you are ready to add a member to your family, we encourage you to choose adoption and to adopt the cropped!
Love rescue dogs? Help break the stigma around rescue dogs with cropped ears with our Adopt The Cropped collection.
Dog ear cropping, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA)
Purebred Dogs: What is a Breed Standard?, American Kennel Club (AKC)
Why an alarming new trend has vets saying, ‘Cut the crop!’, British Veterinary Association (BVA)
Bringing Up Two Points, Tier 1 Vet
Behavioral Differences Between Purebred and Mixed-Breed Dogs, JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
Examining and medicating the ears of a dog, American Animal Hospital Association
Ear Structure and Function in Dogs, Pet Owner Version, Karen A. Moriello , DVM, DACVD, Department of Medical Sciences, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Hierarchy of Behavior-Change Procedures: Humane and Effective Practices, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC)
Tail Docking and Ear Cropping Dogs: Public Awareness and Perceptions, Katelyn E. Mills, Jesse Robbins, and Marina A. G. von Keyserlingk
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4: Doberman by Connor McManus from Pexels
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