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Taking Aim, Ear cropping targeted by Vermont veterinarians


Montpelier, Vt. ? The Vermont Senate gave a bill banning ear cropping the nod last month, leaving the House to decide if the state will become the first in the country to outlaw the procedure.

MONTPELIER, VT. — The Vermont Senate gave a bill banning ear cropping the nod last month, leaving the House to decide if the state will become the first in the country to outlaw the procedure.

S.250 must skirt opposition of the American Kennel Club (AKC) and breeders, a force that has overpowered similar legislation in California.

The Vermont Veterinary Medical Association (VVMA) and several humane organizations are providing the lobbying muscle behind Sen. Ann Cummings', D-Wash., push to promote the bill.

"The United States is the only industrialized country that encourages the cosmetic procedure," says Dr. Karen Bradley, VVMA animal welfare committee chairman and owner of Onion River Animal Hospital. "The majority of veterinarians do not like to perform the procedure, but do it fearing clients will seek nonprofessionals, furthering animals' health risk."

The ear-cropping procedure is going under the knife by some veterinarians. The cosmetic procedure has been scrutinized in Vermont and California.

Some veterinarians, however, do not consider cropping dogs' ears inhumane as long as the surgery is performed in sterile conditions, under anesthesia and with pain medicine.

"As long as the procedure is legal, I see no problem with it," says Dr. Lloyd Meisels, hospital director, Coral Springs Animal Hospital in Florida. "The key is performing the procedure humanely. I do not like the idea of the government telling veterinarians (outside of practice acts) how to perform their jobs. I hope the legislation doesn't pass."

Bradley says veterinarians are not against the procedure for therapeutic purposes, but the percentage of ear crops performed for this reason are small, and the legislation would not ban this.

VVMA officials say veterinarians are not taught the procedure at universities and information on the topic is absent from recent textbooks.

If the legislation becomes law, a first-time offender would pay a civil fine similar to a speeding ticket. The penalty for a second-time offender increases to a misdemeanor, carrying a $2,000 fine and up to a year in jail. A third offense brings a $5,000 fine and up to two years in jail.

Opposition weighs in

"This legislation is a way the government comes between veterinarians and owners," says Stephanie Lane, AKC director for canine legislation. "Responsible dog owners and breeders should make informed decisions about their pets' care, not the government. This is a slippery slope to removing veterinarians' and owners' rights to make decisions about animal care and treatment."

Lane says the club fears this legislation will drive people out of the state or underground for the procedure.

George Sexton, legislative liaison for the Vermont Federation of Dog Clubs, says he has no personal interest in ear cropping, but fears this legislation has a hidden agenda.

"This bill infringes on veterinarians' rights to practice and owners' rights to care for their pets," Sexton says. "The argument is that this surgery causes pain to the animals, but so does spaying and neutering. Animals don't have a choice in that, either."

Yet Sen. Richard Sears, the Senate committee's chairman, is a believer in banning the cosmetic procedure.

"I have received more e-mails regarding this piece of legislation than any other presented in this year's legislative calendar," Sears says. "Many breeders are upset, but there haven't been complaints from the veterinary community."

Vermont veterinarian's stance

VVMA surveyed 192 of its members asking if they agree the procedure does not fall under the guidelines of the Veterinarian's Oath. While all responding members agreed, no one other than a veterinarian should be permitted to perform the procedure, 36 were in support of the legislation as written and 12 respondents were concerned that the legislation would set a precedent to ban other medical procedures.

"Most veterinarians choose not to perform the procedure on principle alone, while those who do fear laymen may cause the dog serious damage when clients cannot find a veterinarian to perform the task," Bradley says.

VVMA stance

The state association's current position says: "Ear cropping dogs for cosmetic reasons is not medically indicated and serves no benefit to the patient. As a surgical procedure, ear cropping causes pain and distress and is accompanied by risks of anesthetic complications, bleeding and infection. The VVMA encourages elimination of ear cropping from breed standards and opposes the procedure when performed for purely cosmetic reasons."

While the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) position statement closely mirrors VVMA's, officials with the national group won't lobby in the state unless Vermont asks for help.

"This issue is certainly on our priority list," says Sharon Granskog, AVMA assistant director of communications. "Right now Vermont is the only state with active legislation regarding a ban on ear cropping, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were more to follow if this is made into law."

Veterinarians worked with the American Kennel Club (AKC) to initiate support allowing natural ears as part of breed standard, Bradley says.

"I believe all parent clubs have adjusted their standards to say both ear styles are acceptable, but AKC awards more trophies to dogs that have gone under the knife," she adds.

While AKC officials do not deny this claim, they counter individual judges might have a preference, but it is not the club's standard.

Breeder's perspective

"It is harder to finish a dog with non-cropped ears than cropped ears," says Michelle McGraph, a Kentucky Doberman breeder. "It is what people are used to seeing, and what they expect from these breeds."

Bradley dismisses the argument and says after a couple of generations, ear-cropping simply won't be the norm. She adds the bill would not forego veterinary rights to perform the procedure for medical reasons.

"The bill clearly states the procedure may legally be performed for therapeutic purposes," she adds.

However, Vermont veterinarians say the procedure is not typically performed as an answer to chronic ear infections.

"If ear cropping was routinely performed to reduce ear infections, every Cocker Spaniel would be running around with an ear crop," Bradley says.

Other attempts for a ban

The California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and the state veterinary medical board made an attempt to ban ear cropping in 2004, without success. In 2005, an Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR)-backed ear crop ban was again introduced in the state as a rider to a larger bill, which stalled in the California Assembly Appropriations Committee. After committee Chairwoman Judy Chu did not introduce the bill for a vote, then Sen. Liz Figueroa, the initiative's sponsor, withdrew the proposal when constituents grew concerned the larger measure would be thrown out because of the clause.

CVMA officials say they don't believe the legislation will resurface in 2006.

"We think the bill has a good chance of passing in Vermont," Bradley says despite California's failure to pass a ban. "This really could pass and set precedent for other states. It could also be mired down in committee."


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