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Pet Talk: Alternatives to debarking surgery

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By Angela Clendenin

Debarking surgery is quite the controversy in pet news today. Is it inhumane? Do the possible risks outweigh the perceived benefits? These are viable questions to ask when considering debarking surgery to control your dog’s chronic barking. However, with April being the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month, it is also important to recognize the numerous available non-surgical alternatives that are said to be safer and even more effective by veterinarians and trainers alike.
As decipherable from the name, debarking surgery is the act of surgically disabling your dog from producing a loud, barking sound. “Although the procedure is called ‘debarking,’ it does not result in the inability for the dog to produce any sound at all,” said Dr. Kelley Thieman, a clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Instead, the dog has a muffled quality to its bark, and in time could even regain the ability to bark.”  
While the benefit of debarking surgery is the muffled-sounding bark, there are still numerous complications that could arise and definitely should not be overlooked. “Debarking surgery carries various risks,” Thieman said. “During the debarking procedure itself, risks could include bleeding, swelling (preventing air flow), infection and anesthetic complications.” Scarring of the larynx can also occur after the surgery, and in some cases may be severe enough to restrict airflow. This would require yet another surgical procedure to remove the scar tissue so the dog could breathe, bringing with it more unnecessary risk.
Though tiresome when heard for hours on end, barking is an important way for our dogs to communicate with us. Excessive barking can often be Fido alerting us that there is a stranger nearby, or even that he is in pain. Surgically disabling him from barking, though it might provide you with some relief, may not be appropriate when barking can also be controlled with a similarly effective alternative.
The best way to prevent unwanted barking, as advised by both veterinarians and professional dog trainers, is proper training. Some other alternatives could include adequate exercise and environmental enrichment. “No-bark collars, which discharge citronella spray or even a static shock in response to barking, are also available,” Thieman said. “However, I think that obedience training combined with exercise and fun dog activities are great options for controlling excessive barking.”
Most veterinarians agree that debarking surgery should be used only as a last result when all other options have failed, and even then some veterinary clinics refuse to perform the surgery. When considering your options, it is important to extensively consider the alternatives to help decide if the risks of putting your dog through unnecessary surgery are really worth the benefit.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at vetmed.tamu.edu/pettalk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.