Policy: Surgical alteration to the natural state of animals

Policy type: Policy
Reference: 3b
Status: Current
Date ratified: 1 May 2014

While recognising the need for society to make use of animals, the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) regards animals as sentient beings, not simply objects for self-gratification, adornment or exploitation. Surgical alterations to the natural state of animals are therefore acceptable only if a net welfare benefit can be demonstrated. Performance of procedures for cosmetic reasons is unacceptable to the NZVA, and is considered unethical under the Code of Professional Conduct issued by the Veterinary Council of New Zealand in 2011.

Furthermore, invasive surgical procedures necessitate provision of accepted standards of analgesia, asepsis, haemostasis and minimal trauma to ensure the welfare of the animal concerned. These procedures must therefore be performed by or under the direct supervision of a veterinarian.


  1. It must be recognised that veterinary opinion is dynamic and that particular surgical procedures should be reviewed frequently, based on veterinary, scientific, ethical and ethological considerations, rather than on sentiment, economics, or bias. During such revision the following criteria should be considered:
    1. Is there adequate evidence that undesirable or harmful events will occur to the animal (or in a significant proportion of animals) without surgical prophylaxis?
    2. Is there compelling evidence the prophylactic procedure will confer some benefit to the animal (or to a significant proportion of animals)?
    3. Are there alternative non-surgical procedures that provide superior or equivalent prophylaxis with no, or fewer, adverse effects?
    4. Will the procedure be carried out with due regard to current surgical principles, anaesthesia and husbandry practice?
    5. Does the perceived benefit of the procedure outweigh the occurrence of any possible adverse effects?
  2. Where surgical intervention is necessary as a result of physical characteristics produced by selective breeding, the veterinary profession has an obligation to bring this to the attention of breeders, to strongly recommend desexing of these animals, to encourage breeders to use their skills to return animals to a natural physiognomy and attempt to change factors such as breed standards that encourage propagation of undesirable traits.
  3. In circumstances where existing management practice, breeds of animals and environment have dictated the need for a procedure to be performed for the future welfare of the animal, the profession should critically examine the management practices that have necessitated the procedure and where necessary give advice on systems of breeding management that avoid the need for such compromises in animal welfare.
  4. Veterinarians have an obligation to educate all members of the public to their responsibilities as owners.


  1. Surgical procedures prohibited under s21(2) of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 are:
    a. Cropping the ears of a dog,
    b. Performing blistering, firing or nicking on a horse.
  2. Surgical procedures that are restricted under s17 (2) of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 can only be performed in the interests of the animal. They include:
    1. Debarking a dog
  3. Declawing a catDocking the tail of a horse.

The NZVA position on these procedures, which are normally unacceptable, is that they may be performed in certain specific conditions for therapeutic reasons on the advice of a veterinarian. For debarking of a dog and declawing of a cat, this means they should be performed only as a last resort when all other avenues (such as behavioural training) have been exhausted. In relation to docking of a horse, the tail of a horse should only be docked for medical, not cosmetic or prophylactic, reasons.


The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, Article 10 of the Convention on surgical operations states:

"Surgical operations for the purpose of modifying the appearance of a pet animal or for other non-curative purposes shall be prohibited and, in particular: the docking of tails; the cropping of ears; devocalisation; the declawing and defanging.

Exceptions to these prohibitions shall be permitted only: if a veterinarian considers non-curative procedures necessary either for veterinary medical reasons or for the benefit of any particular animal; or to prevent reproduction.
Operations in which the animal will or is likely to experience severe pain shall be carried out under anaesthesia only by a veterinarian or under his/her supervision. Operations for which no anaesthesia is required may be carried out by a person competent under national legislation"

The Accompanying Explanatory Report states:

"The article has been worded so as to place the emphasis on the prohibition of surgical interventions which are mainly carried out for aesthetic reasons or for the personal convenience of the owner and/or the breeder".

Related policies

  • Significant surgical procedures
  • Tail docking of dogs
  • Amputation of dew claws in dogs
  • Prepubertal desexing of dogs and cats
  • Mulesing
  • Disbudding of calves
  • Dehorning of cattle
  • Flight restriction in birds
  • Castration of cryptorchids


Animal Welfare Act 1999

Code of Professional Conduct