How To Evaluate Cosmetic Otoplasty
by Yelena Lapova, DVM, BS
Last updated: October 7, 2020
Ears, ears, ears. They can make or break the look of a traditionally cropped breeds like Doberman, Great Dane, Schnauzer, Boxer, and many others. How do we know what’s good and what’s bad? I want everyone to have a basic working knowledge and high standards for their crops – while understanding what the surgeon can and can’t control, and how important YOUR role is in the process. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – yet symmetry, technique, style, beauty flow, and communication should always be top notch. This blog references mostly Dobermans, but key factors apply to every cropped breed. Remember, many Veterinarians crop ears – VERY FEW CROP THEM WELL! Spend some time researching your surgical team, and don’t just trust the puppy brokers who find the cheapest surgeon and pocket your money, or worse – a “backyard surgeon.” We repair many a horrible crop and wish we didn’t have to. Sadly, in addition to inexperienced veterinarians, there are non-veterinarians who offer their illegal surgical “services” in the “comfort” of their backyards and garages, with stolen anesthetic drugs – or with manual restraint of the unfortunate victims of their cruelty. Stay away from anyone who is not a Veterinarian! It is ANIMAL CRUELTY, and is completely illegal to practice surgery without a veterinary license.
Cosmetic otoplasty follows breed standards. That means, no clearly defined breed, no real standard. This mostly pertains to the bully breeds not recognized by the AKC – such as American Pitbull Terrier, American Bully, etc. and their mixes. We have some flexibility in the length and shape of these crops, but we generally follow the standard for a similar recognized breed such as Staffordshire or another registering body like the UKC, CKC and the breed club -and what we think will be an esthetically pleasing result for the dog. We do NOT perform “battle crops” or excessively short crops for ethical and health reasons – the only exception is correction. If your puppy phenotypically resembles a breed other than a standardly cropped breed, or is a mix of a traditionally cropped breed, I reserve full right to decline surgery for ethical reasons as well. I’ve been asked to crop hounds, Doberman/Rottweiler mixes, retriever breeds and even a pup who resembled a Shepherd more than a bully. We respect the breed standard, and the answer to cropping those breeds and mixes is “no.”
Now lets discuss the basics of cosmetic otoplasty for the Doberman breed – keeping in mind many of the surgical principles apply to all cropped breeds.
1. There are 3 general lengths/styles: short/military, medium/standard, long/show. They are somewhat subjective, and there are variations like “medium show”, “long show” etc.. There is no arbitrary length for what these lengths will be in an adult dog. What could appear as a medium/standard length on a 27.5 inch 80 lb male may look as a long/show crop on a 26.5 inch more slender female. An experienced cosmetic veterinary surgeon will be able to suggest which one will suit the dog, the purpose, and the cartilage – while understanding that how the pup will mature is not fully predictable. Purpose of the dog is also important. A companion or working dog may not need a long show crop unless they also compete in conformation and have excellent cartilage – it can take a very long time to stand. Thin cartilage, heavy leather of the ear, and weak or “rosebud” bases have a higher chance of not standing. Puppy cartilage is not predictable, and sometimes it matures in the ways we don’t expect – stronger or weaker. An experienced Doctor will discuss the findings and risks with you prior to scheduling the surgery. It also helps to evaluate a few generations of predecessors, as cartilage quality is genetic. I love pictures of the dog’s parents, and even more generations if possible. There is no nutritional supplement, voodoo or magic. Whether the ears stand depends on genetics and your diligence in posting. Style also plays a role. Improperly cropped, thick and heavy ears can fall even if they are short, due to the mass created by bulk.
2. Shape and Style. This is where the artistic interpretation plays a major role. Edge can be straight or curved, have more or less bell, etc.. The region of the country, who was the prominent cosmetic surgeon, prevalence of companion vs show dog breeding programs, and many other factors influence shape and style. Style always evolves, as demographics, preferences and surgeon experience change over time. A light, natural curve with elegant bell is my signature crop. This style can generally be shown in conformation even without excessive length. Style is like a handwriting – each surgeon has their unique one, and it’s unlikely to change on request. It’s important you like the style and review the portfolio. If you can’t agree on the crop, your Doctor may refer you to someone else, although veterinary cosmetic surgeons are very few and far between. Keep in mind that the natural quality of the cartilage and angle of viewing contributes to the overall look. Weak or under-posted cartilage can deviate to the side and create an illusion of a curve even when one wasn’t created surgically. If you want the cartilage to mature as strong and straight as possible, you should keep posting the ears well beyond just standing, up to 1-2 years. This will not change the genetic quality of the cartilage, but it will help it reach it’s potential. Also, ear crop is like a hair cut – identical cuts will look different on different people due to facial shape, muscle tone etc.
Most of our patients are companion animals, and elegant crop with standard/medium length in proportion to the head and body is our largest case load. However, length can be adjusted for show prospects, while keeping the sophisticated, refined style. While the dog should not be faulted for having an incorrect crop, in reality quality of the crop can have an indirect affect. A graceful, symmetrical crop which naturally flows with the dog can enhance a less than perfect head. A choppy, unsuited crop can distract from the most beautiful head and ruin the presentation of the entire dog.
3. Symmetry. The ears need to be a mirror image of each other. One should not be taller, wider or shaped differently than the other. Very challenging to do, but that’s what separates the good cosmetic surgeons from the mediocre. Evaluate with the face squared to you, and look at the bases, middle, and tips. Also, evaluate from the sides and back. Occasionally the ears will not heal properly at the very tip and small part will undergo necrosis (tissue death) or fibrosis (scarring) and appear shorter or bent slightly backwards. Unfortunately that’s outside the Doctor’s complete control.
4. Beauty flow. At full maturity, do the ears belong on the dog, or are they disproportionately tall, short, wide, stubby, stick out like a sore thumb, etc.? Does the dog look like a Doberman or a fruit bat? Do the ears look like steak knives? Look at the Doctor’s portfolio! If they don’t have an esthetic, pleasing collection of patient images, chances are yours won’t be the first great one. Some Doctors don’t take many pictures, but I would personally find some or see if there is a patient coming into the clinic you can glance at – keeping in mind that they may have been cropped elsewhere. Remember, ears don’t grow near as much or fast as the puppy, so the crop usually looks disproportionally long until the dog matures which takes at least 18 months, and sometimes 3 years. Our goal is the adult look consistent with breed standard, style for the purpose of the dog, and your preference – they only are puppies for a year.
5. Technique. Tissue handling is not the only one, but a major determinant of how much scar tissue develops, the smoothness of the edge, proper blending into the head and neck, etc. Poor handling, inappropriate tools, and excessive suture material will result in messy edges, ears that stick out from the head, tips that don’t match, etc. While some surgeons are very skilled with the laser, it is my opinion that surgical laser is a poor modality for the pinnectomy/otoplasty, and can leave not only a jagged edge but hairs discolored white.
6. YOU are a huge factor in how they will stand or heal. It’s a commitment for months to years. The genetic makeup of the dog and aftercare are utmost important in standing. We only shape the ear, YOU do the rest. The way a poor crop contributes to not standing is when it’s too top heavy. Most inexperienced croppers actually go too short and round. I have corrected some crops where too much tissue was left on, my guess is due to fear or removing too much. However, vast majority of the time the ears don’t stand for genetic reasons, or poor aftercare. Hold your blame for non-standing, as the vet has very little to do with it in cases of good crops and proper use of instruments. Are you willing to accept a 10-20% chance of non-standing and dedicate yourself to consistent aftercare? If not, ear crop is not for you. Leave them natural and save the time and $. Do NOT fall for the “lets do them like a pit bull because they won’t stand otherwise” assessment! A Doberman is NOT a bully breed, and if the Doctor has no confidence they will stand, either leave them alone or seek a second opinion. That phrase is a code for “we have no idea how to crop a Doberman.”
7. Communication with your Doctor and surgical Team is key. Seek proper education and risk:benefit assessment. What is the Doctor’s opinion on chances of standing, potential complications such as pockets, etc. Do they use a modern anesthetic and analgesic protocol? Are they open for follow up, will they support you with questions and concerns after the crop? Overall, everyone has a different idea of beauty and there’s nothing wrong with preferring one style to another. Symmetry, shape, beauty flow and technique- as well as quality anesthesia, pain control, education and communication– are huge factors and you should have high standards for them. If a Doctor does not require consultation and is willing to just perform surgery without even meeting with you, I would personally walk away and find someone more willing to communicate. In human cosmetics, there are multiple consultations and even counseling involved prior to surgery. I can’t imagine never meeting the Doctor and Team who will be altering the appearance of my dog, for life.
I will keep updating this blog, as opinions and observations are never final. The day we stop learning is the day we should stop practicing. There is never enough to learn, observe, and improve about the art of cosmetic surgery, and we are grateful to all of you for your trust and support or our Practice and our surgical art.