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San Francisco proposal for declaw ban hits unlikely roadblock

Science on declaw too weak to make broad statements, researcher says

September 22, 2009
By Jennifer Fiala

Cat declaw opponents in San Francisco are fighting hard to get a citywide ban passed before Jan. 1, 2010, when a new law that bars municipalities from imposing local restrictions on state-sanctioned medical procedures takes effect.

If passed, San Francisco will be the second city in the country to criminalize nontherapeutic feline onychectomy, following West Hollywood, which banned the procedure deemed by some to be cruel, in 2003.

Yet those lobbying for the San Francisco ban are running into an unlikely adversary — the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' San Francisco branch (SF-SPCA).

In a move that surprised even the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), SF-SPCA issued a statement recently that denounced San Francisco's move to ban declaws even though the group advocates against the procedure when performed for an owner's convenience. Why? Because frustrated owners with no option to declaw cats that use their nails destructively might decide to rid themselves of the hassle of pet ownership.

The end result, SPCA officials say, might spell death for more cats.

"Our mission is to save animals’ lives and we understand that, in some instances, this procedure may be the only way to prevent abandonment, relinquishment, or euthanasia," the SF-SPCA statement says.

At the same time, one veterinarian researcher has poked holes in the anti-declaw movement's "over-generalization" of his reports and studies to support its claims that feline onychectomy is behaviorally and physically bad for cats.

CVMA Executive Director Valerie Fenstermaker hopes those types of criticisms coupled with SF-SPCA's stance will help squash the ban, poised to soon go before the city's Board of Supervisors for a vote. While declaw opponents believe the procedure is harmful and painful to cats, CVMA objections to a ban are more based on authority and regulation.

The passage of SB 762, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in July, represented a "huge victory" for CVMA, which opposes local bans on state-sanctioned medical procedures.

CVMA authored the bill's language after a long battle with West Hollywood on the legality of the city's ordinance, which ended when CVMA lost its challenge at the appellate level and the state Supreme Court chose not to hear the group’s appeal of the case. While SB 762 does not roll back West Hollywood's ban, it amends the state's Business and Professions Code to prohibit municipalities from passing new laws that outlaw any healing arts licensee from engaging in licensed practice.

Simply put, local bans on legal medical procedures impinge on the rights of more than 7,300 licensed veterinarians to practice within the parameters of their licenses, CVMA contends. What’s more, allowing municipalities to enforce bans or other controls could one day affect any non-therapeutic procedure, including those in human medicine.

Since the SF-SPCA stance went public, the issue has incited heated exchanges on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), where some members argue that banning declaws in a city like West Hollywood, for example, merely forces owners to get their cats declawed elsewhere.

Others contend that while not ideal, feline onychectomy can be the right choice for a cat that might otherwise be abandoned because it's tearing up furniture or scratching its owners. Dr. Laurie McKinney, a VIN member who practices in Half Moon Bay, Calif., says she performs 10 to 15 declaws a year and talks just as many owners into forgoing the procedure in favor of alternatives, like behavior modification.

"I meet with each client to discourage the procedure and counsel them to do alternative management if there's a problem," writes McKinney in a VIN discussion. "If I am convinced that there is no suitable alternative, or that they will seek out the procedure at a facility that, for example, uses the 'resco technique' and binds the feet and doesn't use any pain management, then I perform the declaw in a manner I consider humane and I use aggressive pain management."

In an interview with the VIN News Service, McKinney relayed fears that if declaw procedures are widely banned, more botched jobs will surface at the hands of non-veterinarians.

"Keep it legal, keep it rare. That's what I think," she says.

That's not a view shared by Dr. Jennifer Conrad, a wildlife veterinarian and founder of The Paw Project, who lobbied heavily for West Hollywood's 2003 ban. The high-profile opponent of declaw argues that it’s a "big misconception" that removing a cat’s claws helps to keep its home. Rather, such surgeries create problem animals — cats that bite and express other types of negative behaviors, she says in an interview with the VIN News Service.

In her July 9 testimony before San Francisco Commission for Animal Control and Welfare, Conrad equated declaw procedures to harmful surgeries that are designed for the convenience of owners, not for the health and welfare of cats.

"(Declaws) can also lead to litter box avoidance and biting, behavioral problems that can result in pets being abandoned at animal shelters," she reported.

That statement and others reportedly pushed the six-member commission to recommend that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopt an ordinance to prohibit declawing of cats for non-therapeutic reasons. The city already has a resolution that urges "pet guardians and veterinarians to discontinue the practice of declawing cats" in the city and county of San Francisco.

“I can see it from both sides,” says Dr. Jack Aldridge, SF-SPCA director of veterinary services and a VIN member. “The knee-jerk reaction is that a humane society would jump on this ban against declawing cats.”

Despite SF-SPCA’s anti-declaw stance, the organization felt it should remain a matter that's left up to ethical and legal standards that encompass veterinary medicine, as well as the veterinarian-client-patient relationship.

“Having lay people make a decision that should be a medical one is bad government,” says Aldridge, also vice president of the San Francisco Veterinary Medical Association. “That’s my personal opinion.”

Concerning behavioral and physical problems associated with declaws, he adds: “It runs the gamut. The ones that have problems certainly get the most attention.”

Conrad counters: “I have testimonies from people who run cat shelters from all over the country who tell me that the declawed cats get returned.” She also says that the veterinary profession can’t be trusted to police itself via regulatory agencies and ethical policies.

“The (American Veterinary Medical Association) AVMA guidelines on declawing cats say they should be done only after everything else is tried,” Conrad says. “But yet, if you look, declawing is part of kitten packages, as if it's the right thing to do. Veterinarians are not regulating themselves; they're not following their own guidelines, and that's why the cities have to step in.”

Conrad argues that studies show that among relinquished cats, more declawed cats exhibit litter box avoidance compared to cats that expressed the same type of behavior with their claws intact. She points to studies by Dr. Gary Patronek, a researcher of onychectomy and its relationship to feline behavior, as having produced evidence that declaws are bad. A Google search of Patronek’s name paired with “declaw” brings up 1,800 results, with the initial majority of sites linking his work to broad, anti-declaw statements.

Yet Patronek, vice president of animal welfare and protection at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, when contacted by the VIN News Service, had no idea that his work provides fuel for the anti-declaw movement. In fact, he says statements extrapolated from his studies, such as “... declawed cats were at an increased risk of relinquishment,” have been used out of context. With the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy estimating that 25 percent of all cats in America are declawed, he'd expect to see more clinical problems and relinquishment than what’s been reported subjectively, if some of the sweeping claims were true.

“People cherry pick data to see what they want to see,” Patronek says. “I never declaw my own cat, and I wouldn’t do it if I was in practice again. But if you were asking me if I can make some kind of unequivocal statement that declaw is bad in a large population, I can’t do that. No one can answer that question, and if they can, I haven’t seen the data.

"It would be equally inappropriate to conclude that declawing is benign from existing studies — the old adage 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' applies," he adds.

The work Patronek’s authored that anti-declaw activists tout includes the 1996 study “Risk factors for relinquishment of cats to an animals shelter” ( Patronek GJ, Glickman LT, Beck AM et al, J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1996 Aug 1;209(3):582-8 ), which incorporates declawing along with many other variables.

“Back then, it was kind of like fries with your burger; (declaw) was part of a veterinarian’s preventative health package,” Patronek recalls. The research showed that declawed cats in the study were relinquished less often than cats with intact claws. "What this means is hard to say," Patronek says. "It could simply be a marker of owner investment in their cat, and not an endorsement of declawing."

But in the multivaried analysis, which attempts to control for confounding variables, the reverse appeared true. “It got very confusing, and declawing actually became a risk factor in relinquishment ... so you had two very different interpretations in the same dataset," he says. "That kind of reversal in the data basically doesn’t tell you a whole heck of a lot."

Another important factor is that declawing was not the primary focus of the study, which was retrospective, Patronek adds.

"Retrospective studies represent a much lower level of evidence than a prospective study or a randomized trial. Any one of a number of confounding variables or biases could sway things one way or the other. In evidence-based medicine, retrospective studies are generally thought of as hypothesis-generating, rather than conclusive," he explains.

Also plugged as anti-declaw is Patronek’s “Assessment of claims of short- and long-term complications associated with onychectomy in cats” ( Patronek GJ, J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2001 Oct 1;219(7):932-7 ), which reviewed all studies about declawing published as of 2001, many reflecting research and surgical practices that date back 15 years or more.

The conclusion: Of a handful of “not very good” studies, “it was not possible to conclude that declaw is convincingly associated with behavior problems,” Patronek says. “Some were done with veterinary students doing their first surgeries. If you’re going to look at a population like that, I would certainly expect that you would see problems.”

Other reports focused on feline onychectomy represented conflicting anecdotal information and individual case reports. “For every bad story, you can find another happy tale of routine declaws done on a routine basis and kittens playing in their cages,” he says. “It’s apples to oranges, with different ages and analgesic protocols.

“No one’s ever done a randomized trial with good long-term followup, behaviorally and medically,” he adds. “That would really settle this issue convincingly.”

That’s true for Aldridge, who agrees the science is lacking. As far as the ethical question is concerned, veterinarians appear to be moving away from the procedure on their own, without the push from activists or ordinances.

“Veterinarians get kind of tarred with this brush that says of course they’re for declaws; it’s part of their business,” he says. “But I don’t think veterinarians are making much money on this. To have a local law that comes and prescribes a ban because they’ve made a moral decision is difficult to stomach when it should be a medical issue.”

Patronek agrees that fewer veterinarians are performing the procedure, at least in his area. Of the San Francisco ordinance, he adds: “Legislation tends to be messy, nasty, painful and you never know which way it’s going to go; the road is a perilous one sometimes. We feel that here (in Boston) we’ve been enormously successful moving away from declaw with education.”

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.


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