Routine tail docking of up to two-thirds of the cow’s tail at 12-18 months old, was adopted by some dairy farmers mainly for the benefit of the milker but also in the belief that tail docking reduces the risk of mastitis, improves milk quality, leaves udders cleaner and reduces fly numbers. However, there is no evidence that supports these beliefs. The RSPCA is opposed to the docking of the tails of any species of animal unless under veterinary advice to improve an individual animal’s health.
Dairy Australia surveyed dairy farmers in 2019 and found that tail docking is at a static level with around 4% of farmers still tail docking their cows, mainly in Victoria and Tasmania. Most farmers trim the switch (hair at the end of the tail) rather than dock the tail.
The cow’s tail is docked using a rubber ring, a sharp knife or a hot docking iron. Because the procedure is performed without anaesthetic or pain relief, the cow experiences acute pain. The cow may also experience chronic pain due to inflammation and lesions caused by the procedure (e.g. nerve tumours).
Not only is the procedure painful and may result in chronic pain, shortening the tail prevents the cow from swatting at flies. This results in an increased number of flies around the hind quarters causing distress due to the intense irritation and annoyance.
Rather than docking tails, hygiene during milking can be improved through better dairy design, implementing best practice during milking and effective fly control.
The Australian Animal Welfare Standards & Guidelines for cattle (endorsed by state/territory governments in 2016) do not allow routine tail docking. However, to date, only Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia have regulated the Standards, meaning tail docking is legal in the other states/territories. There is no justification for tail docking of dairy cattle to continue.