Silencing the already silenced: De-barking/de-meowing/de-purring dogs and cats.

i March 8, 2010

Unknown to most caring custodians of dogs and cats, there is a widespread practice in the United States of surgically cutting the vocal cords of canines (and occasionally felines). Known by the euphemism “devocalization,” the procedure is almost always performed for the convenience of the animals’ “owners.”

Among other reasons, large-scale breeders even in rural areas want to keep down the noise level of their captives, and backyard breeders have to be concerned with neighbors.

Sometimes, “devocalization” is a compromise between children who want a pet, and parents who don’t want animal vocalization.

Whatever the reasons, devocalization is inimical to the animal’s health, unnatural, cruel and yet another brutal example of humans seeing canines and felines not only as property, but as inanimate objects—and devocalization as nothing more than oiling a squeaky door hinge.

House Bill No. 344, which languished for over a year, seeks to prohibit the practice of devocalization. Having the express support of at least sixty legislators on March 3, 2010, it was finally approved by the House where it had the support of at least 60 legislators. It provides in part that:

“Section 80. (a) No person shall surgically debark or silence a dog or cat, or cause the surgical debarking or silencing of a dog or cat, unless a veterinarian licensed in this state has filed a written certification with the town clerk or in Boston, the police commissioner, stating that the surgical debarking or silencing is medically necessary to treat or relieve an illness, disease, or injury, or correct a congenital abnormality that is causing or will cause the dog or cat medical harm or pain.

(b) The written certification described in (a) shall contain the date and description of the veterinarian’s examination and evaluation of the dog or cat, statement certifying that surgical debarking or silencing is medically necessary to treat or relieve an illness, disease, or injury, or correct a congenital abnormality that is causing or will cause the dog or cat harm or pain; any supporting diagnosis and findings, the name and current address and telephone number of the dog or cat’s owner or keeper, and the name and current address and telephone number, state license number, and signature of the veterinarian.

(c) No person except a veterinarian licensed in this state, using anesthesia, may surgically debark or silence a dog or cat.

(d) Any person in violation of this section shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than 5 years or imprisonment in the house of correction for not more than 2 ½ years or by a fine of not more than $2,500, or by both such fine and imprisonment. A court may also order any person convicted under this section to submit to a mental health evaluation as determined by the court and undergo any recommended counseling or treatment. In addition to any other penalty provided by law, a person convicted under this section may be barred from owning or possessing any animals, or living on the same property with someone who owns or possesses animals, for a period of time deemed appropriate by the court, and required to take humane education, pet ownership and dog training classes as ordered by the court.”

In addition the bill provides that: “Any person or business selling a dog or cat for profit shall disclose whether the dog or cat has been surgically debarked or silenced and provide the purchaser with a copy of the veterinarian certification required by Chapter 272, Sec. 80.”

One would expect that H.B. No. 344 enjoys the support of not only the many legislators who have endorsed it, but also of everyone in Massachusetts who cares about the wellbeing of companion animals—especially the Commonwealth’s veterinarians.


Although many veterinarians do support the bill, the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, speaking for organized veterinarians, opposes the devocalization bill.

In a cynical, self-serving official statement approved on June 17, 2009, the MVMA had this to say, in its entirety [ISAR’s comments are inserted in brackets and Times New Roman bold-face]:

The Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, the statewide association of veterinarians [a profession, not a trade, supposedly devoted to the care of companion animals], deplores [not “condemns,” “opposes” or “denounces”] devocalizing [i.e., surgically cutting the vocal cords] an animal to facilitate the animal’s sale or for reasons of convenience.

MVMA encourages [not “implores”] responsible pet ownership from the start, including selecting a breed and particular dog appropriate for the owner’s living situation and foreseeable family circumstances; undertaking behavior training while a puppy; being consistent and reinforcing behavioral standards; seeking veterinarians’ advice when problems arise; and consulting and working in earnest with veterinary behavior specialists, who can often help owners successfully address excessive vocalization
[excellent advice, but not exhaustive].

MVMA strongly urges pet owners to utilize behavioral interventions instead of devocalizing an animal [How about “urging” all MVMA members not to perform the procedure?].

In this imperfect world, however, we know that peoples’ life situations can change. There may be circumstances when devocalization is necessary [conveniently not defined], particularly when the owner has already undertaken behavior modification techniques pursuant to a veterinarian’s advice. When all acceptable [to whom, and by what standard?] avenues for correcting excessive barking have been exhausted, and the pet risks losing her or his life or home, we believe that surgical cordectomy needs to be available as a last resort. [The root of this problem is irresponsible pet ownership, and a refusal to live with the choices one has made. If a “change in life situations” includes marriage, divorce, having children, moving, then there will never be any reasons not to debark. The MVMA poses a false alternative: if “circumstances change,” cut the chords or kill (or dump) the animal.]

Ultimately, a decision to devocalize an animal should be made by the pet owner in consultation with a licensed veterinarian. Devocalization should be performed only in extreme [again, not defined] circumstances – as a last resort before turning a pet over to an animal shelter or performing humane euthanasia – and should never
be performed as a routine matter
[True, but again a false alternative].

While the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association strongly discourages canine and feline devocalization, the MVMA opposes House No. 344 for the following reasons [Now we come to it.]:

the bill requires that “otherwise confidential information” – such as the animal’s identification and medical diagnosis, and identification and location of the animal’s owner – be made public: we find no precedent for such public disclosure in medicine or veterinary medicine except when public health is at issue. [The MVMA offers not a shred of support for this naked assertion. We have inserted quotation marks above to emphasize the point. All sorts of non-public health information about dogs must be reported to the government, and thus to the “public,” including but not limited to licensing data. The MVMA’s objection is merely a red-herring, unworthy of further comment.]

the bill provides too narrow an exception for performing devocalization, in that “medically necessary” is not the only legitimate reason for this procedure to be performed: surgical cordectomy may be necessary to save an animal’s life when euthanasia is seen as the only viable alternative. [This, at best, is a non sequitur. First, the MVMA offers only one other “legitimate reason,” and that (“save an animal’s life”) would certainly be “medically necessary”—an exception that the MVMA itself accepts as “legitimate”.]
the bill infringes upon a veterinarian’s exercise of her or his professional judgment, taking account of the particular condition and circumstances of the individual animal. [Bluntly, this statement is patronizing double-talk, apparently put forth on the assumption that the MVMA’s opponents and the public are stupid. For one thing, earlier in its statement the MVMA encourages discussion with a veterinarian who, in no case, is the final authority concerning what is to be done with a companion animal; primarily it is the custodian and, in certain contexts like cruelty and malpractice, the state that has the final word. For another, in every situation the veterinarian can, indeed is required to, “exercise . . . her or his professional judgment”—and H.B. 344 no more impinges on that judgment than do any of the other laws and professional constraints governing the practice of veterinary medicine.]
Indeed, a good place to begin exercising that “professional judgment” is by every veterinarian in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts refusing to “devocalize” any dog (or cat)—a moral stand which should be strongly supported by the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association.

That association now has an opportunity to reverse its indefensible position and support the Bill in the Massachusetts Senate and thereby redeem itself.