Dog debarking policy at AVMA raises activists' howls of protest
Karen Mahmud, 43, of Long Island, N.Y., holds her long-haired Chihuahua, Lola, who barks in a squeaky whisper after surgeons cut the dog's vocal cords.
Sue Perry, 58, of Hartford, Conn., relaxes with Porter, her 7 1/2-year-old Newfoundland dog. He was debarked by previous owners and has had to have surgery to remove scar tissue in his throat. Still, he has trouble with breathing and eating.
LONG ISLAND, NY (NBC) - When Porter, a 123-pound black Newfoundland, attempts to
bark, it comes out as a raspy cough. When Lola, a 6-pound long-haired
Chihuahua, tries, she emits only a whispery squeak.
dogs have been "devocalized," or surgically muffled, using a
controversial procedure regarded as either barbaric mutilation by lazy
pet owners -- or as the last resort of animal lovers desperate to keep
their furry companions.
Porter's owner, Sue Perry, a
58-year-old Connecticut bookkeeper, and Lola's owner, Karen Mahmud, a
43-year-old New York nutrition blogger, fall squarely into the first
camp. They're part of the Coalition to Protect and Rescue Pets, an
activist group that helped get the practice known as "debarking" or
"devoicing" outlawed in Massachusetts two years ago. Now they have set
their sights on the American Veterinary Medical Association.
"I was just horrified by this," said Perry, who adopted
Porter from a rescue agency five years ago. "When he tried to bark, I
was, like, ‘What the heck?'"
Though they've never met in person, the two women have joined to launch an online petition
demanding that the AVMA, the nation's leading group of veterinarians,
condemn devocalization when the organization reviews its policy on the
procedure later this year. So far, more than 125,000 people have signed
onto their cause.
"It's very, very upsetting," said
Mahmud, who also got Lola from a rescue group and says she watches the
tiny dog suffer with constant coughing and acting like there's something
stuck in her throat. "I would never think that it's OK to put a dog
under needless torture. If a dog barks, a dog barks."
that point of view is vigorously opposed by groups such as the National
Animal Interest Alliance, an animal welfare organization in Portland,
Ore., and by dog experts such as Charlotte McGowan, a Boston-area dog
breeder and noted American Kennel Club honoree who has judged at the
Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
To advocates, the
procedure is a rarely performed, simple operation that can allow an
owner to quiet incessant barking that may lead to eviction, friction
with neighbors or stress so intense it makes them want to get rid of the
pet -- or worse.
"It's giving a tool to someone who
really loves their animal and is at the end of their rope," said
McGowan, who refers to the procedure as "bark softening" and says it
doesn't totally eliminate a dog's ability to make noise.
68, said she has had dogs debarked herself during more than 40 years of
breeding and believes the procedure is both safe and effective, with no
lasting damage to the animals. Though there are behavioral
interventions and techniques to stop problem barking, some dogs are
resistant to training, McGowan said.
"You hate to take a dog out of a home where it's loved just because it barks," she said.
On the surface, the new petition, posted by Change.org,
is aimed at influencing the AVMA's policy on debarking. The group
currently opposes the practice in general, but says devocalization may
be used when other efforts have failed as a "final alternative" to
relinquishing or euthanizing an animal.
Mahmud believe the AVMA's reach is so broad, representing more than
82,500 veterinarians in the U.S., that the group should take the lead in
opposing devocalization in the U.S. In Europe, they note, debarking is
Perry, 58, of Hartford, Conn., relaxes with Porter, her 7 1/2-year-old
Newfoundland dog. He was debarked by previous owners and has had to have
surgery to remove scar tissue in his throat. Still, he has trouble with
breathing and eating.
"Until the AVMA changes their position, they're condoning it, saying it's OK as a last resort," Perry said.
Sheilah Robertson, a veterinarian and assistant director of the AVMA's
Animal Welfare Division, notes that the AVMA may have influence, but it
has no ability to set laws or enforce bans.
"We just make strong recommendations," Robertson said.
animal groups in the U.S., such as the American Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA, do oppose the practice
outright. That group "does not support the use of surgical procedures
that attempt to circumvent the behavior issue while exposing pets to
unnecessary discomfort and risk," the agency said in a statement.
At issue is the procedure known as venticulocordectomy,
which involves removal of an animal's vocal cords either by going
through the mouth or through an incision in the throat, according to the
It's used to quiet dogs -- and cats, some say
-- who are too loud or incessantly noisy. Experts say dogs bark
excessively for many reasons: poor training, boredom, social isolation,
in response to external stimulation, to protect territory and because of
anxiety or compulsive disorder.
debarking is regarded as a simple, fairly inexpensive procedure --
about $400 to $500 -- critics say it deprives animals of their natural
ability to communicate and poses physical problems from scar tissue that
can impair breathing, eating and other normal activities.
veterinarians refuse to perform the procedure and Robertson said it's
no longer taught in veterinary schools. That's because although there
are other surgical procedures performed in that area, devocalization is
never a medically necessary procedure, said Joel Woolfson, a
board-certified veterinary surgeon in private practice in Medway, Mass.
feeling is very strong that this procedure is done strictly for the
convenience of people who don't want to hear or are annoyed by their
pet's vocalizations," said Woolfson. "It has nothing to do with the
health of the animal."
Rather, Woolfson added, the
procedure is performed by pet owners seeking a "quick fix" who don't
want to spend the time and energy to address the actual cause of the
"It's the ones that are just too lazy to
try other approaches," he said. "Or they are just insensitive to the
fact that it's a procedure that can cause some suffering."
one knows for certain how many devocalization surgeries are performed
in the U.S. each year. It may be less than one-tenth of all dogs seen
for office visits, according to background material for Ohio legislation
aimed at banning debarking of vicious dogs.
Four states -- Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio -- have laws banning debarking under certain circumstances.
Massachusetts, the law passed in 2010 was championed by the Coalition
to Protect and Rescue Pets, the volunteer group that includes Perry and
In McGowan's view, such groups are often made
up of activists who hold extreme views and rely on scare tactics to
advance their goals.
"I found that the emotion and
irrationality of the people opposing this was really hard to fathom,"
she said. "I got people who called me up and said ‘We know where you
live.' It was quite frightening."
McGowan notes that
many of the same people are ardent supporters of spaying and neutering
pets, both invasive surgical procedures that could be viewed as being
performed because they benefit humans.
"Talk about what's cruel here," she said. "A convenient surgery is neutering your dog."
of the AVMA, said the group's Animal Welfare Committee will consider
many points of view, from scientific evidence to public opinion, when
members review the debarking policy.
although the heated discussion will continue, people who actually want
to find a surgeon to debark a dog might have trouble, Robertson said.
"It's not commonly done," she said. "They'd have to look around pretty widely to find one."
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