Thursday, November 12, 2009

The devocalization debate

Today, a newspaper local to me published a story about the devocalization debate in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts legislature is currently considering a bill which would make illegal the procedure for debarking dogs, or surgically altering their vocal cords to reduce the noise they make when barking. Various humane societies (including MSPCA-Angell) support the bill, because they feel that debarking is inhumane. The Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association opposes the bill, because it takes away from veterinarians the ability to exercise their professional judgement.

I can see both sides of the issue. I don't know any details about the procedure itself, but I do know that when a dog barks excessively, there is usually some reason for it. Dealing with the symptom (barking) and not the underlying problem (separation anxiety, boredom, possibly something else) is not going to serve the owner or the dog well in the long run. The problem will manifest some other way. I don't know if this procedure is being used frequently and inappropriately in Massachusetts; I don't personally know any veterinarians who would perform it lightly, but I imagine that some such do exist in the state.

But should it be made illegal? I have to agree with the MVMA that the state should not be telling veterinarians how to do their jobs. Extenuating circumstances do occur, and I believe the decision to perform a procedure like this should be in the hands of the individual who spent four years earning his DVM (plus possible post-doctorate work in a residency program), and the owner of the dog, not in the hands of lawmakers who don't know the individual situation. Under the proposed bill, veterinarians will be able to apply for exemptions for "medical reasons," and only time would tell if behavior became recognized as a medical reason. But I don't like the idea of having to apply to the state to have a medical procedure done. I don't like the direction that takes us.

What do I propose as a solution? I think this problem should be solved by veterinarians. I think the MVMA should recognize that the problem is one that the citizens of this state currently find important, and should treat it seriously. A good first step could be forming a task force composed of representatives of the MVMA and of the groups who are in favor of this bill. This task force could provide a report on how often the debarking procedure is actually being performed, and under what circumstances. The task force could then identify problematic cases and discuss how they should have been handled differently, then discuss what options should have been available to that veterinarian and owner in that case. Are a significant number of veterinarians jumping to the surgery too quickly? Perhaps the MVMA can provide education to its members about the consequences of this procedure and some alternatives. Was the owner unaware of behavioral interventions? Could he not afford a trainer or a dog walker? Perhaps options should be made available for low-income people who cannot afford to deal with their animals' behavioral problems.

I would trust the MVMA and the MSCPA to find a solution to this problem, if they were able to work together. I'm not sure I trust the Massachusetts legislature to do so.

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