Dr. Utchen, my dog barks incessantly while I am away at work and the neighbors are complaining. Do you have any suggestions -- is debarking a dog cruel?
This is a timely question. A few weeks ago I wrote an article discussing ways to train a dog to bark less. However, there are situations where training fails for a variety of reasons, and when someone is threatened with having their dog taken away from them or euthanized because of the nuisance that barking can be, and in these cases debark surgery is an option. For those who want the full term, the procedure is called a ventriculocordectomy, and means removal of both vocal cords.
The surgery is relatively simple when done by an experienced surgeon. There are different ways to do this so check with your veterinarian for his or her recommendation. In any case, once the vocal cords have been removed a dog’s bark sounds more like a hoarse cough.
Do I think this surgery is cruel? I would say that this surgery is not something I ever suggest someone do as the first choice method of stopping their dog from barking. There are training methods that can be very effective instead of surgery.
However, if the choice is to have your dog taken away from you or euthanized because the barking has become a public nuisance, then my opinion is you should debark your dog so the two of you can stay together. And I think that if handled properly this operation is no more serious, and possibly much easier, for a dog to go through than many other routine surgeries, for example, being spayed or neutered.
Here is why I think that. To start with, try remembering the last time you had a sore throat or inflamed tonsils. We all know how painful that can be. Technically a sore throat is called Pharyngitis, and involves the area of the throat (the pharynx) before the vocal cords. When the pharynx area of the throat becomes inflamed it is quite painful.
However, if that same infection moves farther down the throat to your vocal cords, then it is called Laryngitis, and you lose your voice. However, we all know from this kind of experience that the vocal cords themselves hardly have any feeling compared to the rest of the throat. Laryngitis hardly hurts at all. And this is the area (the vocal cords) that is operated on when doing the debark surgery.
Having performed this procedure myself and observed dogs afterwards, there is little evidence that they experience significant discomfort, given their continued (and usually) enthusiastic attempts to bark. Of course, their bark is very quiet, but they attempt to bark nonetheless. It is difficult for me to imagine they would continue attempting to bark as constantly after surgery as they did before surgery if their throat were painful.
Again, I do not advocate this as the first line of defense to reduce the noise a barking dog makes. However, if other attempts to control a dog’s incessant barking are not effective, I do not discourage dog owners from having surgery performed.