Unknown to most caring custodians of dogs and cats, and other people concerned with the wellbeing of all mammals, there is a widespread practice in the United States of surgically cutting the vocal cords of canines (and, less often, felines.)1
While commonly known by the euphemism “debarking,” synonyms are “devocalization,” “silencing,” “bark softening,” “cutting the vocal chords”—and by the formal medical term “ventriculocordectomy.”2
Now for the gruesome details. Dogs are devocalized by having their vocal cords soft tissue cut. That brutality is inflicted by the veterinarian making a surgical incision in the dog’s neck, or by inserting stainless steel tools—scalpels, scissors, etc.— through their mouths.
The consequences can be, and often are, horrific. Breathing can be a struggle for devocalized animals because of airway obstruction.3 The dog can choke on food, inhale vomit into her lungs, choke, gag, cough. Scar tissue buildup can require multiple procedures.
The procedure itself can cause severe blood loss and infection.
It has been reported that a devocalized animal is more likely to be dumped or surrendered to a shelter, adding to the already serious overpopulation problem. Indeed, it has been reported also that in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, for example, shelters received many devocalized animals.4
There is much more to be said about the medical aspects of devocalization, but just what we’ve said so far should suffice to demonstrate that devocalization is at once cruel, brutal, dangerous—let alone immoral in its treatment of animals as if they were simply inanimate objects to be used and abused by humans without regard to their ability to experience pain.
So let’s turn for a moment to the question of why any human being would visit devocalization pain and suffering on a defenseless animal.
Although devocalization is almost always performed for the convenience of the animals’ “owners,” their motivations differ.
For example, large-scale breeders even in rural areas have an interest in keeping down the noise level of the countless dogs they use as puppy factories. Similarly, backyard breeders have to be concerned with neighbors.5
Sometimes devocalization is a compromise between children who want a pet, and parents who don’t want loud vocalization.
Sled dog racers’ huskies, especially in a pack, are prone to bark loudly and often. That is seen, by some, as bad for business.
Handlers of fighting dogs certainly have an interest in keeping them as quiet as possible.
Whatever the reasons, devocalization is inimical to the animal’s health, unnatural, cruel and yet another brutal example of humans seeing canines and other animals not only as inanimate personal property like cars, which is bad enough, and devocalization as nothing more sinister than simply fixing a flat tire.
Yet by devocalizing a dog (and destroying the vocal cords of other animals) the veterinarian’s knife assaults not only the animal, but its ability to communicate. Putting aside body language, the only other way an animal can communicate is through vocalization. Sever that, literally and figuratively, and the animal has no means to convey its mental state to other animals and humans. It lacks the ability to control the tone, intensity and frequency of its voice. Lacking that, not communicated will be fear, aggression, danger, pain—everything the animal “knows.” To get a sense of what devocalization means to an animal, one need only ask a mute human being what he’s deprived of because of his inability to speak.
The ASPCA has explained the surgical “solution” to dog and cat behavioral problems this way:
Barking, scratching and spraying are natural canine and feline communication signals, although some companion animal guardians (or their neighbors) see them as serious behavior problems. When pet guardians are in danger of losing their homes, their spouses or their furnishings, they may seek out speedy surgical solutions, such as debarking, declawing and olfactory tractotomy (severing the olfactory tracts from the brain to eliminate urine spraying). Although behavior modification takes time and may not be 100 percent effective, considerable health risks and pain are often associated with the surgeries. Additionally, declawing removes one of the cat’s primary defenses, and olfactory tractotomy destroys the cat’s sense of smell, which may affect appetite.
Despite the brutality of the devocalization procedure and its unnatural consequences, even the ASPCA, in a typical national humane society compromise, countenances it under certain circumstances:
The ASPCA does not recommend surgery to eliminate a problem behavior unless the animal’s guardian has already attempted—unsuccessfully—to resolve the issue using humane behavior modification techniques and/or followed a treatment protocol set up by an animal behavior specialist (certified applied animal behaviorist, veterinary behaviorist or experienced behavior consultant). The ASPCA recommends surgery only if the animal is at risk of losing his home or his life, and the surgeries should be performed by a licensed veterinarian who is experienced in the specific procedure. The ASPCA never condones the debarking of attack dogs to add to the element of surprise or to evade law enforcement.
If behavior modification fails, the alleged dilemma between leaving a dog’s vocal cords intact versus her not having a home or being euthanized, is a false alternative.
If behavior modification fails, instead of cutting a dog’s vocal chords the only humane thing to do is place her in a home or other environment where vocalization is not a problem, and perhaps even welcomed. For example, on a ranch or farm. That way, everyone wins: the “owner” is free of the barking, the dog’s nature is not changed and her body is not brutalized, her vocal cords remain intact, and a new “owner” benefits from the animal’s ability to vocalize. If that’s not possible, the custodian will have to live with the problem. After all, it was the custodian who voluntarily chose to acquire the dog, and with that acquisition came acceptance of the moral responsibility to treat her humanely.
Indeed, behavior modification can usually be effective, so a dog won’t have to be relocated. Recently, ISAR conducted an interview of noted veterinarian and animal behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman whose conclusion was that devocalization is brutalizing, injurious, unnecessary and painful. (See the sections entitled Aspects of Devocalization: “Behavioral” and “Ethical”).
Doubtless because of the efficacy of behavior modification, devocalization is prohibited in the United Kingdom and in some twenty other nations throughout the world.6
In the United States, however, this brutal procedure is rarely prohibited.
But it must be. In every state and territory and, for that matter, throughout the world.
Which is why ISAR has created the Stop Devocalization Now program, and will provide the following information going forward:
Important aspects of devocalization
ISAR’s Model Anti-Devocalization Statute
Why Maryland’s well-intentioned law is inadequate
Support others’ efforts to ban devocalization
Suggested Letter-to-the-Editor and others
Veterinarian/behaviorist non-devocalization support and pledge
Initiative and referendum
Anti-devocalization efforts abroad
Law and Legislation
Existing domestic anti-devocalization legislation
Warwick, Rhode Island
Pending anti-devocalization legislation
Failed anti-devocalization legislative attempts
Cranston, Rhode Island
Existing pro-devocalization legislation
County of Riverside, California
Jefferson County, Colorado
1 Other animals, such as horses, also suffer devocalization. However, the primary victim that will be used as the principal example of devocalization throughout these pages will be “man’s best friend,” the dog. Everything said about dogs—except perhaps the devocalizers’ motives—apply equally to other victims, unless otherwise noted.
2 Because animals other than dogs suffer devocalization, cats for example, we will use that term throughout rather than “debarking.”
3 A permanent narrowing of the airway can cause also increased risk when other procedures are done that require anesthesia.
4 Many are abandoned to shelters for the same reasons as any other pet, or when owners can’t afford costly surgery to remove scar tissue blocking their pet’s airway, a common complication of devocalization. Devocalized animals have a harder time finding homes, since some humans may find the wheezing, raspy or throaty sounds they make even more bizarre and irritating than barking.
5 In 2009, ISAR produced a lengthy monograph entitled, “ISAR’s Model Statute Regulating Dog Breeding, Facilitation and Sales.” One provision of ISAR’s Model Statute imposes an absolute ban throughout the breeding industry on dog (and cat) devocalization.
6 European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals is a treaty of the Council of Europe to promote the welfare of pet animals and ensure minimum standards for their treatment and protection. The treaty was signed in 1987 and became effective on May 1, 1992, after at least four countries had ratified it. Adherence to the treaty is open and not limited to member countries of the Council of Europe.
|Country||Signed||Ratified||Entry into force|
|Austria||October 2, 1997||August 10, 1999||March 1, 2000|
|Azerbaijan||October 22, 2003|
|Belgium||November 13, 1987||December 20, 1991||July 1, 1992|
|Bulgaria||May 21, 2003||July 20, 2004||February 1, 2005|
|Cyprus||December 9, 1993||December 9, 1993||July 1, 1994|
|Czech Republic||June 24, 1998||September 23, 1998||March 24, 1999|
|Denmark||November 13, 1987||October 20, 1992||May 1, 1993|
|Finland||December 2, 1991||December 2, 1991||July 1, 1992|
|France||December 18, 1996||October 3, 2003||May 1, 2004|
|Germany||June 21, 1988||May 27, 1991||May 1, 1992|
|Greece||November 13, 1987||April 29, 1992||November 1, 1992|
|Italy||November 13, 1987|
|Lithuania||September 11, 2003||May 19, 2004||December 1, 2004|
|Luxembourg||November 13, 1987||October 25, 1991||May 1, 1992|
|Netherlands||November 13, 1987|
|Norway||November 13, 1987||February 3, 1988||May 1, 1992|
|Portugal||November 13, 1987||June 28, 1993||January 1, 1994|
|Romania||June 23, 2003||August 6, 2004||March 1, 2005|
|Sweden||March 14, 1989||March 14, 1989||May 1, 1992|
|Switzerland||November 13, 1990||November 3, 1993||June 1, 1994|
|Turkey||November 18, 1999||November 28, 2003||June 1, 2004|
|Member countries of the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals.|
Several countries (such as France and the United Kingdom) did not sign or ratify the treaty due to concerns by dog breeding associations who opposed the treaty’s ban on tail docking (§10.1(a)) and on the cropping of ears (§10.1(b)). A review of the treaty performed in 1995 resulted in minor modifications of the text and allowed signatory states to declare themselves exempt from certain paragraphs of the treaty. Subsequently, a number of additional countries signed and ratified the treaty, making use of this provision by declaring themselves exempt from the prohibition of tail docking. No country that has ratified the treaty made any reservations regarding the other cosmetic surgeries prohibited by §10: cropping of ears, removal of vocal cords, and declawing.
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