Canine Debarking Surgery: Is Debarking Cruel to Dogs?
Debarking, also known as devocalization, devoicing, or bark softening, is a surgical procedure that involves removing laryngeal tissue from a dog, which renders them unable to produce normal sounds when barking. This procedure has been met with much controversy and considered by many to be unethical or cruel. Certain U.S. counties and states have even gone so far as to ban the procedure entirely.
Facts about Barking
Barking is one method of dog communication. Barking serves many purposes, including:
- Alert or alarm barking: When dogs bark related to sight and sound, often without context.
- Attention-seeking barking
- Boredom barking: Due to lack of mental stimulation and exercise.
- Compulsive barking: In relation to compulsive behavior.
- Dementia: Barking due to confusion or fear.
- Frustration-induced barking: Usually occurs during confinement.
- Greeting barking: When dogs bark to say “hello” to other dogs or people.
- Noise phobia barking: Occurs in response to thunderstorms, fireworks, or other jarring noises.
- Pain-induced barking
- Play barking
- Separation-anxiety barking: Occurs when dogs are left alone.
- Socially-facilitated barking: Barking in response to other dogs barking.
- Territorial barking: In response to outsiders approaching or invading a dog’s territory.
Barking is a normal canine communication method, however, when barking is excessive, it is important to understand what your dog is trying to communicate and consider methods to reinforce their needs in more appropriate ways. Learn more about why dogs bark here and how to deal with excessive barking.
The Controversy Surrounding Debarking Procedures
There are a variety of opinions surrounding debarking surgery. Debarking is referred to by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as a “cruel surgery of convenience,” while other groups refer to debarking as an unnecessary “mutilation.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states that “devocalization—or debarking—should be used only as an alternative to euthanasia, after efforts to change a dog’s behavior have failed.”
Here are some facts to consider:
- It is estimated that 3 to 8% of dogs have been evaluated by veterinarians or behaviorists for excessive barking. These numbers represent a fraction of the real problem as many clients do not seek professional help for this behavioral issue.
- Although debarking is considered a “treatable” behavioral problem, some dogs can be difficult to train.
- Veterinarians are not trained in veterinary school to perform this surgery and many refuse to learn.
- Debarking is most often performed at the request of an owner due to complaints from neighbors. The debarking procedure may also be the final alternative to relinquishment of pet ownership or euthanasia.
- Debarking surgery does not address the underlying cause for the barking.
- Excessive barking behavior can lead to poor adoption rates at shelters.
- Surgery has variable success. It won’t stop the urge to bark, but modify the sound produced. The results can vary from no bark to a hoarse, muffled, softer, or altered sound. Some estimate that the debarking surgery decreases the loudness of the bark by 50% in about half of dogs. Some dogs will regain the ability to bark as tissues heal.
There are both supporters and opponents of this procedure:
Supporters of Debarking Argue:
- Barking is a normal behavior. After surgery, dogs can continue their normal barking behavior without annoying family and neighbors.
- The dog will no longer be reprimanded or scolded for their barking.
- Dogs with excessive barking may be relinquished with a poor chance of successful rehoming.
- When training has failed, debarking can facilitate reintegration into the family and increased interaction with friends and neighbors both indoors and outdoors.
Opponents of Debarking Argue:
- There are more humane and effective behavioral treatments than debarking. The surgery can decrease the sound created by barking, but not eliminate it.
- The debarking procedure requires general anesthesia with possible adverse reactions, as well as surgery. Surgical complications include bleeding, risk of infection, pain, nerve damage, and scar tissue formation that requires additional surgeries. As many as 1 in 4 dogs suffer from scarring or laryngeal webbing that can cause difficulty breathing and the need for additional surgeries. Laryngeal nerve damage can lead to aspiration pneumonia.
- Many believe surgical debarking procedures are inhumane and a form of mutilation.
- Surgical debarking is banned or illegal in the United Kingdom and in many parts of the U.S., like New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Warwick, Rhode Island.
Steps Involved in Debarking Surgery
First of all, debarking is considered a last-resort procedure. All behavioral training methods should be exhausted prior to this surgery.
The debarking procedure consists of putting a dog under general anesthesia. Protocol may vary from vet to vet, but the sequence generally follows the following path:
- Once a dog arrives at the veterinary clinic, the owner will be asked to sign a consent form, and agree to options for preanesthetic screening tests like blood work or an EKG.
- The dog is taken to the pre-op kennel area where blood is drawn if appropriate. Blood work evaluates for underlying metabolic problems with the liver, kidneys, etc. that could prohibit sedation and anesthesia.
- Prior to sedation, the dog is evaluated by a veterinary team, with a physical examination that ensures there are no changes since the previous exam. For example, they will examine the dog’s overall demeanor, mucous membrane color, and auscultate (listen with a stethoscope) the heart and lungs.
- Typically, the dog is given a sedative by injection. While the dog is relaxing, they may shave one of the dog’s legs and place an intravenous (IV) catheter.
- When it’s time for the procedure, additional drugs will be given through the IV which will create a state of total relaxation. An endotracheal tube will then be placed into the trachea to allow for inhalation of additional anesthetic drugs. Depending on the vet, they may only give injectable anesthetic drugs to allow better visualization of the throat area for surgical purposes.
- During surgery, the dog is positioned with their mouth open to allow visualization of the throat area. Most often, surgery is performed through the mouth, but can also be performed through the throat. The vocal cords are visualized, and a portion of the vocal folds are surgically removed with scissors or a laser. Surgeons must carefully consider how much tissue to remove during surgery. If too much tissue is removed, there is a risk for aspiration. If not enough tissue is removed, the dog’s bark may return in full force. During or after surgery, careful attention is placed on excessive swelling or bleeding.
- During anesthesia, a technician will monitor heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, electrocardiogram, and body temperature.
- Once surgery is completed, the dog is closely monitored as they wake up and observed for any signs of discomfort, difficulty breathing, coughing, gagging, aspiration, or abnormal bleeding.
- Corticosteroids are commonly given post-op to minimize swelling. Antibiotics and pain medications may be sent home for several days after surgery.
- Post-operative care generally includes the following:
- Water is offered 6 to 12 hours after surgery with careful observation for gagging, vomiting, or trouble swallowing.
- Approximately 6 to 12 hours after water intake, soft food of a meatball-like consistency may be offered and fed for 5 to 7 days.
- Exercise is limited for 1 month.
- A harness is recommended for 3 to 4 weeks after surgery to minimize trauma to the neck and throat area.
What To Do if Your Dog Is Excessively Barking
- Act early. Don’t let this behavior get out of your control!
- Read about why dogs bark to identify the reason your dog is barking. What is their motivation? What is your response? Are you or your family unintentionally reinforcing this barking behavior? Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a well-known behaviorist, provides excellent tips here to help you identify why your dog is barking and suggestions for resolving the issue. Redirecting barking or rewarding your dog for quiet behavior is key.
- Ensure your dog’s needs are met. Provide your dog with plenty of time to play and exercise. At least 30 minutes minimum once or twice a day is needed for active, healthy breeds. In addition, ensure your dog is parasite-free (fleas, ticks) and on a high-quality diet. Provide toys or puzzles to stimulate your dog’s brain.
- See your veterinarian for an examination and to identify underlying treatable medical problems, such as hypothyroidism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or pain.
- If necessary, see a veterinary behaviorist. They have additional knowledge that can help with the creation of a treatment or training plan.
- Avoid stimuli that leads to barking when possible. For example, if a stimulus is seeing people or other dogs outside, you should cover the windows. If storms are a trigger, you can mask lightning and thunder with a white noise machine or music. If your dog is barking when bored, hire a dog walker or consider doggy daycare.
- Once you identify the trigger, work with your veterinarian or behaviorist for ideas on how to desensitize your dog to that stimuli.
- Reward quiet behavior. Know what reward your dog loves most and give it to them. Some dogs prefer toys, treats, praise, or just your time and attention. Avoid punishment.
In general, pet owners should only consider debarking surgery at the suggestion of their veterinarian and after they’ve exhausted the above alternatives.