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What Is Debarking a Dog and Why It Should Be Illegal, According to Experts

Barking is normal behavior for dogs and an important means of communication. Your pet may bark while playing or greeting a person, as well as to give a warning.

If your dog is excessively noisy, you may be considering a “debarking” or “devocalization” procedure. Before you go ahead, however, read this guidance from veterinarians and other animal health specialists on the risks of the surgery—and some alternatives.

What Is Debarking?

“Devocalization—also known as debarking, devoicing or bark softening—is a surgical procedure performed under general anesthesia to remove portions of a dog’s vocal folds or cords,” explained Dr. José Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The surgery is generally performed “in an attempt to decrease the volume, pitch and intensity of the dog’s bark,” he told Newsweek.

The medical term for the procedure is ventriculocordectomy. A dog can undergo either partial or total devocalization.

A dog barks at the end of a bed, while a woman uses her laptop. Excessive barking can be tackled through training.
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How Do You Debark a Dog?

There are two surgical approaches: oral and laryngotomy.

Oral Approach

In this method, the surgical instruments are inserted through the dog’s mouth and into the vocal cord region. While this is less invasive and typically less expensive, “it is often less successful in terms of achieving its vocal goals,” according to the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA).

It also causes a higher incidence of webbing, or regrowth of scarred vocal cord tissue. This leads to an increased risk of respiratory problems (more on health risks later).

Laryngotomy

This approach provides greater access to the vocal cords, as the surgery is performed via an incision directly into the larynx. However, since it involves an additional procedure—the laryngotomy—there are extra risks and potential complications, said the HSVMA.

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The laryngotomy approach is more invasive and usually more costly than the oral. It is often performed as corrective surgery when an earlier oral procedure has failed to achieve the desired results or led to unintended consequences.

Is Debarking Your Dog Legal in the U.S.?

A handful of states have laws limiting or prohibiting the devocalization of dogs, Arce said.

Devocalization is banned in Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey except in cases where it is medically necessary, as determined by a licensed veterinarian. Pennsylvania prohibits the devocalization of a dog for any reason unless the procedure is performed by a licensed veterinarian using anesthesia, he added.

In Ohio, devocalization can only be carried out by a licensed veterinarian using anesthesia and the procedure must be deemed medically necessary by the veterinarian.

In California and Rhode Island, it is against the law to require the devocalization of animals as a condition of real estate occupancy, Arce said.

Some states have also banned the devocalization of cats.

A dog barking next to a doghouse outdoors. Dogs sometimes bark to signal a threat or danger.

Why Debarking Is Not Recommended

Catie Cryar, a spokeswoman for advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told Newsweek: “Dogs bark to communicate—it’s their way of talking—and it’s no more acceptable to remove portions of their vocal cords than it would be to remove a human’s.” She also pointed out that it is an invasive surgery that requires general anesthesia and results in post-operation pain.

The American Animal Hospital Association opposes debarking and an increasing number of veterinarians refuse to carry out this “cruel and unnecessary procedure,” Cryar said.

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It provides “no medical benefit to the animals” and is “done purely for the convenience or cosmetic preferences of the caregiver,” according to the HSVMA.

Health Risks

Any surgical procedure presents risks, but Arce and the HSVMA said there were additional potential complications and health problems associated with debarking. These include:

  • Bleeding and infection. Devocalization comes with a higher risk of infection because “the larynx and trachea, with their normal resident bacterial populations, cannot be made completely sterile during surgery,” according to the HSVMA.
  • Swelling of the dog’s airways.
  • Scar tissue and narrowing of throat. There is a substantial risk of developing scar tissue (webbing) and narrowing of the throat following surgery. This may require further surgery to improve the dog’s ability to breathe normally, said Arce.
  • Chronic coughing, gagging and pneumonia caused by breathing in coughed-up material.
  • Increased risk of threats to a dog’s physical safety because of its inability to ward off threats or alert others.
  • Increased frustration, which may be redirected in the form of destructive behaviors or aggression toward others.
  • Increased stress, which can contribute to a decline in a dog’s overall health.

It’s Not Very Effective

Arce warned: “There’s a chance that the surgery won’t work and the resumption of a near-normal bark may occur within months.”

The HSVMA also said that devocalization procedures don’t have “a high efficacy rate,” with many dogs having to undergo the surgery more than once in a bid to obtain better vocal results or to correct the unintentional consequences of previous operations.

“Their altered voices have been described with varying sounds ranging from lower, harsher, more muffled to raspy, wheezy, screechy and high‐pitched,” it added.

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A dog barking out of a car window. Playing music may help muffle triggering noises that set your dog barking.
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It Doesn’t Address the Underlying Problem

Debarking may reduce the noise associated with barking, but it does not address whatever is causing the barking, Arce said. “Dogs will continue to suffer mentally and may engage in other unacceptable behaviors to communicate their needs.”

Excessive barking often signals an underlying problem, according to Arce and Cryar. Some of these are:

  • Anxiety, including separation anxiety, or stress
  • Frustration or boredom
  • Loneliness or social isolation
  • Response to external stimuli, such as people walking by outside
  • Territorial protection
  • Insufficient training.
A sad-looking dog. Excessive barking could be a sign of underlying anxiety.
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Cryar said: “PETA urges everyone to listen to what their dogs are really saying and provide them with plenty of exercise, companionship and stimulation.”

There are a number of non-surgical approaches that can help dogs with excessive barking, Arce pointed out. Some of those recommended by experts are:

  • Managing the stimuli that trigger the barking, such as using curtains to block views of people walking past your home
  • Playing music to muffle triggering outdoor noises
  • Decreasing boredom or anxiety through environmental enrichment such as puzzle toys or long-lasting treats
  • Increasing consistent positive interactions with people in the home
  • Providing extra opportunities to exercise throughout the day.

A veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist can help create a treatment plan that’s specific to the needs of you and your dog. “This plan may include behavioral modification, with or without medication,” Arce said.

A woman playing with a dog at home. Non-surgical options include increasing your pet’s positive interactions with people.
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