HSVMA Backs Bill to Ban Devocalization in Massachusetts

August 10, 2009

The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA) is working with the Coalition to Protect and Rescue Pets, an all-volunteer network of Massachusetts pet owners, humane societies and veterinarians, to support H.B. 344, a bill to ban the devocalization of dogs and cats in the state of Massachusetts.

Stella, a yellow Labrador adopted by Dottie Veneto, had a devocalization surgery performed—ordered by an AKC breeder.
Dottie Veneto

The legislation, which exempts situations in which devocalization surgery is necessitated for therapeutic purposes, is currently pending in the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

HSVMA's support of this legislation is part of the Association's ongoing campaign against cosmetic and convenience surgeries.

The campaign has been designed to educate the public and provide tools to veterinary professionals who are opposed to non-therapeutic procedures, which include ear cropping, tail docking, devocalization of cats and dogs, and declawing of cats.

Building a Case

HSVMA developed a fact sheet that was used for lobbying in support of the devocalization ban at the Massachusetts state Capitol and conducted interviews with media representatives on the subject.

Our most recent effort included a letter of support for the bill—with the endorsement of over 200 veterinarians in the state who are opposed to utilizing devocalization surgery to address "problem" barking.

In addition, HSVMA Leadership Council Member and leading animal behaviorist Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS, DACVB, testified in support of the legislation at a July hearing of the Judiciary Committee.

Stella's incision
This incision is from the corrective surgery for the scar tissue that obstructed 50% of her airway as a result of devocalization surgery.
Dottie Veneto

He noted that there are much more humane ways to deal with excessive vocalization—such as behavioral modifications and environmental enrichment—than exposing an animal to an unnecessary and risky surgery.

Dodman also stressed the importance of matching an animal's personality with the appropriate caregiver and living situation.

Dodman was joined by Dr. Joel Woolfson, DVM, DACVS, who detailed the surgical risks involved in cutting all or part of the vocal cords of an animal.

Those risks include infection, hemorrhage, aspiration and potential long-term negative effects, mainly scarred vocal cord tissue re-growth.

This re-growth, also known as webbing, can lead to chronic coughing, gagging, aspiration pneumonia, exercise intolerance, and the need for additional corrective surgery.

Opposition Exists

The bill has been primarily opposed by dog breeders, who argue that devocalization surgery needs to be available in order to keep dogs in living situations where barking is problematic. Some breeders have acknowledged that they routinely de-bark their dogs in order to operate their businesses without complaints from neighbors.

The Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA) is opposing the bill, maintaining that devocalization surgery should be available as a "last resort" if the caregiver states that the companion animal will be turned over to a shelter or euthanized due to the vocalization.

However, the bill's advocates note that would make the law unenforceable. Veterinarians cannot know or control with any certainty the actions of a caregiver or the circumstances of an animal's care, which is the critical factor in behavioral issues.

Boredom, loneliness and distress are common reasons for frequent barking. All of these triggers may be addressed nonsurgically and humanely.

What Can You Do?

HSVMA urges veterinary professionals to work with caregivers who are considering euthanasia or surrender to a shelter. Emphasis should be placed on humane behavioral modification, environmental enrichment or, if necessary, placement into a more appropriate living situation, rather than performing a surgery that is not in the patient's best interest.

For more on the risks involved in devocalization, watch this video of interviews with a veterinary surgeon and families who have adopted devocalized dogs. To help with grassroots lobbying on H.B. 344, please contact the Coalition to Protect and Rescue Pets.

Updated September 30, 2009