AVMA debates over debarking

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Dr. Steele
Dr. Apryl Steele, alternate delegate for the American Association of Feline Practitioners, said devocalization removes an irritation to humans without aiding the dogs. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

AVMA leaders are debating what to say about dog devocalization.

In a narrow vote in July, members of the AVMA House of Delegates turned down a proposal to express more forceful opposition to vocal cord surgeries to quiet dogs. Association policy currently states that devocalization—or debarking—should be used only as an alternative to euthanasia, after efforts to change a dog's behavior have failed.

During their regular annual session in Denver, the delegates were considering whether to shift focus of the policy away from descriptions of rare conditions in which devocalization is justified and toward the AVMA's opposition to a procedure that may be convenient for an owner but harmful to a dog. The revisions also would have aligned with policies in opposition to cosmetic ear cropping and tail docking in dogs and tooth removal in primates and carnivores without a medical reason.

By less than 1 percent of the vote, the delegates decided to refer the proposal back to the AVMA Board of Directors for reconsideration.

Delegates debated ahead of the vote whether the procedure is harmful, how a policy change could affect decisions by veterinarians and legislators, and whether establishing policies against certain procedures sets a precedent.

Dr. Apryl Steele, alternate delegate for the American Association of Feline Practitioners, said the procedure removes an irritation to humans without aiding the dogs, thus keeping the frustrations that made them bark but taking away their ability to get attention. She further explained after an HOD committee meeting that a dog may develop a persistent bark if it is not socialized, has no enrichment, or lacks exercise.

"Incessant barking is a manifestation of extreme anxiety and frustration, and for us to take away the manifestation of that level of anxiety, we are basically saying 'As long as we're not aware of it, it's OK for that animal to suffer,'" she said.

Dr. Emily McCobb, chair of the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee, said in the committee meeting that devocalization has a high complication rate—about 25 percent—and, as an anesthesiologist, she has seen devocalizations that resulted in laryngeal webbing, or scarring which can make intubation difficult. The welfare committee supported the proposed policy change.

Scarring from devocalization surgeries also can cause breathing difficulties. In one study (J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 2014;50:264-272) that followed outcomes of bilateral ventriculocordectomy surgeries, six of 25 dogs had chronic breathing problems and needed revision surgeries. AVMA information cites the study among evidence that devocalization has risks for dogs.

During the meeting, Dr. Walter McCarthy, delegate for New York, said devocalization is used to avoid euthanasia when drugs and behavior modification fail and a client's landlord threatens eviction. He also said it is hard to re-home a dog with a persistent bark.

"I have a real problem with not considering this as a last-ditch effort to save this animal's life," he said.

Dr. Elizabeth Atkins, alternate delegate for Massachusetts, expressed doubt many such dogs would be euthanized for the lack of ability to find a new home.

"I think that's a rare outcome unless the owner's insisting on it," she said.

Dr. William Grant, alternate delegate for California, said he performed two devocalization surgeries in the past eight years, with good results. His clients had received court orders to debark their dogs or remove them from their homes. He thinks decisions on the procedure should be between veterinarians and clients.

Dr. McCarthy said New York's legislature is considering a ban on devocalization, and AVMA policy can help determine whether such a bill passes. Other delegates said they worried the proposed policy change would set standards that could be used against veterinarians in court or be cited in support of further legislation to restrict veterinary practices.

Dr. Wendy Hauser, delegate for the American Animal Hospital Association, said the proposal before the delegates reflected language in AAHA policy. The organization opposes devocalization as an often-ineffective procedure that deprives dogs of normal behaviors.

AAHA policy calls for its use only as an alternative to relinquishment or euthanasia, with exceptions for airway obstruction or laryngeal paralysis.