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 or removing 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 convenience-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 by different names. “Devocalization" is the preferred term for surgically altering the vocal apparatus to alter or remove an animal's voice. These other terms are spin invented to sanitize an act of cruelty, which alters all vocal sounds, not just the bark.
The devocalized voice can be shrill and screechy, hoarse or strange and disturbing. Some animals are rendered mute. It is also done to cats—who don’t bark.
Is bark softening non-invasive? No! It's just another term for devocalization. In order to alter the voice, soft tissue of the vocal apparatus must be cut. That is invasive and dangerous, no matter how it's spun.
Are cats really devocalized? 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 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 using one of two approaches: through a surgical incision in the neck or by inserting instruments through the mouth. The veterinarian may use a scalpel, scissors, biopsy tools or laser.
The result is the same: No matter how it's performed, vocal cord surgery exposes animals to surgical and long-term risks that may compromise them for life or result in 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 types of surgery due to resident bacteria in the larynx and trachea.
In addition, long-term complications may include:
Aspiration pneumonia after food, water or even 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 be evident until long after the procedure. When this occurs, the animal may:
Struggle to breathe, particularly during exercise
Be at greater risk during future veterinary procedures requiring anesthesia
Choke on food and even water
Cough and/or gag persistently
Suffer heat stroke even when it's not hot
Because devocalized animals are often sold or relinquished without disclosure, those who buy or adopt them may not know their pet's throat and airway have been compromised--and unwittingly cause his death.
Feeding dry food may increase the likelihood of choking, and exercise that normal animals of the same breed and age tolerate may be too stressful 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, water or vomit into their lungs; that in turn can lead to pneumonia.
Does the veterinarian’s skill or the instrument used remove risks? No. Surgical risks and potential complications, such as airway obstruction, are present regardless of the vet’s skill and experience or the instrument used (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 can have fatal results.
Is recovery from devocalization surgery painful? Although most animals are 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 it an elective surgery too? That’s a disingenuous analogy. 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 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 that 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.
Devocalized animals often cough and/or gag persistently.
Why do animals vocalize persistently? Persistent vocalization is the symptom, not the problem. The most common triggers are boredom, loneliness, lack of exercise or mental stimulation, and distress such as anxiety. Older cats suffering dementia may vocalize inappropriately. These issues are remedied by responsible ownership and in some cases, medication, 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 vocal cords is not the answer.
Some people inadvertently teach animals to bark or meow persistently by rewarding the very behavior they say annoys them or neighbors. They 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."
The real behavioral reasons that 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 without addressing 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. Animals are also given up when they're no longer useful for breeding or show.
Is devocalization necessary for good relationships with neighbors? No; responsible animal stewardship is. Leaving dogs alone in an apartment or tethered 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 responsible 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.
Who would have an animal devocalized and why?
Breeders, when they or neighbors don't want to hear their many animals
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 or "collect" animals or who fight dogs, to hide their activities
Uninformed or selfish pet owners, because this dangerous surgery is easier for them than responsible selection, care, training and supervision of animals
How many devocalized animals are there? Sadly, many more than you think. Animal 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 this risky, unnecessary surgery is widely considered shameful.
They also know it's easy to hide: Unlike tails and ears that have been cut (docked or cropped) for “breed aesthetics," vocal cords are not visible. And when devocalization is performed through the oral cavity, the only scars--the ones that can kill the animal--are internal. Most people assume the dog or cat they hear rasping, wheezing, coughing and gagging has laryngitis or kennel cough.
Few imagine the cruel 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