VET CHECK: VENTRICULOCORDECTOMY (“Debarking”)
Ventriculocordectomy (“Debarking”)Folks who keep large numbers of dogs will sooner or later have trouble with certain individual animals that commit the sin of excessive barking. The definition of excessive barking is going to vary somewhat based upon where you live (tolerance of the neighbors, local noise ordinances) and the tolerance level of the owner(s). In terms of owner tolerance, most mushers are willing to put up with typical kennel noise (barking during feedings, training time, play time, noisy pups and yearlings, group howling, etc.). Unfortunately, you will occasionally have a dog that barks so much that even a musher can’t stand it. Management of barking in these scenarios differs greatly from the run of the mill barking complaint that behaviorists usually address. Quieting the barking pet usually involves addressing issues of boredom, social isolation, territoriality, barrier frustration, or plain old neglect. While these issues most certainly can occur in a sled dog lot, and need to be addressed if they exist, the most common reason that one dog stands out above all the others is that he likes to bark. Barking is a self rewarding behavior for some dogs. They have plenty of exercise, social contact with other dogs, and mental stimulation, but they will bark at their doghouse, a rock, the water pail…for hours, day and night. Couple that with a high pitched screechy voice (or my personal favorite, the high pitched gurgling screechy voice) and you may find yourself taking action before you start to lose your mind. In terms of neighbor tolerance, it is not reasonable to expect kenneled dogs to be quiet to the degree that close neighbors can stand. “Typical kennel noise” is quite likely to send any non-doggy neighbors over the edge and they are likely to complain to you, the cops, or their town council. While ideally your kennel is located in a remote area with dog-friendly laws, I am aware of many kennels in more heavily populated areas that are by necessity going to have much lower tolerance of even minimal barking. Before resorting to surgery, examine your basic husbandry and try to correct things that might contribute to excessive barking. My experience has been that dogs kenneled in runs tend to be noisier than those on tethers (barrier frustration; while the end of the tether is still by definition a barrier, sled dogs in general seem to tolerate it much better than a solid barrier in front of their face). In the off season, or with age groups outside of mushing age, be sure that they get regular exercise... walks, running, swimming, etc. Providing chew toys can keep some dogs’ mouths busy with something other than screeching. Some folks are uncomfortable tethering dogs close enough to play with one another because of the risk of fight injury. If you have a barky dog, consider making an exception, and tether him near a dog he likes to allow for more social contact. Many kennels successfully maintain dogs on tether lengths that allow for play without overlap of the chains and risk of tangle, and no small number of these have less issues with fighting than dogs maintained either in runs or out-of-reach tethering. I suspect some of their success has to do with the temperaments of the dogs they keep (and the training abilities of the owners) as well. Make sure that loose dogs, wildlife, and pedestrian traffic aren’t major contributors; if so proper fencing may be helpful in noise reduction.If all else fails and you must consider debarking a dog or dogs, your next challenge may be finding a veterinarian who is comfortable performing the procedure. In parts of the U.S. where sled dog kennels (or other dog kennels that keep more than a few dogs near populated areas) are numerous it is a bit easier to find someone willing and able to perform the surgery. It is not commonly taught in veterinary colleges in the United States, and among some folks not familiar with the challenges of maintaining dog kennels, it is frowned upon. In New Jersey, legislation was proposed several years ago to ban the procedure under the pretext that “most” (?) debarked dogs were aggressive animals maintained by drug dealers that had an interest in keeping the dogs guarding their “wealth” quiet. I believe the legislation was passed, but I’m not certain. I have heard the occasional objection that it will interfere with dog’s ability to communicate, but I have never observed behavior problems arising as a result of a debark in either the debarked dogs or their non debarked kennel mates. The dog can (and will) still bark, but the volume is greatly reduced. Furthermore, a dog’s primary means of communication is body language, and this is unaffected. Other folks simply object because you are changing the dog’s “natural state” (interestingly, many of these same folks have no problem changing a dog’s “natural state” by spaying and neutering in an effort to control pet overpopulation). This is an ethical debate that, at the time of this writing, remains a decision to be made by the dog owner and the veterinarian on an individual basis in the United States.There are essentially two techniques that are used to “debark” a dog. The more common technique is performed by anesthetizing the dog, opening the mouth, retracting the tongue and exposing the vocal cords using a laryngoscope. The surgeon will then use an instrument such as a tonsil punch to either crush or cut either one or both vocal folds. Some surgeons feel they have fewer complications by only operating on one side, while others prefer to do both sides. The procedure does not require a great deal of time, and it is possible to operate on numerous animals in a single day. Another area of personal preference is exercise restriction post-operatively; some veterinarians recommend crating the dog and keeping it as quiet as possible for the first 48 to 72 hours following surgery.The advantages to this technique (“oral technique”) include short operating time, which in turn allows for many patients to be finished in one day, and also in relatively low cost compared to the alternative procedure. There are no incisions into the skin or larynx, and no return trip to the veterinarian for suture removal. The disadvantages also need to be noted: it is quite common for dogs debarked in this manner to slowly regain volume as the months and years pass by. More seriously, it is associated with fibrosis at the incision site, which in turn can lead to upper airway restriction. Imagine trying to run fast or far with your mouth duct-taped shut and a cotton ball in one nostril; that is the degree of airway obstruction due to fibrosis that has been observed on some occasions with this technique. Re-operating will open the airway successfully, but it is quite common for the fibrosis to return.The primary advantage to the second technique (“larnygotomy technique”) is that it is virtually impossible for this fibrosis to occur. In this procedure the patient is anesthetized, and the skin over the larynx is clipped and surgically prepped. An incision is made through the skin, subcutaneous tissue and into the larynx, which is retracted to expose the vocal folds. They are trimmed with surgical scissors, and then the cut edge of the vocal fold is sutured to the tissue lining the laryngeal ventricles. This effectively “tucks away” the cut edge so that it cannot create fibrosis of the airway. The larynx, subcutaneous tissue and skin are then sutured closed. These patients are placed on antibiotics since the larynx is normally contaminated with bacteria, and these tissues will be exposed to the sterile tissue outside the larynx. It is preferable to not return the dog to a tethered kenneling system until the sutures are removed (keep the dog in a crate or pen instead). Suture removal is usually performed in ten to fourteen days. The advantages of this technique include extremely low risk of fibrosis and a lower incidence of louder bark volume over time. It can also be used to correct fibrosis that may be present from a previous oral procedure. The disadvantages include higher cost due to increased operating time and the fact that this is a technically more challenging procedure. It is quite common for a seroma (a pocket of serum under the skin) to form at the incision line post-operatively. Most of the time these will heal with no further intervention, but it is unusually large it may require drainage. Infection is occasionally noted at the incision site, but this can usually be prevented with antibiotic treatment.