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'Canine disarming'? Many readers state their opposition to controversial dental procedure

August 26, 2009 |  8:51 pm

Teeth

We told you last month about Cotton, the L.A. dog whose aggression issues led his owner, Diane Krieger, to look for a solution in the form of an unorthodox procedure called canine disarming.  To "disarm" a dog prone to biting, a veterinary dentist (in this case, Manhattan Beach-based Dr. David Nielsen) removes a few millimeters of its canine teeth using a CO2 laser -- with the end result being an animal that might still bite, but is likely to cause less damage than it would with its fangs intact.

Krieger didn't take the decision to disarm Cotton lightly -- as she explained in her story on the subject, a number of tactics (including a training session with "Dog Whisperer" Cesar Millan) failed to change the 6-year-old American Eskimo's behavior, and she opted for the invasive dental procedure only as a last resort. 

Even so, many readers took issue with her decision, arguing that it was simply a convenient workaround that didn't address Cotton's underlying behavior problems.  "Although I can appreciate the owner's attempts to help her dog, it amazes me that she never saw a veterinary behaviorist about Cotton's issues," reader Cliff Hall wrote.  "Disarming does not address the anxiety he must feel when someone comes onto his property. Cutting his teeth down does absolutely nothing to help him."  Shelly said the disarming procedure was "as inhumane as debarking."

Our colleague Craig Nakano, editor of The Times' Home section, where Krieger's story originally appeared, was similarly flooded with letters and e-mails about the procedure.  "Appalled," "outraged" and "disgusted" were common words found in these missives, Nakano wrote in his follow-up.

He also heard from several veterinarians, one of whom, Bud Stewart of Santa Barbara, wrote to say that he'd performed a similar procedure over 40 years ago with positive results.

But Shane N. White, a professor at the UCLA School of Dentistry, said Cotton's aggression was "a behavioral problem, not a dental problem. Therefore, it is best addressed by behavioral therapy, not by invasive and radical dental treatment."

One letter The Times received after Cotton's story was published came from L.A.-based veterinary dentist Anson J. Tsugawa.  Dr. Tsugawa expressed opposition to canine disarming, writing in part:

Many clients considering the disarming procedure for their dog have never been introduced to the option of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Simply put, disarming a dog does not address the cause of the aggression; appropriate behavioral modification instituted by a veterinary behaviorist is an essential component of any treatment plan for aggression.

There are no scientific reports documenting the efficacy of disarming. Unlike a true "surgical" disease -- for example, a torn cruciate ligament of the knee -- where there are established surgical techniques for repair, the technique of canine disarming differs in its definition from veterinarian to veterinarian, even among veterinary dentists. Disarming can mean anything from removal of teeth, to reduction of the height of teeth, to even application of a bite guard.

All disarming techniques also risk procedural failure, including infection, even jaw fracture -- sources of pain that in themselves may be expressed in an animal as aggression.

Several astute readers mentioned that a veterinary behaviorist should have been consulted in Cotton's case, but many are unfamiliar with the profession.  The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists offers a searchable directory of board-certified professionals and lists several in the greater L.A. area.

As for Cotton, Krieger is quick to admit that disarming didn't quell his aggressive tendencies -- he still tries to bite strangers who enter her property (particularly men).  She believes his bite is less dangerous than it once was, however, and says she will continue to pursue behavior modification to help him overcome the underlying causes of his aggression. 

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Krieger holds the ends of Cotton's teeth.  Credit: Jake Stevens / Los Angeles Times

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