Despite the euphemisms and assurances from some veterinarians that “devocalization” is a simple, even benign medical procedure, nothing could be further from the truth.
Every custodian of an animal1 that is even considering subjecting it to a devocalization procedure must, in good conscience, understand how the surgery is performed.
A dog can be subjected to either “partial” or “total” devocalization.
As the words indicate, “partial” devocalization refers to removal of only a portion of the dog’s vocal cords.
“Total” devocalization refers to removal of a major portion of the vocal cords.
It is self-evident that neither partial nor total devocalization is a minor surgical procedure. To the contrary, both procedures assault and invade the dog’s body.
There are two ways to remove a dog’s vocal cords: Orally, or by a laryngotomy.
For the oral procedure, the dog is positioned on her stomach. Metal instruments are inserted through her oral cavity and down into her vocal cord region. The cords are then cut.
While some veterinarians and commentators characterize this procedure as “less invasive” (and usually less costly), it is often less successful in eliminating the animal’s ability to vocalize.
The oral procedure also causes a higher incidence of what is called “webbing,” which is re-growth of the vocal cord tissue. Re-growth, in turn, creates an increased risk of later respiratory problems because of partial obstruction of the passageway between the vocal cords.
It is well understood in the veterinary profession that the oral devocalization procedure does not have a high success rate. Many animals have the procedure performed more than once, either to seek better results or to correct unintentional consequences of previous surgeries gone wrong. To avoid this result, often the devocalization surgery is “staged,” that is performed a few weeks apart at least twice and sometimes even more frequently.
For the laryngotomy procedure, the dog is positioned on her back and the surgery is performed by an incision through the skin, directly into the larynx avoiding instrument invasion of the mouth.
Cutting through skin directly to the larynx provides greater access to the vocal cords than going down through the animal’s mouth, and is considerably more invasive.
It needs to be understood, however, that this procedure, unlike the oral approach, requires not one surgery, but two: first getting to the vocal cords, and then severing them.
Two procedures double the risks of complications, infections, and delayed healing.2
There is a sad irony here, one that sheds light on the nature of, and risks associated with, the oral procedure: The laryngotomy is often performed as a corrective procedure when an earlier oral surgery has not worked and/or has resulted in untended consequences.
There’s another serious problem for the dog when either of these procedures are used: Anesthesia cannot be administered normally through an endotracheal tube inserted into the mouth.
This creates a “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” dilemma for all concerned.
Anesthesia must be delivered to the dog either using intravenous anesthetic agents, or—much worse— by first performing yet another surgical procedure, a temporary tracheotomy. For this procedure, the skin is cut and an endotracheal tube is inserted through the tracheostomy opening and must be manipulated from one side of the larynx to the other as the surgery progresses.
Even laypersons can readily understand that both of these procedures pose the risks of anesthesia problems, infection, blood loss, trauma, psychological damage and other serious complications.
For additional information, especially concerning surgical risks and the incidence and extent of pain, see http://www.hsvma.org/assets/pdfs/devocalization-facts.pdf.
1 We’ll use dogs as an example.
2 Obviously, the veterinary cost to the dog’s custodian is increased.