The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and the United Kingdom and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2020)
Devocalization (also known as ventriculocordectomy or vocal cordectomy and when performed on dogs is commonly known as debarking or bark softening) is a surgical procedure performed on dogs and cats, where tissue is removed from the animal's vocal cords to permanently reduce the volume of its vocalizations.
Indications and contraindications
Devocalization is usually performed at the request of an animal owner (where the procedure is legally permitted). The procedure may be forcefully requested as a result of a court order. Owners or breeders generally request the procedure because of excessive animal vocalizations, complaining neighbors, or as an alternative to euthanasia due to a court order.
Contraindications include negative reaction to anesthesia, infection, bleeding, and pain. There is also the possibility of the removed tissue growing back, or of scar tissue blocking the throat, both requiring further surgeries, though with the incisional technique, the risk of fibrosis is virtually eliminated.
The devocalization procedure does not take away a dog's ability to bark. Dogs will normally bark just as much as before the procedure. After the procedure, the sound will be softer, typically about half as loud as before, or less, and it is not as sharp or piercing. So while the procedure does not stop barking or silence the animal completely, it is effective in reducing the sound level and sharpness of the dog's bark.
Most devocalized dogs have a subdued "husky" bark, audible up to 20 metres.
The procedure may be performed via the animal's mouth, with a portion of the vocal folds removed using a biopsy punch, cautery tool, scissor, or laser. The procedure may also be performed via an incision in the throat and through the larynx, which is a more invasive technique. All devocalization procedures require general anesthesia.
Reasons for excessive vocalization
Chronic, excessive vocalization may be due to improper socialization or training, stress, boredom, fear, or frustration. Up to 35% of dog owners report problems with barking, which can cause disputes and legal problems. The behavior is more common among some breeds of dog, such as the Shetland Sheepdog, which are known as loud barkers, due to the nature of the environment in which the breed was developed.
Less invasive interventions
Vocalizations are a natural behavior of animals which they use widely in intra-specific and inter-specific communication. As such, devocalization should generally be considered only as a last resort. Before this surgical intervention, there are other, less invasive interventions which can be considered to overcome excessive vocalizations.
Training can be one of the most effective techniques to help combat excessive barking in dogs. Acquiring the help of a professional dog trainer can often help reduce an animal's barking.
The use of automatic and manual corrective collars can be useful as a training aid when used correctly; however, the use of corrective collars, particularly shock collars, is controversial and banned in some countries. Types of corrective collars include vibration, citronella spray, ultrasonic and electrostatic/shock collar.
Because dogs often bark excessively due to stress, boredom, or frustration, changing aspects of an animal's environment to make them more content is a suitable way to quiet them down, rather than forcibly silencing a distressed animal. Spending more time with an animal, such as playing, walking, and other bonding activities, will keep them occupied and make them feel more at ease. If the animal is stressed, it is best to remove the object that is causing them discomfort.
Controversy and legislation
In some regions of the US and in the UK, convenience devocalization is considered a form of surgical mutilation. Most vets and the RSPCA offer information to behavioral schools on how to train dogs not to bark.
Several reasons are offered in favor of devocalization: after surgery, dogs are allowed to bark more freely, which is a natural behavior, the dog is no longer subject to constant disapproval for its barking, and dogs that previously had to be kept indoors to avoid antagonizing neighbors can be allowed outdoors. Further, breeds and individual animals known for excessive barking/vocalizing have a higher chance of being adopted/rescued and not being repeatedly re-homed if/when training fails.
Dr. Kathy Gaughan points out that "the surgery stops the barking, but it doesn't address why the dog was barking in the first place." Gaughan notes that visitors to her clinic who request debarking are usually looking for a "quick fix". Gaughan states that, commonly, those who seek debarking live in apartments, or have neighbors who complain. Gaughan also counts "breeders with many dogs" among those who most often seek convenience devocalization. However, Dr. Gaughan does not agree with those who claim the procedure is cruel, stating: "Recently, some animal advocates have asserted this surgery is cruel to the animal; some countries have even outlawed the procedure. I do not believe the surgical procedure is cruel; however, failing to address the underlying factors is inappropriate."
Some breeders seek the surgery in order to limit or diminish noise levels for personal reasons ranging from convenience to prevention; some breeders even seek the surgery for puppies prior to going to new homes.
Opinions of animal welfare societies
Multiple animal medicine and animal welfare organizations discourage the use of convenience devocalization, recommending that it only be used as a last resort. However, organizations such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Animal Hospital Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, oppose laws that would make devocalization illegal.
The American Veterinary Medical Association's official position states that "canine devocalization should only be performed by qualified, licensed veterinarians as a final alternative after behavioral modification efforts to correct excessive vocalization have failed."
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association's position statement on devocalization of dogs states: “The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) discourages “devocalization” of dogs unless it is the only alternative to euthanasia, and humane treatment and management methods have failed."
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends that animal caretakers first attempt to address animal behavior problems with humane behavior modification techniques and/or with a treatment protocol set up by an animal behavior specialist. The ASPCA recommends surgery only if behavior modification techniques have failed, and the animal is at risk of losing its home or its life.
Legal restriction and banning
The legality of convenience devocalization varies by jurisdiction.
The procedure is outlawed as a form of mutilation in the United Kingdom and all countries that have signed the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. In the United States, devocalization is illegal in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Warwick, Rhode Island.
In the United States, laws vary by state. In 2000, anti-debarking legislation was proposed in California, New Jersey, and Ohio. The California and New Jersey bills failed, partially due to opposition from groups who predicted the ban would lead to similar bans on ear cropping and other controversial cosmetic surgical procedures on dogs. The Ohio bill survived, and was signed into law by Governor Robert Taft in August 2000. However, Ohio Revised Code 955.22 only outlawed debarking of dogs considered "vicious".
In February 2009, 15-year-old Jordan Star of Needham, Massachusetts, filed a bill to outlaw performing convenience devocalization procedures upon cats and dogs. The bill was co-sponsored by Senator Scott Brown, with the title Logan's Law, after a debarked sheepdog. Star said of convenience devocalization: "To take a voice away from an animal is morally wrong." The bill became state law on April 23, 2010.
Devocalizing cats and dogs became illegal in Massachusetts by state law in 2010 and in Warwick, Rhode Island, by city ordinance in 2011. Legislation to ban devocalization of dogs and cats in New York State is underway.
- "Devocalization fact sheet" (PDF). Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. Retrieved 2 May 2013.
- Ventriculocordectomy (“Debarking”), by Dawn Brown DVM, April 12, 2009, Mushing magazine
- Debarking Dogs: Bark Softening Surgery, April, 2013
- Code of practice for debarking of dogs, Bureau of Animal Welfare, Attwood, Victoria, Australia, October, 2001
- Cosmetic Surgery for Dogs and Cats Archived 2009-03-29 at the Wayback Machine, In Defense of Animals
- Declawing and Debarking: What are the Alternatives?: World Small Animal Veterinary Association, World Congress – Vancouver 2001
- Millan, Cesar. "Mr". Retrieved 29 April 2013.
- Anon. "PetSafe Products". PetSafe. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
- Debarking surgery won't take away dog's motivation to bark, Understanding Animals
- K-State Perspectives. "Opinion: The pros and cons of debarking". Archived from the original on May 23, 2007.
- AVMA policy: Canine Devocalization (Approved by the AVMA Executive Board June 2002; reaffirmed April 2008; oversight: Animal Welfare Committee)
- Canine Devocalization Position Statement Archived 2010-07-13 at the Wayback Machine, American Animal Hospital Association
- New AAHA position statement opposes cosmetic ear cropping, tail docking
- Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. "CVMA: Devocalization of Dogs – Position Statement". Retrieved November 7, 2015.
- Position Statement on Surgical Procedures for Resolving Behavior Problems, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
- "European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals". Council of Europe. Council of Europe. Retrieved 29 July 2016.
- "Animal Welfare Charter". Hastings Borough Council. Archived from the original on 2008-11-21. Retrieved 2008-07-20.
It is now illegal for ear cropping and debarking of dogs as well as the declawing of cats to take place.
- Animal control is people control Archived 2011-07-22 at the Wayback Machine, Animal People News, May 2002
- Confining, restraining, debarking dogs., Ohio Revised Code
- "Teen Files Bill to Make Vocal Surgery Illegal: Putting a Bite into Debarking", Boston Herald. February 02, 2009.
- Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Session Laws, Chapter 82, An Act Prohibiting Devocalization of Dogs and Cats: http://www.malegislature.gov/Laws/SessionLaws/Acts/2010/Chapter82
- City of Warwick, RI, Chapter 4 Animals and Fowl, Article IV, Animal Care; Spaying and Neutering Dogs and Cats, Sec. 4-132. Devocalization prohibited: http://www.warwickri.gov/pdfs/cityclerk/2010/PCO-29-10.pdf[permanent dead link]
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