Elective Pet Surgeries - Cut WHAT?!

It may be human nature to want to blot out certain events, or to at least tweak them out-of-focus just enough so they don’t haunt your waking hours.

I was successful at having done this with one particular incident – that is, until I began researching this blog.

Sometime in my 20s, I accompanied my parents to the home of a family friend. Greeting us at the door were the impeccably-dressed host and hostess. From behind them, a Maltese-Shih-Tzu mix charged toward us and screeched to a halt next to her human parents. Her jaws flung open, then closed at least a dozen times in rapid succession. No sounds came out.

Had I suddenly gone deaf?

“No,” the couple smiled, “we had her debarked.” Apparently their child’s incessant barking was a nuisance to the couple and their neighbors. Surgery to remove her vocal folds was “the most expedient thing to do.”

Throughout dinner I seethed, offering perfunctory answers to questions and barely looking in the couple’s direction. Upon leaving, my folks told me I was rude. I asked why no one had considered training the dog. Never got an answer.

Elective surgery on pets has been around since the late 1800s when it was considered haute couture to stitch-and-sew an exotic feline for display on the lap. A little cropping around the ears and, viola: a never-before-seen breed!

Today, elective surgeries on cats and dogs covers everything from orthopedic corrections to the filling of a limp scrotum with silicone stones.

The first question to ask is: who does the surgery benefit – the pets, or their owners? To answer that question, it is necessary to distinguish between medically-necessary and cosmetic surgeries.

Surgery to remove cancerous tumors and hip replacements for severe dysplasia could definitely be considered medically necessary. Dental procedures to remove deep gingival growths and periodontal infections would also qualify.

With the possible exception of show-breeders, I think few would argue against spaying and neutering. While not medically “necessary,” these procedures help to curb pet over-population, which means fewer unwanted pets in the shelters. Spaying and neutering also have shown to prolong a pet’s life and improve disposition around people and other pets, reducing the chances for pet-surrender.

Other elective procedures, however, appear not only unnecessary, but downright cruel:

ï    Tail Docking – Fanciers of sporting breeds argue that lobbing off the end of an unwieldy tail spares the dog inevitable pain and infection after running through prickly patches during a hunt. One survey showed that only 3 of 2,000 surgeries performed on dogs involved tail injuries: each was the result of docking.

ï    Ear Cropping – A painful, lengthy healing process, possibly ending in disfigurement. Show dogs and cats have been cropped to achieve a desired “line” and score points with judges. Some security companies enlist canines with short, pricked ears that are hard for crooks to grab hold of. Proponents insist that cropped ears mean fewer ear infections, thought little evidence supports their claim.

ï    Declawing – Imagine having your fingers amputated at the first knuckle, then trying to use your hands as you normally do. Declawed cats may avoid the litter box or begin to bite as a new primary defense. Compared to shredded curtains or scratched furniture, the price of declawing is just too hefty. A trip to the groomer is the loving alternative.

ï    Debarking – Clearly, the lazy owner’s “fix” for the too-vocal companion. Snipping the vocal folds can lead to swelling, scar tissue, airway blockage and a dog with “smoker’s bark.” Citronella-emitting collars may be an effective option. Behavioral intervention/training can keep the calm and leave everyone’s vital organs intact.

“Neuticles,” silicone testes implanted in a male pet’s empty scrotum, have become popular in dozens of countries.  After surgery, a proud “papa” may shamelessly walk his “boy” whose weighted sack now swaggers with each step.

The American Veterinary Medical Association summarizes current state laws governing elective surgical procedures. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States have strong positions against purely cosmetic procedures. 

There are some "grey areas" where elective surgery can enhance quality of life while improving appearance. Breeds subject to hypertrophy of skin growth around the eyes (the English bulldog, for example) have had their sight restored by facial fold reduction. Though generally benign, lipomas (fatty growths) may swell to enormous proportions and can affect a pet’s orthopedic health over time. Close monitoring and timely excision may be necessary.

As with human surgery, one must calculate risk versus benefit. Major surgery requires anesthesia which can be risky for animals with cardiac and/or respiratory problems. Many underlying conditions may not manifest until anesthesia has been administered. A complete blood chemistry prior to surgery is essential.

Timing of surgery is also important. Early resection of cancerous tumors and timely hip replacements may add years to a pet’s life and life to his years. Delays in such procedures until they are “absolutely necessary” may result in irreparable damage. Watch for signs of distress in your four-legged pal such as changes in posture/behavior or slumps in energy and motivation.

When deciding upon surgery for a pet, it is good to remember that quality of life is king.

But let’s remember whose life are we’re talking about.