Dear Doctor: Why won’t you debark my dog?

Medical articles
barking dog on the grass

Last week our hospital received a phone call from a prospective client inquiring as to our willingness to “debark” her dog.

So you understand, debarking (also referred to as devocalization) is a procedure designed to remove the vocal cords of dogs whose owners believe engage in excessive barking behavior.

The procedure itself is called a ventriculocordectomy (or vocal cordectomy) and the goal is to eliminate the pet’s bark by removing most of the tissues he or she uses to produce sound.

In reality, however, a complete elimination of sound is considered impossible to achieve. Even so, the softening of a pet’s loud, incessant barking is enough inducement for most owners who seek this procedure out.

Thankfully, debarking has gone way out of favor among veterinarians. Which is why I was able to look my receptionist in the eye and tell her to let the ignoramus on the phone know they were barking up the wrong tree. Here’s the wisdom we decided to impart:

“Debarking is considered cruel by most veterinarians and you really should start looking for a good dog trainer or behaviorist instead of a vet willing to perform a painful and unnecessary procedure. I have the name of a great trainer right here if you’re interested in doing the right thing.”

Now, I’m sure this didn’t go over so well. But it’s better than my original impulse, which was to get on the phone and send the jerk to hell. I mean, who doesn’t know by now that debarking, now outlawed in some states, is a very bad solution to what’s admittedly not such a simple problem.

Lest you think me overly harsh in my critique of those who seek to debark their dogs, let me first offer this: I live with a dog whose bark drive is impressive. I’ve even been known to look my own barker right in the eye and say, "If you don’t shut up right now I will be subjecting you to the most prehistoric, inhumane de-yapping procedure on the planet.”

Of course, I never really mean it when I say these things to my yapper. But I’m sure there’s a part of my brain that never wants to hear him speak again. Who among us living with heavy barkers hasn’t felt the weight of such vile thoughts? After all, the barking really does have a way of getting in your head in the nastiest of ways.

The difference between most dog lovers and the caller above, however, is that if we do think such base thoughts, we feel instantly guilty for having entertained such violent notions. Sadly, a noteworthy contingent of dog owners doesn't bother with similar recriminations. Indeed, many see this as no better or worse than declawing a cat.

To wit, I’ll quickly concede the following:

  1. The declawing of cats is a practice that still enjoys wide acceptance in the U.S. This, despite its disproportionately aggressive answer to a simple question of human convenience: It’s like taking a hacksaw to a hangnail. It should be banned.

  2. For its part, debarking is roundly reviled as a practice that does outsized, inhumane damage to a dog’s most natural mechanism: her voice. It’s a procedure few veterinarians know how to do and even fewer know how to do well.

This, in spite of the fact that the devocalization procedure is considered significantly less painful than the declaw.

I raise this comparison not because I believe either procedure is more defensible than the other, but because I’m always impressed by the vitriol behind debarking versus declawing. It makes no sense given the disparity in potential suffering involved.

Nonetheless, communities are far more willing to get behind banning debarking than declawing. Which is why debarking is banned in many more municipalities than declawing is.

Anyhow… back to the point of the post:

Most of us who deal in canine medicine view debarking surgery as "mutilation," plain and simple. That’s why I’ve always loved Defenders of Animals’ director Dennis Tabella’s comments on the subject:

"People have to look at it this way. If they have a dog that's digging up holes in their back yard, they're not going to have the dog's legs amputated. We think devocalization is going to that type of extreme."

Which finds me of the same mind. After all, excessive barking is a treatable behavior problem.

But not all veterinarians will agree. A few holdouts among my veterinary brethren say they’d hate to see any limits put on a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. They say there’s really no reason to outlaw something as long as it’s not a common practice.

Luckily, I’ve never worked anywhere where I’ve been expected to perform this procedure (nor would I have were I asked to). And it’s true; requests like the one I received last week are rare enough. But uncommon or no, I’d nonetheless welcome the addition of medically unnecessary debarking procedures to the list of inhumane practices I’d rather see banned.

Now, if only declawing would get the same degree of negative attention. Hmmm…