Debarking an Autistic Child?

A mother from Wisconsin had a very controversial surgery done on her autistic child. She claimed that it helped quiet him. The mother said it was the right choice for their family.

Kade Hadegraaf is her son. Three years ago he started screaming and didn’t stop. The mother claimed that he would scream 1000 times a day. Mathematically this does not add up. Over a 24 hour period, he would have to scream once a minute and not sleep at all. His mother described his screams as “louder than a lawn mower and the behavioral problem was destroying his family.”

She has tried ABA, reasoning and other methods. One method she did not try was trying to find the reason he was screaming. They say that the screaming was even upsetting Kade’s twin brother who is sensitive to loud noise.

After trying what they thought of, they did not seek help from autistic adults. Instead she sought out Dr. Seth Dailey, a University of Wisconsin-Madison surgeon. This led to a surgical solution.

This doctor suggested a procedure that would quiet the screams by separating the cartilage in Kade’s vocal cords. This would created a larger gap for air to flow and this would limit the level of sound of his screams.

What is Debarking?

Debarking, or devocalization is a surgical procedure that is normally done on a dog that barks too much. This surgery is frowned heavily down upon by the veterinary community. This procedure is performed under general anesthesia to resect, or cut out,  varying amounts of the vocal folds or cords.

This surgical procedure is performed on dogs to decrease volume, pitch and intensity of a dog’s bark. This procedure has a variable success and there are risks that are supported by published case studies.

Debarking is described in small animal surgery texts only as indicated for laryngeal paralysis and to remove masses in the vocal folds. Removal of most of the vocal folds is recommended if the procedure is to be used to address barking. Barking does have a chance to resume to normal if only the vocal fold margin is removed.

3.2 to 7% of dogs seen in veterinary behavioral practices are evaluated for excessive barking but there is no way to know this for sure. In one survey 13% of owners identified this as a concern.

Reasons for Debarking:

Animal Benefits: Performing the procedure will prevent rehoming or euthanasia. This is a lot of words for humans are terrible.
Human Benefit: Reduced noise, less annoyance from the dog and increased compliance with noise ordinances. These are all very selfish reasons to put a dog through this risky surgery.

Ethical Concerns

For the dog:
Barking is a normal dog behavior. Auditory cues supplement visual and postural cues as part of their communication, especially if some cues of obscured. Dogs bark in play, as a greeting, warning, get attention, and while working.
Excessive barking can be caused by poor training, boredom, social isolation, response to stimuli, territorial protection, anxiety, compulsive disorder and separation anxiety.


General anesthesia- Devocalization is performed under general anesthesia, which has safety risks including death.
Post Operative Discomfort- There is pain and discomfort during healing.
Potential complications
  • bleeding
  • acute airway swelling
  • infection
  • coughing
  • gagging
  • aspiration pneumonia
  • scar tissue and glottis stenosis (narrowing of the throat)

Why is this an issue?

While this is not the exact same thing as debarking, its strikingly similar.
“He still have a full voice and still makes noises like people with autism do, but we can handle him at a restaurant or in public now.”
Kade was screaming for a reason. They tried ABA and reasoning with him. One thing they did not do was find out WHY he was screaming. Going in public may have been too much for him. The sensory stimuli may have been too much. They did not bother going this way.
When he gets older he will not be able to scream for help, there will be mental health concerns by not being able to scream. This surgery will leave him vulnerable to abuse. This is a reversable procedure but most likely not covered by insurance. Most disabled people are on SSI or SSD and with such a small income, will not be able to reverse the surgery.

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