BC SPCA wants to ban debarking of dogs

The BC SPCA wants the province's college of veterinarians to ban canine devocalization. Monika Gul reports on what the procedure entails and why some say it's problematic.

After its recent victories of banning the declawing of cats, and the ear-cropping and tail-docking of dogs, the BC SPCA is pushing for a similar prohibition on canine devocalization — also known as debarking.

The practice is a surgery where a dog’s vocal cords are cut or partially removed in an effort to muffle or entirely stop the animal’s barking.

Dr. Uri Burstyn, a veterinarian in Vancouver, says the practice can lead to “catastrophic” complications.

“Anytime you do surgery, there’s potential for complications both around at the anesthesia as well as around the surgery itself,” he said.

“With airway surgery, in particular, complication rates tend to be a bit higher than with other types of surgery. And when they do happen, they tend to be a bit more catastrophic … Scar tissue formation, airway occlusion, aspiration pneumonia are all a little bit more likely when you do airway surgery. It’s not a simple area to operate in.”

He notes debarking is a bit of a misnomer, as it doesn’t silence the animal, but instead changes the sound.

“It just changes the pitch of the bark. So they can have this kind of raspy, gasping sound they produce instead of a loud, resonating bark,” he explained.

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The BC SPCA is calling on the College of Veterinarians of British Columbia to follow Alberta and Nova Scotia’s lead in banning the practice.

‘Shortcut’: Debarking can be treated as quick fix to behavioural issue

According to Burstyn, debarking has always been considered “an action of last resort.”

“When other things fail, it is sometimes treated as a shortcut to avoid managing behavioral problem. Because barking is, at its fundamental base, a behavioral problem, it’s a normal behavior. Dogs express when they’re anxious, when they’re stressed, or when they’re bored. Most of the time that can be managed with behavioral intervention. Debarking … ultimately, doesn’t remove the underlying problem.”

He says devocalization is “not well viewed” in his profession, adding very few veterinarians perform the procedure. Still, he says there are mixed views about debarking.

“It has always been viewed as the alternative to euthanasia, and we certainly can make an ethical argument saying that if the only other alternative is to put a dog down well, then maybe the risk of debarking is acceptable. But the issue with that is if it’s not tightly regulated, which right now it’s not regulated at all, people will often do it inappropriately or do it too soon.”

Burstyn feels in general, most veterinarians would agree with an outright ban on debarking:

“You could always make an argument for exceptional cases or that it may be in the animal’s best interest. But those are definitely few and far between. So I think most veterinarians would agree that the BC SPCA’s position is the correct one. But there’s certainly some gray areas.”

‘Suffering in silence’

Although debarking is becoming more rare in B.C., Dr. Emilia Gordon, senior manager of animal health with the BC SPCA has in the past seen dogs who suffered complications from the procedure. The biggest one, she says, isn’t physical, but emotional.

“They continue to bark for all those same reasons and they’re sort of suffering in silence, so to speak, because they can’t really communicate that they need something,” she described.

“So the person is no longer subjected to that noise, but the dog is still experiencing whatever the emotional motivations were that caused the dog to bark in the first place.”

Gordon, instead encourages proper dog training.

“If you work with a science-based dog trainer, you can train your dog alternative behaviors,” she said, adding environment management can also be effective.

Related video: Veterinarian warns of the dangers of leaving pets in hot cars

Devocalization is prohibited in the United Kingdom, European Union, New Zealand, Australia, and several U.S. states.

“I am a bit surprised that it hasn’t been banned [in B.C.] yet. But it wasn’t ever specifically addressed in our veterinary bylaws … I think this is just sort of a catch up thing,” Gordon said.

The BC SPCA urges people who are opposed to debarking to sign a petition on its website.

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