Sometimes dogs and cats must undergo vocal cord surgery to treat a physical ailment causing medical harm such as cancer. But when performed for the sole purpose of altering the animal’s voice, called devocalization (sometimes trivialized as "bark softening"), this practice is considered an act of cruelty.
There is good reason why: Animals face serious risks, some life-threatening, without any benefit, not even the secure home claimed by those who profit from this convenience surgery.
These dogs and cats are given to shelters and rescue groups or are euthanized for the same reasons as any other animal--or because the cost to treat complications of voice-altering surgery is prohibitive.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Is devocalization different than bark softening or bark reduction? Devocalization is the preferred term for surgically altering the vocal apparatus to change or remove an animal's voice regardless of whether instruments are inserted through the open mouth (spun as "bark softening" or "bark reduction") or an incision in the neck.
The terms "bark softening" and "bark reduction" were created by lobbyists to trivialize this risky, inhumane elective surgery.
Scroll down to learn about voice-altering surgery.
Is "bark softening" non-invasive? In order to alter the voice, vocal cord tissue must be cut. That indeed is invasive regardless of the surgical route. Even a small amount of tissue cut through the animal's oral cavity--"bark softening"-- bleeds and form scars, which can cause lifelong anguish or a terrible death. The so-called "bark softening" approach carries an added risk: Because it often fails to achieve the desired vocal outcome, some animals are subjected to it repeatedly.
Are cats really devocalized? Sadly, yes. Feline devocalization has been documented by those who have adopted these unfortunate animals and by veterinarians, including behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman (author, The Cat Who Cried for Help). Click to learn why cats may vocalize persistently and how to resolve it without vocal cord surgery.
How is voice-altering surgery done? Vocal cord tissue is cut in one of two ways, through a surgical incision in the neck or by inserting instruments through the open mouth (spun as "bark softening"). The veterinarian may use a scalpel, scissors, biopsy tools such as a punch forceps, or laser. The result is the same. No matter how it's performed or by whom, altering vocal cords subjects animals to risks that may compromise them for life or cause a terrible death.
What are the risks? Regardless of the surgical route or instrument used, all voice-altering procedures pose serious surgical risks, such as blood loss, infection and adverse reaction to anesthesia.
In fact, the risk of infection is greater for vocal cord surgery--the only way to alter the voice-- than other surgeries due to the resident bacteria in the larynx and trachea.
Additionally, long-term consequences may include:
Aspiration pneumonia after food, liquid or vomit is inhaled into the lungs
Tracheal and/or laryngeal collapse
Even a little scar tissue, a normal outcome of any surgery, can be deadly when it forms in the throat.
What is the danger of scarring in the throat? Even a little scar tissue, a normal outcome of any surgery, can cause a permanent narrowing in the throat. The animal may:
Struggle to breathe, particularly during exercise
Be at greater risk during future procedures requiring anesthesia
Choke on food
Cough and/or gag persistently
Suffer heatstroke even when it's not hot
When devocalized animals are sold or relinquished without disclosure, those who buy or adopt them--unaware their pet's swallowing and breathing could be impaired--may unwittingly cause the animal's death.
Dry food can increase the likelihood of choking, and exercise that other animals of the same breed and age would tolerate may prove fatal for those whose breathing is compromised.
What is the danger of damage to the larynx? Voice-altering surgery can result in permanent damage to the larynx, preventing it from closing properly. Animals may inhale food, liquid or vomit into their lungs; that in turn can lead to pneumonia.
Does the veterinarian’s level of skill remove risks? No. Surgical risks and potential complications are present regardless of the vet’s skill and experience or the instrument used, including scalpel, scissors, punch forceps or laser.
What about “notching” or "clipping" the vocal cords? Is that safe? These are just other words for "cutting." Vocal cord tissue must be cut in order to alter the voice, and there's no benign way to do that. Even a small cut bleeds and forms scars. Along with surgical risks such as infection, just a little scar tissue in the throat can have fatal results.
Is recovery from voice-altering surgery painful? Although animals may be anesthetized during the procedure, anyone who has undergone surgery in the throat (or suffered strep!) can attest: Recovery is very painful. People can manage their own pain with medication or other palliative measures. But animals rely on the goodwill and responsibility of their owners. Not all dogs and cats receive proper post-operative care or pain relief.
What about spay/neuter? Isn’t that an elective surgery too? Yes, however voice-altering surgery subjects animals to serious risks but no benefit, not even a secure home. In contrast:
Spay/neuter benefits animals by reducing the risk of certain cancers.
Spay/neuter benefits society by reducing the pet overpopulation that burdens taxpayer-funded municipal resources and nonprofit animal shelters--and leads to euthanasia of countless healthy animals just for want of a home.
Spay/neuter reduces excessive vocalization triggered by hormonally driven excitement or aggression.
What does a devocalized ("bark softened") animal sound like? No vet can predict what an animal will sound like after voice-altering surgery. Owners often are unpleasantly surprised to discover the new voice is more disturbing than the one the animal was born with. These dogs and cats may sound:
Raspy and hoarse
Shrill, squeaky, screechy
Some animals whistle when they vocalize
Or they may be rendered mute.
Vocal distinctions that communicate different meanings are removed or diminished.
Many animals cough and/or gag persistently.
Why do animals vocalize persistently? Persistent vocalization is the symptom, not the problem. The most common reasons are:
Insufficient exercise or mental stimulation
Distress, such as anxiety
Hormonally triggered excitement or aggression (unaltered animals)
Pack behavior; animals kept in groups egg each other on
Some people inadvertently teach animals to bark or meow persistently by rewarding the behavior --like giving a child candy to make him stop crying.
While all dogs and cats are influenced by environment and training, some are bred to vocalize more than others. To select them as pets--or, worse, to breed them--only to cut their vocal cords is selfish, irresponsible and inhumane.
Is devocalization/"bark softening" necessary to prevent euthanasia of a healthy but "talkative" dog or cat? No one is forced to cut healthy vocal cord tissue or kill a healthy animal for unwanted barking or meowing. There are many effective, humane solutions, starting with responsible selection and care of a companion animal. Training consistently and correctly, and medication to facilitate it are other options. Shelter executives and concerned vets say rehoming is the kinder "final alternative."
Ironically, the real behavioral reasons pets are euthanized--biting and house-soiling--may be caused or worsened by devocalization. Surgically stifling an animal's voice allows the owner to ignore rather than address the reason for persistent vocalizing, such as loneliness or anxiety. The animal then may resort to other attention-seeking behaviors that are more irksome or dangerous than barking or meowing.
Devocalization also can increase the risk of euthanasia when an owner is unable or unwilling to pay for costly surgery to remove post-devocalization scar tissue from the animal's airway.
Does devocalization keep animals out of shelters? Shelter executives say barking and meowing are an insignificant reason fro relinquishment, and that devocalized animals are relinquished and convenience-euthanized like any other dog or cat. The leading reasons for relinquishment are:
Cost of care
Owner's personal or health problems
Often, animals are given up when they're no longer useful for breeding or show. Devocalization/"bark softening" is common in the show community and among breeders.
Who would have an animal devocalized and why?
Breeders, when they or neighbors don't want to hear their many animals, or to hide an illegal breeding enterprise
Show dog exhibitors, to keep dogs quiet in transit between shows or in the ring
Sled dog racers, because dogs in a pack tend to vocalize more
Those who hoard animals or who fight dogs, to hide their activities
Labs that test on dogs and cats, because animals vocalize their distress, pain and fear
Uninformed or selfish pet owners, because this dangerous surgery is easier for them than responsible selection, care, training and supervision of animals
Is voice-altering surgery necessary for good relationships with neighbors? No; responsible animal stewardship is. Access to surgery, quick and easy for the owner, discourages the harder tasks of proper animal care, training and supervision--which are necessary to manage all behavior, including vocalization.
Leaving animals alone in an apartment or outside for extended periods to bark their frustration and boredom is not responsible.
Keeping groups of animals or those bred for frequent vocalization, such as herding dogs or Siamese cats, where their voices won't be tolerated is not responsible.
Failing to spay/neuter--irresponsible on many levels--results in the hormonally driven excitement or aggression that is expressed vocally.
Cutting vocal cords isn't the solution for these problems any more than surgery would be for dogs and cats who soil sidewalks, dart into traffic, dig up the neighbor’s garden or jump on toddlers in the park. Devocalization/"bark softening" also poses a danger to the community in this way: It removes or diminishes the vocal distinctions that are animals' primary way to communicate with humans. Most people cannot read dog and cat body language, particularly when the animal is not their own. How many realize a wagging tail can mean agitation not friendiness, for example?
Muffled, ambiguous vocalization may increase the likelihood of biting--or cause harm to the animal--when someone unfamiliar with the animal misinterprets his strange sounds.
How many devocalized/"bark softened" animals are there? Many more than you think. Shelters and rescue organizations have documented receiving unwanted devocalized animals, and veterinarians have reported treating or euthanizing them for complications. However, this dirty little secret can’t be quantified.
Those who have animals devocalized/"bark softened" and vets who perform it for them,rarely disclose it. They know it's a cruelty that's easy to hide.
Unlike docked tails, cropped ears or declawed paws, cut vocal cords are not visible. And when devocalization is performed through the animal's open mouth, scars--which can be deadly--are internal, hidden from view.
Most people assume the dog or cat they hear rasping, wheezing, coughing and gagging has laryngitis or kennel cough.
Few imagine the shocking reality: The animal’s vocal cords were cut just to stifle his voice.
Veterinary information provided by Board-Certified Veterinary Surgeon Joel Woolfson, DVM, DACVS, and Barbara Hodges, DVM, MBA