Debarking Debate

Posted: Sep 5, 2017
Views: 3013 - Comments: 6

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Ventriculocordectomy to de-vocalize dogs should be a procedure abandoned and lost to history. So…are we really still having a debate about the legitimacy of de-barking procedures? Sarcasm is not my usual state of being so the incredulity in my tone may seem out of character, but there are few issues that have such clarity and little to no nuance. Unfortunately the answer is yes, we are still having this debate, sparked by an Oregon appellate court’s recent decision to uphold a ruling that mandates the debarking of dogs in a nuisance dispute between neighbors.

The opinion from the appellate court states that “The court’s findings were supported by evidence that the barking continued…and evidence that defendants had not employed effective measures to eliminate the barking.”  What this ruling grossly ignores is that elimination of barking is an undesirable, ludicrous and unattainable objective. Barking and other vocalizations in canines serve important functions.  Farm dogs charged with the security of herd animals use barking as an alarm and a protective mechanism. Using barking as a signaling mechanism is also an expectation many pet owners put on their household pet dogs. Vocalizations serve social functions in dogs that live with other dogs. Perhaps most notable, vocalizations enhance the human animal bond. For all these reasons the elimination of vocalizations and barking would not be desirable.

If the court’s objective was to eliminate the barking entirely then they have mandated an ineffective solution. De-barking is a misnomer; this procedure does not eliminate barking or vocalizations. The procedure alters normal anatomy, changing the way air vibrates through the structures of the larynx. It eliminates the ability of the dog to effectively control how air moves through the larynx. This results in barking that is different in pitch, altered in character and often described as hoarse, but not non-existent. In some dogs, very little change is noted in the sound of the bark. As we all know the larynx is the gateway to the trachea and lungs. Safe-guarding the ability of dogs to both move air and protect the airway is vital. De-barking is a procedure with risks of airway scarring, and laryngeal dysfunction without efficacy. Many including myself hold the opinion that de-vocalization is medically unnecessary and without any diagnostic, therapeutic, or preventative benefits. Fortunately veterinary curricula have largely eliminated instruction on this procedure.

I will concede that continuous barking can be a nuisance but behavioral modification through positive re-enforcement, training and redirection are the appropriate measures to take. Why didn’t the courts mandate a complete behavioral assessment of the dogs by a board-certified behaviorist rather than an ineffective surgery? I suggest that it is because they are ill-equipped to make these medical recommendations. It is the sole role of veterinarians to prescribe medical and surgical procedures to animals based on a veterinary-client-patient relationship. We partner with our clients to find solutions that work for their families. By “prescribing” this non-efficacious surgical procedure the court disregards the sanctity of the veterinary-client-patient relationship.  Veterinarians hold themselves to the practice ideal of informing and educating clients about the side effects, effectiveness, and potential outcomes of recommended diagnostics or therapies. This decision sets precedence for courts to mandate medically unnecessary, ineffective procedures as “quick fixes”. It devalues the ideals of practice we veterinarians hold sacred.