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, this practice is widely considered an act of cruelty.
There is good reason why: Devocalization is always dangerous, subjecting animals to pain and stress along with life-threatening risks.
Helpless to refuse this unnecessary surgery, they receive no benefit.
They're 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 devocalization is prohibitive.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Is devocalization the same as debarking, bark reduction or bark softening? They're the same cruelty, just different names. “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 mouth or an incision in the neck.
These other terms are spin invented to sanitize an inhumane surgery that alters all vocal sounds, not just the bark. It is also done to cats—who don’t bark.
No vet can predict what an animal will sound like after devocalization. The surgically altered voice can be shrill and screechy, hoarse or strange and disturbing. Some animals are rendered mute.
Is bark softening non-invasive? No! It's just another term for devocalization. In order to alter the voice, the soft tissue of the vocal apparatus must be cut. That indeed is invasive.
Are cats really devocalized...and why? 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). Some breeds, like Siamese, are innately "talkative" or have unusual voices. And because the collective voices of any breed are louder than one or two, those who keep many cats may devocalize when they don’t want to hear their animals or to hide activities like hoarding or an illegal breeding operation. Finally, cats with dementia or impaired hearing or sight may feel insecure and express that by calling out for the people they trust. Medication can quell that; so too can simply talking to the cat, reassuring him you're nearby.
How is devocalization done? Vocal cord tissue is cut in one of two ways, through a surgical incision in the neck or by inserting instruments through the mouth. 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, devocalization subjects animals to risks that may compromise them for life or cause a terrible death.
What are the risks of devocalization? Regardless of the surgical route or instrument used, all devocalization procedures pose serious surgical risks, such as blood loss, infection and adverse reaction to anesthesia.
In fact, the risk of infection is greater for devocalization 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? Any amount of scarring, no matter how small, can cause a permanent narrowing in the opening of the airway that may not present until long after the procedure. The animal may:
Struggle to breathe, particularly during exercise
Be at greater risk during future procedures requiring anesthesia
Choke on food and even water
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 throat and airway have been compromised--may unwittingly cause the animal's death.
Dry food increases the likelihood of choking, and exercise that other animals of the same breed and age would tolerate can prove fatal for those whose breathing has been impaired.
What is the danger of damage to the larynx? Devocalization 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? There is no safe way to devocalize an animal. Along with surgical risks such as infection, even a little scar tissue in the throat can have fatal results.
Is recovery from devocalization 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. However, 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 devocalization 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 animal sound like? No vet can predict what an animal will sound like after devocalization. Owners often are unpleasantly surprised to discover the altered voice is more disturbing than the one the animal was born with. Devocalized dogs and cats may sound:
Raspy and hoarse
Shrill, squeaky, screechy
Or they may be rendered mute.
Vocal distinctions that communicate different meanings are removed or diminished.
Many devocalized animals cough and/or gag persistently.
Why do animals vocalize persistently? Persistent vocalization is the symptom, not the problem. The most common reasons are boredom, loneliness, lack of exercise or mental stimulation, and distress, such as anxiety. Older cats may vocalize inappropriately as a result of dementia. Responsible care and in some cases medication are the solution, not vocal cord surgery.
In addition, hormonally triggered excitement or aggression may cause unwanted vocalization by unaltered animals. And animals kept in groups tend to egg each other on. Cutting their vocal cords is not the answer.
Some people inadvertently teach animals to bark or meow persistently by rewarding the behavior they say annoys them or neighbors--akin to giving a child candy to make him stop whining. These pet owners as well as their animals would benefit from work with a qualified trainer or veterinary behaviorist.
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 breed them--only to cut their vocal cords is selfish, irresponsible and inhumane.
Is devocalization necessary to prevent euthanasia of a healthy but "talkative" dog or cat? Not only are both practices unnecessary, they are cruel and unethical. 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, life-saving surgery to remove post-devocalization scar tissue from the animal's airway.
Does devocalization keep animals out of shelters? Shelter executives say devocalized animals are relinquished and convenience-euthanized like any other dog or cat: the cost of care, the owner's personal or health problems and the animal's biting or house-soiling are leading reasons. Barking and meowing are not. Often, animals are given up when they're no longer useful for breeding or show.
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 ("collect") animals or who fight dogs, to hide their activities
Laboratories 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 devocalization necessary for good relationships with neighbors? No; responsible animal stewardship is. Leaving animals alone in an apartment or outside for extended periods to bark their frustration and boredom is not responsible.
Nor is keeping groups of animals or those bred for frequent vocalization, such as herding dogs or Siamese cats, where their voices won't be tolerated. 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.
Access to devocalization, 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.
It also poses a danger to the community as well as the animal in another important way:
Devocalization 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 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.
That's because those who have animals devocalized, along with 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 oral cavity, scarring--which can kill the animal--is 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