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Devocalization of Dogs and Cats in California: Legal or Not?

In California, the devocalization (also known as debarking or vocal cordectomy) of dogs and cats is regulated by state law. According to California law (Section 597.4 of the California Penal Code), it is illegal for any person to perform a devocalization procedure on a dog or cat for any purpose other than to protect the life or health of the animal. This means that devocalization can only be performed if it is deemed medically necessary for the animal’s well-being and cannot be done for convenience or to address behavioral issues.
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Collen Clark Published by Collen Clark

What is Devocalization?

According to Wikipedia, devocalization, also known as ventriculocordectomy or vocal cordectomy, is a surgical procedure that involves removing tissue from an animal’s vocal cords. When performed on dogs, it is commonly referred to as debarking or bark softening, and on cats, it is called demeowing or meow softening [1].

Devocalization is typically requested by pet owners, where the procedure is legally allowed. Reasons for this request may include excessive vocalization by the animal, complaints from neighbors, or as an alternative to euthanasia mandated by a court order.

Contraindications include negative reaction to anesthesia, infection, bleeding, and pain. There is also the possibility that the removed tissue will grow back, or of scar tissue blocking the throat – both cases requiring further surgeries – though with the incisional technique the risk of fibrosis is virtually eliminated

General Legality
According to SCLG, vocal cord removal, also known as devocalization, is generally legal in California. However, there are specific restrictions to protect pets from unnecessary procedures [2].

These include:

Key Restrictions
Public Housing Regulation: Under 24 CFR 960.707, it is illegal to require tenants to remove their pets’ vocal cords as a condition of living in public housing.
Landlord Regulations: Section 1942.7(a)(3) of the California Civil Code prohibits landlords from demanding the devocalization of an animal as a condition for renting property.

Legislative Efforts
In 2000, anti-debarking legislation was proposed in California but failed to pass. The opposition stemmed from concerns that the ban could lead to prohibitions on other controversial cosmetic procedures, such as ear cropping.

Comparison with Other States
Currently, six states have laws that restrict devocalization under certain conditions:

  • Massachusetts, Maryland, and New Jersey: Devocalization is only allowed when medically necessary.
  • Pennsylvania: The procedure is prohibited unless performed by a licensed veterinarian using anesthesia.
  • California and Rhode Island: It is unlawful to require the devocalization or declawing of animals as a condition for real estate occupancy.

Risks and Ethical Concerns of Devocalization in Pets

Devocalization, a procedure with no physical benefits, often leads to significant complications. The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association highlights that the surgery carries a higher risk of infection because the larynx and trachea cannot be completely sterilized during the procedure. Additionally, animals may develop excess scar tissue, known as “webbing,” which can cause respiratory problems, chronic coughing, and gagging.

Beyond the physical risks, there is the ethical issue of removing an animal’s primary means of communication.

Barking is a normal behavior for animals, and that’s how they communicate, says Dr. Sheilah Robertson, a board-certified anesthesiologist, in an interview with CBS News.

Robertson emphasizes that nuisance or excessive barking often stems from underlying social issues that need to be addressed.

Addressing Your Dog’s Barking Problem: Humane and Effective Solutions

If your dog has a barking issue, don’t consider debarking as a solution. Barking often stems from boredom and loneliness. Here are some simple and effective ways to address the root cause:

Bring Your Dog Inside
If your dog spends all day outside alone, bring them inside to become part of the family. Companion animals thrive on interaction and companionship.

Seek Professional Help
Contact your local humane society for referrals to humane trainers, animal behaviorists, or veterinarians who can offer effective solutions. Avoid using shock or citronella collars, as these can be harmful and ineffective.

Provide Social Interaction
Ask your vet or local humane society for recommendations on dog walkers, doggie daycare centers, or local dog parks where your dog can socialize and expend energy.

Legal Advice
If a court has ordered you to debark your dog, euthanize your dog, or move, consult a lawyer for legal advice on how to proceed.

Raise Awareness
Help raise awareness about the cruelty of debarking by writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.

By addressing the underlying issues and seeking humane solutions, you can help your dog live a happier, healthier life.

Source: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) [3].

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