It’s one thing to dress up your pup for a costume party or have the groomer trim, shave and shape his coat into the latest canine style. It’s another to permanently alter a dog’s body for the sake of appearance — to meet certain physical standards if he’s a show dog, for example.

Many breeders, as well as the American Kennel Club (AKC), view two common practices — tail cropping and ear docking — as appropriate and necessary to attain certain breeds’ distinctive looks. Around 18 breeds routinely endure one or both of these procedures, including standard poodles, Doberman pinschers, boxers, Great Danes, Boston terriers, pit bulls, American Staffordshire terriers, Neapolitan mastiffs, schnauzers, Brussels Griffons and Manchester terriers.

But even though tail cropping and ear docking are common, many animal experts feel they are forms of mutilation and nothing short of cruel. In fact, in most countries other than the United States, it’s illegal to crop and dock. If you plan to get a dog whose breed routinely goes under the knife, here’s what you should know.

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Tail cropping

Tail cropping is the partial or complete surgical amputation of a dog’s tail. The practice began for practical reasons. Docking was once considered a solution to an overly long tail, which might be prone to injury, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Hunting dogs often had their tails shortened “so that the extremities wouldn’t be mauled during the capture of prey,” adds Anthea Appel, an animal naturopath in New York City. But this cosmetic operation is no walk in the park. Even worse, it’s performed on puppies hardly old enough to open their eyes — between 3 and 10 days old.

Dogs use their tails for balance and movement, particularly when swimming and running. A swinging tail also conveys feelings, such as joy, fear and curiosity. “The position of the tail and ears signals to other canines whether your dog is friend or foe,” points out Appel. Cropping these important appendages can put your pup at a distinct disadvantage.

Ear docking

To be docked, ears are shaped with a blade, often to get large ones to point upwards rather then flop over. “Up to two-thirds of the ear’s outer structure is removed, sometimes without using anesthetic,” says Kate Knutson, DVM, a veterinarian in Bloomington, Minnesota.

At one time it was theorized that cropping heavy, drooping ears would lower a dog’s risk of infections and improve hearing, but neither of these outcomes have been proven. “Another common reason to crop ears was to make a dog look tougher and increase his status as a threatening character,” says Knutson.

(Some breeds, such as Shetland sheepdogs, have their ears positioned with fabric glue when they’re puppies to train the tip fold down. It works by shaping the cartilage and isn’t painful.)

Vocal cord removal

A third unnecessary intervention, done for the pet owner's convenience rather than a appearance, is cordectomy, in which a dog’s vocal cords are removed. Owners will do this to stifle a dog that’s especially “barky.” A cordectomy won’t leave a dog completely silent, but he’ll be able to make only a soft, hoarse-sounding noise.

"Complications are a possibility, such as infection or scar tissue that blocks the airway,” Appel says. Incessant barking is grating to be sure, but behavioral and management interventions should be exhausted first, states the AVMA. A cordectomy should be done only as a last resort and to avoid the animal’s abandonment or euthanasia.

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Pain, stress and slow healing

“It’s inhumane to subject young dogs to such pain,” says Appel. Not only does it hurt to lose a piece of tail or ear, surgery puts dogs, especially young puppies, under a lot of stress.

“It also takes a long time for wounds to heal and sometimes the owner doesn’t even end up with the desired result,” Appel adds. The AVMA opposes ear cropping and tail docking when performed for cosmetic reasons and has motioned that these physical adjustments be banned from each breed’s standards.

If you must play with your dog’s appearance, stick with grooming his coat or booties. “Excessive grooming isn’t harmful, such as dying fur or those crazy poodle hairstyles. In fact, it may even increase the bond people have with their pets,” notes Knutson.

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Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York City-based writer and editor who specializes in parenting, health and child development. She’s also the mom of two teen girls.