A Veterinarian Discusses the Procedure known as Debarking or Bark Softening

A Veterinarian Discusses the Procedure known as Debarking or Bark Softening

By: Staff  Date: 01/8/2012 Category: | Canine Issues |

Recently a reporter from a major newspaper interviewed me about bark softening. During the interview, I told him about the innumerable cases of dogs I saw abandoned at the animal shelter because of barking problems. I shared my professional opinion that canine bark softening can be life-saving for many dogs if performed correctly and for the right reasons, such as to prevent an animal from being separated from its owner or from being abandoned or euthanized. After the article appeared in the newspaper, people submitted questions for me to answer on the newspaper's website. The questions revealed how and why people were so confused and concerned about bark softening. To give readers a better understanding of what bark softening is, and to put it into perspective, I will describe the bark softening procedures and compare them to two of the most commonly performed elective pet surgeries, "spay and neuter".

Canine bark softening is a veterinary procedure that has been performed for decades. Although it is not commonly performed, it has gained considerable public interest this year, following recent media exposure.

Canine bark softening techniques are described in detail in veterinary surgical text books, yet few veterinarians have been trained how to do the procedure. Today, more emphasis is placed on behavioral modification, environmental management, and pharmacotherapy (behavioral medication), rather than medical procedures, to correct problem barking.

The American Veterinary Medical Association's position statement for canine bark softening is:
"Canine devocalization should only be performed by qualified, licensed veterinarians as a final alternative after behavioral modification efforts to correct excessive vocalization have failed."

Most people are unaware that there is a bark softening procedure, so they have not watched it be performed and have no firsthand experience with it. Understandably, when they learn of the procedure for the first time, they are confused by the term used for the procedure: devocalization. Devocalization is a misnomer because bark softening does not render the dog voiceless, muted, or silent. When correctly performed, there is about a 50 percent reduction in volume and a lower pitch to the bark. To add to the confusion, the misnomer, devocalization, is used for two very different bark softening methods: the oral technique and the laryngotomy technique.
The oral technique is the procedure most commonly performed in veterinary practices because it is non-invasive and the procedure and recovery time are very short. 

In my professional opinion, the laryngotomy technique, should not be performed. The laryngotomy technique can have serious post-operative complications, including seroma formation, delayed healing, tissue damage, and excessive scarring. Scarring can be so extensive that the dog can have difficulty breathing for the rest of its life.

1. Oral technique
This bark softening procedure is non-invasive and takes one to two minutes to perform, using a short acting injectable anesthetic. No anesthesia, whether gas or injectable, is without risk. An injectable anesthetic is used because the surgical approach is directly through the mouth and it would be very difficult to access the vocal folds if an endotracheal tube (used for gas anesthesia) was in the area where the procedure is being performed.
In the oral technique, the dog's mouth is opened and one or two very small pieces of tissue are taken from one or both vocal folds using a slender biopsy instrument. The procedure usually takes less than two minutes. When correctly done, there is little to no bleeding or discomfort. Pain killers (analgesia) should always be given, however, as a precaution. Recovery from anesthesia takes a few minutes. Because there is no change in the dog's behavior or attitude and because the dog can and will continue to bark, sedatives are sometimes given to keep the animal calm and quiet for a few days to reduce vocal fold scarring while healing takes place.
Results of the oral technique bark softening procedure vary among individual dogs. There is no way to predict or control the volume of the bark and the bark may have a raspy sound. Results are usually permanent, although in some cases dogs may eventually regain full volume of their bark.

2. Laryngotomy technique 
In the laryngotomy technique, the dog is maintained on gas anesthesia through an endotracheal tube. A two inch incision is made through the skin, on the ventral surface of the neck, above the dog's larynx. The muscles are separated, blood vessels are cauterized, the larynx is entered and most or all of the dog's vocal fold tissues are removed. The incisions are then sutured back together. This technique is invasive, painful, requires several minutes of surgical time, and has a prolonged recovery time, during which time sedatives are required to keep the dog calm and quiet. Excessive scarring can result from this technique and cause permanent breathing difficulties.

Pet owners are naturally concerned about whether their dogs would be unhappy or psychologically changed in any way as a result of a bark softening procedure. To my knowledge, there have not been any peer-reviewed, published scientific studies that objectively measure changes in dogs' moods, before or after any medical or surgical procedure. However, people who own dogs that have had the bark softening procedure by oral technique assert that their dogs show no change from their previous behaviors, personalities, and attitudes. The dogs also continue to bark as much as they did previously and their owners can still hear them.

Dogs bark for many reasons, including excitement, playfulness, warning, fear, separation anxiety, and loneliness. Many barking problems can be prevented or corrected with training, social enrichment, environmental management, and behavior modification techniques. In cases of separation anxiety, pharmacotherapy (behavior medications) may be helpful. These methods require time, effort, and dedication. Because every case is different, the success or failure of behavior modification techniques varies among individual animals, trainers, counselors, veterinary behavioral specialists, and owners. Dog owners can find help through veterinary behavior specialists (www.dacvb.org).

People who object to bark softening say that animals should not be subjected to an elective procedure  strictly for the pet owner's convenience. The fact is, people have been subjecting their pets to elective procedures of convenience for many years, the most common being "spaying and neutering".  Spay and neuter surgical procedures are widely promoted as something responsible pet owners should do to help reduce the pet population. In reality, most pet owners do not want to breed their pets. They spay and neuter their pets primarily for their own convenience,because they do not want to deal with the problems associated with owning an intact animal: behavioral changes, which may include aggression; mounting; attempts to escape and roam; excessive, frequent urination and territorial marking; unpleasant odors; and bloody vaginal discharge during estrus that stains carpet and furniture.

"Spay and neuter" is upheld in our country as "the right thing to do", to the extent that mandatory spay and neuter is now being legislated in many parts of the United States. Yet, in some countries, these procedures are considered inhumane and unnecessary. Before we perform any procedure on our pets, we should know what the procedures entail, what their long-term effects may be, and what the alternatives are. Decisions about medical and surgical procedures for any pet should be made by the animal's owner and veterinarian. Veterinary medical and surgical procedures should not be forced, mandated, banned, or legislated by politicians.

Of special note is Dr. Waters recent research on canine ovariohysterectomy and longevity.  Dr. Waters' findings indicate that dogs that keep their ovaries live longer than dogs that have had their ovaries removed. (Please see Dr. Waters study and references http://www.gpmcf.org/respectovaries.html for details). This very important study deserves serious consideration. During my 31 year veterinary career, I have recommended and performed thousands of canine ovariohysterectomies. My colleagues and I must now look at ovariohysterectomies with a different perspective, in light of these new, significant findings. We must now ask ourselves if removing a dog's ovaries and possibly shortening her life span could be considered inhumane treatment if the procedure isn't deemed medically necessary in the animal's case? And if it is indeed inhumane, how can such a procedure be mandated by state or local authorities?

Below is a comparison of the differences between the most commonly performed elective procedures of convenience—the widely accepted and highly promoted practice of spaying and neutering—and the seldom performed, but often criticized, practice of bark softening:

  • Spaying and neutering

Spaying and neutering are invasive procedures that involve removing reproductive organs (gonadectomy). In the female, the procedure is considered "major surgery" because the abdomen is opened to remove the uterus and ovaries. The procedure, nicknamed a "spay",  is correctly termed an ovariohysterectomy. In the male, the testicles are removed. Tissues and blood vessels are cut, ligated, cauterized, and stitched. The procedure is nicknamed a "neuter", but the correct term is castration. Ovariohysterecomies and castrations take from ten to thirty (sometimes more) minutes to perform, so intravenous catheters and fluids may be required. The procedures are painful, so they require a general gas anesthesia and analgesia (pain killers). Antibiotics may also be necessary. Although problems rarely occur when the procedures are correctly performed on healthy animals, these surgeries carry the risks associated with longer anesthesia time and surgical complications, such as infection, hemorrhage, cardiac or respiratory arrest, and death. Ovariohysterectomies and castrations may have long-term side-effects later in life, such as urinary incontinence, hormonal imbalances, and, as previously mentioned for females, a shorter lifespan. 

  • Bark softening

Bark softening (by oral technique) is non-invasive and takes about two minutes to perform. A short acting injectable anesthetic is used that lasts about five to seven minutes. When correctly performed, there is little to no bleeding or discomfort. The dog is given pain medication as a precaution and sedatives are prescribed to keep the animal quiet for several days to  reduce scarring of the vocal folds. If done correctly, bark softening  has no side effects except that the dog has a quieter bark. In some cases, the voice can return to full volume over time.

About The Author

Staff's photo
Staff -

All Authors Of This Article: | Sharon Vanderlip, DVM |
Like this article?
Don’t forget to share, like or follow us