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Spring 2013 - Act•ionLine

The Case Against Devocalization

Challenging the Mutilation of Pets’ Vocal Cords

“That’s legal?” is the common response when I describe the devocalization of pets. The dangerous, unnecessary veterinary surgery involving cutting the vocal folds of dogs and cats solely to suppress their voices is indeed legal throughout most of the United States.

In short: Dogs and cats, who communicate in different and important ways through barking, meowing and other vocalizations, are being denied the voice they were born with.

Who Would Silence a Dog or Cat?

Owners betray their responsibilities by having pets devocalized. Some claim they “must” do it so that their neighbors won’t get angry or report the barking or meowing. And their views are condoned by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

But devocalization is ethically objectionable and unsafe. The cutting of tissue by way of an incision in the neck of a dog or cat or by inserting instruments through the mouth presents life-threatening health risks. And long-term risks associated with cutting vocal cords are serious.

Dr. Joel M. Woolfson, a veterinary surgeon, has treated animals for complications related to devocalization. “Even when performed correctly,” Dr. Woolfson says, “it commonly results in a condition in which the airway becomes obstructed by scar tissue.”

 Other potential complications involve breathing problems; persistent gagging or coughing; an inability of the larynx to prevent food and water from entering the trachea and lungs (which can in turn lead to pneumonia); and increased vulnerability to heatstroke. “This practice should be considered an act of cruelty,” Dr. Woolfson states.

Corrective surgery to remove scar tissue is expensive. The costs increase the chances of abandonment for devocalized animals — although the veterinary and breeding lobbies claim devocalization can help keep “talkative” animals in their homes.

Public Safety Risk

Sue Perry of Hartford, Connecticut, adopted a Newfoundland named Porter. Newfoundlands are relatively quiet dogs. That didn’t stop the previous owner from devocalizing — and later relinquishing — Porter. The vet who devocalized Porter had performed the operation many times before, and did the surgery in the least invasive way. Yet scar tissue had formed over 50 percent of Porter’s airway.

“We paid for a $2,000 surgery to remove the blockage,” Sue explains. But Porter will never breathe or bark normally again.

“His hoarse voice is upsetting for us to hear. Porter coughs and gags throughout the day and can’t walk a block without struggling to breathe. We must take great care to ensure that he doesn’t suffer heatstroke.”

The operation can pose a public safety risk as well. Barks and meows have different meanings — from “Let’s play!” to “Stay away!” Devocalization removes or reduces these distinctions. Because humans cannot interpret animal body language, especially when the animal is not their own, this is dangerous.

Massachusetts Bans Devocalization

Devocalization is addressed by laws in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and by a provision in California law. The Massachusetts ban is the only one of these laws that protects all dogs, and cats too, from devocalization. The California Landlord Law and Ohio’s law prohibiting devocalization only of “dangerous” dogs protect only a small segment of the dog population and no cats from devocalization.

The proposal we’re advancing for New York makes clear that the operation cannot be used for the convenience of people, by specifying:

Vocal cord surgery may be performed on a dog or cat only when the procedure is necessary to treat or relieve a physical illness or injury or correct a birth defect suffered by the animal, which illness, injury or birth defect is causing the animal physical pain or harm that cannot be relieved or remedied by other veterinary care.1

To achieve our goals, we are looking to the successful methods developed in the Massachusetts campaign.

“We ran our campaign the old-fashioned way, and it was remarkably effective,” says Leslie Burg, one of the Massachusetts group’s core volunteers. “We made our own flyers, handing them to people in dog parks, shelters and pet shops.” The Coalition in which Burg worked, together with local and national partners, was driven by thousands of volunteers who called legislators, distributed leaflets throughout the state, and forwarded alerts. They succeeded by working together, and persisting.

“We called and visited our lawmakers, and encouraged others to do the same," Burg continues, adding: “There is no substitute for personal contact.”

They also met and learned about many more devocalized dogs and cats than they’d thought existed.

Groups whose members profit from devocalization lobbied against the bill, or tried to riddle it with loopholes. But the Massachusetts House passed the ban, 155-1. The Senate passed it unanimously.

Burg sums up the success this way: “Posting ‘awww, poor animals’ on Facebook doesn’t pass laws. Neither does signing an online petition. Taking action does. We all have the power. We just need to use it.”

Veterinary Associations: Betraying Animals

Vocal cord surgery on dogs and cats should be banned, except where necessary to treat a physical ailment, such as cancer. But the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association and the New York State Veterinary Medical Society have fought bans in their states.

The American Veterinary Medical Association sanctions devocalization of dogs as a “final alternative” to deal with barking.2 But veterinarians do not know if their clients have pursued responsible avenues to address the causes of barking.

According to Leslie Harris, executive director of the Dakin Valley Humane Society in Springfield, Massachusetts, “Few shelters can lay claim to never having housed a devocalized animal.”

Harris says if people condoning this procedure were serious about keeping animals out of shelters, “they would be working much harder to address the real reasons animals are in shelters in the first place, including people who have unrealistic expectations of pets’ normal behaviors.”

The most effective way to reduce shelter populations, says Harris, is to provide affordable, accessible sterilization for cats and dogs.

Why do vets agree to cut pet’s vocal cords? Some vets devocalize because it’s profitable. Others express fears that banning devocalization could lead to prohibition of other unnecessary surgeries: declawing, cropping and docking.

 Devocalization Ban Efforts in New York State and Beyond

Friends of Animals is addressing this issue in New York and guiding a still broader effort to secure bans. We engage in public outreach, and distribute action alerts. We have already been meeting with New York legislators as co-sponsors of the proposed devocalization ban in the New York State Senate and Assembly.

 The bill has passed resoundingly in the Assembly, but competing lobbyists influenced the Senate to deny this legislation a vote.

As this article goes to print, the 2013 New York State legislative session has not begun. For updates on the New York bill, contact Edita Birnkrant at 212-247-8120 or edita@friendsofanimals.org

  • 1. This specification is coupled with enforcement and penalty provisions.
  • 2. This specification is coupled with enforcement and penalty provisions.

Act•ionLine Spring 2013

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