Massachusetts Becomes First State to Criminalize Devocalization of Dogs and Cats

Cat undergoing surgeryOn April 22, 2010, the governor of Massachusetts signed into law HB 344, which makes devocalizing dogs and cats for non-medical reasons not only a crime, but a felony.

The ban does not apply in cases where devocalization is used to treat disease, congenital abnormalities, or injury.

Massachusetts is the first in the country to pass a statewide ban on devocalization.

According to DVM Newsmagazine:

The law would allow licensed veterinarians to perform devocalizations if they're medically necessary to treat or relieve illnesses, diseases, injuries, or congenital abnormalities that are causing or may cause a pet physical pain or harm.

Massachusetts veterinarians would need to keep records for four years on the procedures and report the total number of devocalizations performed to an auditing board. Records would need to include:

  • Name and address of the animal's owner
  • Name and address of the person from whom payment is received for the procedure
  • Description of the animal, including name, species, breed, date of birth, sex, color, markings and current weight
  • License number and municipality that issued such license for the animal> Date and time the procedure was performed
  • Reason for the devocalization procedure and any diagnostic opinion, analysis or test results to support such diagnosis.

Violators would be subject to up to five years in state prison and fines of up to $2,500.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

The Massachusetts law has inspired other states to draft similar legislation.

In addition, a U.S. Congressman from Maryland, C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger is sponsoring a bill to award animal cruelty prevention grants to states that enact laws prohibiting devocalization.

What is Devocalization?

Devocalization, also known as debarking, is surgery that either cuts or removes an animal’s vocal cords. The primary target is dogs, but less frequently, cats are ‘de-meowed’ as well.

Many veterinarians today refuse to perform the surgery for non-therapeutic reasons, because the result is strictly for the convenience of the pet owner, breeder or other caregiver. It provides absolutely no benefit to the animal and is widely considered inhumane, similar to canine ear cropping and tail docking and declawing of cats. Devocalization is no longer taught in many veterinary medical schools.

Those still in favor of the procedure claim it can mean the difference between a vocal dog or cat staying with his family or being surrendered to a shelter. However, there is no evidence to support the theory that pets are given up by their owners for being ‘too noisy.’

The AKC is against devocalization laws. Their position:

“The AKC believes that much misinformation exists about debarking of dogs. When performed by a veterinarian, debarking is an acceptable medical procedure that is often done as a "last resort" when all other methods of modifying a dog's behavior have failed.

For many responsible dog owners, debarking is the only alternative to euthanizing or surrendering their canine companion to a local shelter when their pet's noisy behavior continually disturbs the community. The decision to debark a dog is one that is best left to the dog owner and his veterinarian.”

However, according to Beth Birnbaum of the Coalition to Protect and Rescue Pets -- a non-profit, all volunteer organization that was instrumental in getting the Massachusetts law passed -- it is not individual dog owners who want their pets devocalized.

It is dog breeders, sled dog racers, show dog exhibitors and people who collect dogs for profit or hobby. Coalition volunteers have been involved with hundreds of devocalized dogs and cats, and all but a handful of the procedures were arranged by breeders. One animal was devocalized at the request of a hoarder.

What Does the Surgery Involve?

The procedure is performed either by cutting into the neck and then the larynx, which severs vocal cord tissue, or by going through the mouth to achieve the same result. The second method is less invasive but has a higher risk of scarring that can cause lifelong problems for the animal.

Not only does the procedure expose a pet to the usual risks of surgery like infection, blood loss, and problems with anesthesia, it can also result in scarring of vocal cord tissue regrowth, a condition known as ‘webbing.’ As with any surgery, there is post-operative pain involved.

Frequently, additional surgery is performed because after recovery the animal is still able to vocalize, or for correction of unintentional consequences of prior procedures.

Long-term, often permanent physical consequences for the pet include:

  • Chronic coughing and gagging
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Compromised airway access
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Elevated stress level
  • Increased risk to physical safety due to inability to alert or warn through barking

There can also be psychological and behavioral consequences from a decreased ability to communicate naturally.

The altered voices of devocalized pets have been variously described as lower, harsher, muffled, raspy, wheezy, screechy and high-pitched.

Why Does My Pet Vocalize?

Your dog barks – or your kitty meows -- for a reason. You may not think it’s a good reason, but he does.

Excessive vocalization can have any number of causes. The thing to keep in mind is the barking or meowing is a symptom – not a diagnosis.

Some breeds of dogs are more prone to vocalize than others, so you should research breeds you’re interested in if you’re planning to add a pup to your family.

If you want to adopt or rescue, anything you can find out from the previous owner, shelter or rescue organization about the noise level of your prospective pet will give you an idea of how long he’s been a talker. That information will help you understand how long it could take to reduce or extinguish the behavior.

Certain physiological conditions can bring on excessive vocalization, for example endocrine disorders and aging. Also, pets that have not been spayed or neutered tend to be more vocal. Your holistic veterinarian can be an invaluable resource in helping you sort out and resolve underlying issues that might be contributing to your extra-vocal cat or dog.

Other factors that can cause dogs to bark excessively include:

  • Neighborhood noises such as a loud vehicle, or sudden explosive sounds like a car backfiring can trigger an episode.
  • Boredom and being tied up or otherwise confined can cause vocalization.
  • Play or roughhousing with your dog can cause him to bark.
  • Changes in the household, like a new pet or human family member can cause stress barking.
  • Phobias and separation anxiety are also triggers, as are fear and aggression.

Tips for Quieting a Talkative Pet

In most situations, there are many things you can do to reduce or resolve your dog’s excessive barking.

If loud noises set your dog off, a crate of his own that he can go in and out of at will, coupled with soothing music or a television on in the background can help.

If your pup is barking from boredom, increase her exercise and playtime, take her on walks, to the dog park, or find other activities that give her both the physical activity and mental stimulation all dogs require to be balanced individuals.

Understand that changes in routine and your pet’s social environment cause stress. Consult an animal behavior specialist about desensitization and counter conditioning exercises for a stressed out pet. Retraining your dog in basic obedience can also be helpful.

If your puppy begins exhibiting attention-seeking behavior through barking, address it immediately with the help of your dog trainer. Reinforcing calm behaviors and identifying triggers early can help you address the issue immediately and prevent patterned behavior. 

An otherwise healthy kitty that is excessively vocal has usually been conditioned to be. Your cat will meow initially because she wants something from you. When she gets it – whether it’s food, petting or a nap on your lap – she figures out quickly her vocalization gets her wants and needs met.

Some people owned by cats enjoy chatting with them. Many cats will fall into a pattern in which they seem to be responding to the remarks their human makes.

If you’re conversing with your cat on a regular basis, you’re encouraging her to be vocal. If you at some point decide she’s a little too chatty, you’ll have to condition her to respond to ‘Shush!’ or ‘Be Quiet!’ or some other slightly harsh command when you want her to quit gabbing.

Cats especially tend to get more vocal as they age. If your kitty is getting up in years, is in good health but has begun to startle you at odd times of the day or night with loud meowing, the best thing you can do is reassure her in a gentle voice. That’s usually enough to calm and quiet an older, vocalizing cat.

+ Sources and References