CLAIM: Devocalization ("bark softening") is the equivalent of a tonsillectomy. FACT: Ridiculous, says board-certified veterinary surgeon Joel Woolfson, DVM, DACVS.
"Comparing a tonsil to the vocal cord is like comparing a toe to the heart. The tonsil is a lymph node. The vocal fold is a much more complex structure with intricate innervation. It plays a critical role in breathing and protecting the lungs from aspiration," he explains.
CLAIM: Cats can't be devocalized. FACT: Of course, they can--and are, suffering the same serious, potentially fatal risks as dogs do, according to feline veterinary specialist Shelby Neely, VMD: "And like dogs, their voices may be altered in very unpleasant ways. Purrs remain the same as prior to devocalization because they are not produced by the vocal cords."
CLAIM: If performed correctly, altering a dog's or cat's voice is a benign procedure. FACT: Veterinarians board-certified in surgery, anesthesiology and internal medicine say there is no benign way to change an animal's voice.
Vocal cord tissue must be cut. And that's always dangerous regardless of the vet’s skill and experience; the instrument used; and the surgical route, through the animal's open mouth (trivialized by some as "bark softening") or an incision in the neck.
Animals face serious, potentially fatal surgical and long-term risks. Even a small amount of scarring, a normal outcome of any surgery, can cause lifelong misery or a terrible death when it forms in the throat.
Because the larynx can lose its ability to close properly as a result of devocalization, there is high risk for inhaling food, liquid or vomit into the lungs. That in turn can lead to pneumonia.
CLAIM: "Bark softening" isn't devocalization. It's a different, non-invasive procedure. FACT: "Bark
softening" is devocalization, the term for surgery performed to alter an animal's voice. The only way to change the voice is by cutting the tissue of the vocal apparatus. Whether that’s done by inserting instruments through the oral cavity--spun as "bark softening"--or an incision in the neck, it indeed is invasive,
painful and dangerous.
CLAIM: Cutting or "notching" just a little tissue is risk-free. FACT: No way, says board-certified veterinary surgeon Joel Woolfson, DVM, DACVS!
“Even a small cut or notch would still bleed, require anesthesia and form scar tissue. But it would have minimal effect on the sound of the animal's voice," says Dr. Woolfson.
And because it has minimal impact on the voice, it is often repeated multiple times until the client is satisfied that the bark or meow is "soft" enough.
Vet record from a "bark softening" devocalization, in which vocal cord tissue was notched by inserting instruments through the oral cavity. Because it often fails to achieve the desired vocal outcome, some animals are subjected to it over and over. Each time it's done, the animal is re-exposed to risks, pain and stress.
CLAIM: Just keep the animal quiet for a few days after vocal cord surgery surgery to prevent internal scarring. FACT: This is also false, according to Dr. Woolfson. He explains, "Scar tissue formation (fibroplasia) is part of the healing process every time you cut into tissue. That the scar tissue would become excessive if the animal were more active is a theory concocted without any science or evidence."
CLAIM: Spay/neuter is more invasive than altering an animal's voice. FACT: That is disingenuous. No matter how it's performed--even inserting instruments through the oral cavity rather than an incision in the neck--cutting vocal cord tissue is invasive! And because scarring occurs in the throat, it can be deadly.
Ironically, the life-saving surgery needed when scar tissue forms over the airway is performed through an incision in the neck.
Surgically altering the voice has no benefit for animals.In contrast, spay/neuter benefits animals--and society--by reducing:
The animal's risk of certain cancers.
The pet overpopulation that burdens taxpayer-funded municipal resources and nonprofit animal shelters, and leads to scores of animals being euthanized just for want of a home.
Persistent barking or meowing triggered by hormonally driven excitement or aggression.
Spay/neuter reduces shelter populations.
Voice-altering surgery doesn't. These animals are given up and convenience-euthanized like any other dog or cat. They just suffer more.
CLAIM: If people can’t have their animals' voices altered, many more will be euthanized or surrendered. FACT: The high cost of caring for pets is among the top ten reasons for surrender to shelters. Barking and meowing are not. (Source: National Humane Education Society)
Not only are animals convenience-euthanized and given to shelters after their voices have been altered, this needless surgery can increase the risk. Here's why:
Altering the voice doesn't manage and may even lead to or worsen house-soiling or biting. And it doesn't improve an owner's financial, health or marital problems. These are the real reasons healthy pets are give up or killed.
Some animals are euthanized because complications of voice-altering surgery such as airway blockage are so costly to treat.
Devocalization also doesn't prevent the surrender of breeding and show animals who are not profitable. Those who aren't euthanized or bought often land in financially strapped, nonprofit animal shelters and rescue groups.
CLAIM: If devocalization ("bark softening") is outlawed, it will be performed by those not licensed to provide veterinary care. FACT: Where devocalization is legal, that’s already happening, just as ear cropping and tail docking are sometimes performed by persons other than veterinarians. But even in the hands of qualified, licensed vets and veterinary surgeons, animals are suffering and dying as a result of devocalization ("bark softening"). Cutting vocal cord tissue is always dangerous regardless of who does it or how.
CLAIM: "Good neighbors" have barky dogs devocalized. FACT: Good neighbors provide the responsible care, training and supervision of their animals that is necessary to manage all behavior, not just vocalization.
Keeping a "talkative" breed, or too many animals of any breed, where noise will not be tolerated is not responsible.
Tethering dogs outside or keeping them in an apartment alone for sustained periods to bark their boredom, loneliness and frustration is not responsible.
Failing to spay/neuter--which quells hormonally triggered vocalization--or provide the training, exercise and companionship all animals need is not responsible.
Cutting the animal's vocal cords to compensate for the owner's failure is both irresponsible and cruel.
Voice-altering surgery also puts all who come in contact with the animal at risk. Here's why:
Different barks and meows mean different things, from "play with me" to "get away or I'll bite." Vocal cord surgery removes or diminishes those distinctions. And few people can interpret animal body language, especially when the animal is not their own.
How many people realize a wagging tail can mean agitation, not friendliness? Without the animal's audible, unambiguous vocal cues, greeting a neighbor's dog or petting one in the park could be a recipe for disaster. Even a small dog's bite can do big harm to a child or frail elder.
CLAIM: Vocal cord surgery is the only solution for animals bred to bark and meow persistently. FACT: All behavior, including genetically based, is influenced by environment and training, according to animal behavior experts like master dog trainer Anthony Jerone, founder of the New York City Transit Authority K-9 Unit. Veterinary behaviorists say medication can facilitate training.
But if persistent vocalization is a concern, why purchase, adopt or breed animals in whom this trait is cultivated, like Sheltie dogs and Siamese cats, only to have their vocal cords cut?
An Australian Shepherd, Phoebe was bred to bark frequently. Yet she was devocalized for that very reason.
CLAIM: Cutting vocal cords is the only way to deal with a cat who meows loudly as a result of dementia. FACT: Many cats with dementia feel insecure and may express that by calling out for the people they trust; cutting vocal cords is a cruel response that only compounds the animal's distress. There are many humane options, from medication to games that stimulate the brain and slow the progression of the illness. Sometimes just talking to the cat, reassuring him you're nearby, is enough to quell his cries for help. CLAIM: Cutting vocal cords is
kinder than a bark collar. FACT: Positive training techniques are more effective and
kinder than shock collars or surgery. However, collars that release a citronella scent are not
harmful. And all collars may be removed. Once vocal cord tissue is cut—with its
attendant surgical risks—there is no turning back. The animal is forever exposed to serious complications
that may cause lifelong anguish or a terrible, premature death.
CLAIM: Cutting vocal cords is kinder than yelling at or abusing the animal. FACT: Cutting a dog's or cat's vocal cords to mask barking or meowing is abuse. And those who abuse animals for vocalizing are likely to do so for house-soiling, jumping on the furniture or just because. Prosecute the abuser, don't punish the victim with unnecessary, risky vocal cord surgery.
CLAIM: Devocalization ("bark softening") is rare. FACT: Voice-altering surgery is far more common than most people realize.
What's rare is disclosure by those who have animals devocalized and those who perform it.They know it's considered cruel--and that it's easy to hide.
Unlike cropped ears, docked tails and declawed paws, vocal cords are not visible. And when they're cut through the oral cavity, the only scars--the ones that can kill the animal--are internal, hidden from view.
People encountering these unfortunate animals assume they have laryngitis. It's hard to imagine that someone actually had their vocal cords cut just to deal with barking or meowing.