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Should Debarking Surgery Be Outlawed?

Dog lovers are howling to make the surgery illegal. Is it ever warranted? Would you ever do it?

 |  Oct 31st 2012  |   43 Contributions


Every year, thousands of dogs undergo a procedure called a ventriculocordectomy, commonly known as debarking or devocalization. It's a highly controversial surgery most veterinarians prefer to use only as a last resort.

Unfortunately, too many dog owners -- out of laziness, ignorance, or both -- opt for the surgery before they've tried the myriad behavioral solutions for excessive barking. They may tell a vet they've done everything to deal with the barking, and what's a vet to do? Send over spy cams?

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Closeup of barking dog by Shutterstock

The American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) official position on the procedure is that it should be used only when all else has failed. But a Change.org petition is asking the organization to consider devocalization a mutilation and calling for the end of it. According to the petition's introduction, only one state, Massachusetts, has laws against debarking. Petition signers would like to see the procedure be illegal across the U.S. Some 140,000 have already signed on.

Debarked dogs are easy to recognize as soon as they open their mouths to say something. They try to bark and but instead out comes a raspy, coughlike sound. Sometimes these dogs gag on their barks. I met one of these dogs a few years ago, and she looked very disturbed and uncomfortable when she barked. It was even disturbing to hear her try. Her owner told me she wished she'd never had it done.

In a very informative New York Times piece on the procedure, veterinarian Sharon Vanderlip provides some excellent answers to reader questions. She describes the two surgical techniques used in devocalization.

One technique, known as laryngotomy, is painful, dangerous, and can ruin a dog for life. Fortunately, this Spanish Inquisition-like procedure is not the method most veterinarians use these days. But the fact that anyone still resorts to it is very disturbing. Vanderlip describes it:

"This technique involves making a two-inch incision on the skin of the neck, above the dog’s larynx, separating the muscles, cauterizing blood vessels, entering the larynx, removing all of the dog’s vocal fold tissue and stitching the incision back together. This technique is invasive, painful, requires gas anesthesia and has a prolonged recovery time. There can be serious postoperative complications, including seroma formation, delayed healing and tissue damage. Scarring can be so extensive that the dog can have difficulty breathing for the rest of its life."

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White dog barking by Shutterstock

The other surgery is done through the mouth and takes only a couple of minutes; dogs are generally able to eat and drink right away. Vets remove a small bit of tissue in one or both vocal folds of the anesthetized dog. It's far less invasive and dangerous, and much better tolerated, but it's by no means always the walk in the park it's supposed to be.

"Though an experienced vet devocalized our gentle giant, Porter, in the least invasive way, scar tissue formed in his throat, making it hard for him to breathe and swallow; he rasps, coughs and gags throughout the day like a chain smoker," writes one of the originators of the petition. "Because devocalization permanently damaged his larynx too, he’s at great risk for inhaling food, liquids, even vomit into his lungs."

Porter, the big sweetie in this video, had a $2,000 surgery to try to help him breathe better after his previous owners had him debarked. (Oh, and they gave him up anyway.) It didn't do much good. So sad!

But what about the people who have, indeed, tried everything? What if the choice comes down to debarking or giving up the dog because of complaining neighbors or the law? It can be a death sentence for the barker if the latter is the option. Excessive barking is a big reason many dogs are in shelters. They're not exactly highly adoptable.

So what's worse in this situation: Muffling a dog's voice or killing the dog? AKC honoree Charlotte McGowan opts for the surgery.

“It’s giving a tool to someone who really loves their animal and is at the end of their rope,” McGowan, who refers to the procedure as “bark softening," told NBC News.

What do you think? Will you sign the petition? If so, what about caring owners who have tried utterly everything and are facing the prospect of their dog being destroyed? Should there be some amendment for them if they can prove their case? Let's talk in the comments!

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