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Cat declaw controversy challenges veterinary profession

New York would be nation's first state to impose ban


July 2, 2019
By Jennifer Fiala


This story has an important update

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given no indication that he'll sign what would be the nation's first state ban on declawing cats. Nor has he promised a veto.

The anti-declaw act — legislation that makes it illegal for veterinarians to perform what's known medically as non-therapeutic onychectomy — is among a batch of recently passed bills that need the governor's signature to become law. With the legislative session now closed, Cuomo has 30 days upon receipt to enact or veto A 1303. Doing nothing will trigger a pocket veto — a legislative maneuver used to quietly kill controversial initiatives.

The governor's office has not disclosed the 30-day deadline.

While the bill's fate is uncertain, the drumbeat to outlaw onychetomy is reverberating across America, where attitudes about declawing cats differ wildly among the pet owners and veterinarians. Animal activists long have decried the procedure as cruel and abusive. It entails amputating the third phalanx, or bone, of a cat's toes. Declaws may be done on the front paws or on all four paws.

The veterinary community historically has viewed declawing cats as a safe and reasonable way to stop scratching behaviors that could otherwise lead owners to relinquish or abandon their pets. Many in the profession still hold this view, but the consensus is shifting.

In 2017, the American Association of Feline Practitioners became the nation's first major veterinary organization to break from the profession's traditional line of thinking. In a strong anti-declaw statement, AAFP officials called the procedure "ethically controversial" and "NOT medically necessary procedure for cats in most instances."

The American Animal Hospital Association also opposes the declawing of cats. So does a growing faction of the veterinary profession in Ontario, according to a 2016 study in the Canadian Veterinary Journal. "While many veterinarians are strongly opposed to the procedure under any circumstances, results of this study suggest that most veterinarians do perform onychectomy, yet appear to do so only after offering or recommending numerous alternatives …" the study said. 

The study also showed that fewer owners ask for the procedure. Declawing cats is illegal in eight Canadian provinces and forbidden in some European countries, where it's culturally acceptable for owned cats to freely roam outdoors.

In the United States, owners are encouraged to keep cats indoors, where their claws can be destructive to property and dangerous for owners. Dr. Richard Lagasse of North Dakota said he'll continue to declaw cats until "Big Brother orders me to stop."

"To say that an immunocompromised or elderly person should not have a cat that could potentially cause a serious injury, when a surgery could greatly reduce that risk, is harsh and demeaning to the human person," he wrote on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service.

In an online discussion on the American Veterinary Medical Association's website, Dr. Karen Negrin of New Jersey recalled how her perspective on declawing cats changed when a man walked into the practice, asking to euthanize his cat. "He was petting her and crying," she wrote. "All I kept thinking was, 'Yeah, right. You really care about cats' ...The man said to me, when I was alone, 'You must think I'm a monster. I have AIDS. My doctor told me that one scratch from the cat, and I could die.' "

"I looked at him, and although I was completely opposed to declawing, I asked him if the cat bit. He said no. I asked him if he had considered giving the cat to a friend or neighbor. No one wanted the cat, and his time was running out. ...The moral of the story, the cat got declawed and lived another day," she said.

Stories like that often fail to stave off critics in the United States, where the topic of declawing cats is so contentious, a contest to name America's favorite veterinarian was canceled in 2015 because anti-declaw activists cyberbullied contestants who said they'd perform the procedure. At least a dozen veterinarians contacted by the VIN News Service declined to speak publicly about their views on declawing for fear of backlash from those on either side of the declaw issue.

But their internal debate is ongoing: "Twenty years ago, when I graduated, we were doing declaws with every spay," said a veterinarian speaking on condition of anonymity. "... It was just an automatic thing we did, which is sad."

The veterinarian said her attitude about declaws changed when she considered how human amputees often experience phantom limb syndrome, the ability to feel sensations and even pain in limbs that no longer exist. She hasn't done the procedure in five years.

"The more I wrapped my head around the fact that it was an amputation ... I couldn't do it anymore," she said. "Bans get things done faster, but my hope has always been that if veterinarians just wrap their heads around this and decide that it's not good for cats, we can stop it ourselves. If we're offering declawing, we're saying to the public, 'It's OK to do this.' "

While New York has gone furthest with efforts to ban declawing statewide, states including CaliforniaNew Jersey and Rhode Island are considering similar proposals. It was a California city, West Hollywood that enacted the nation's first city ordinance to criminalize feline onychectomy in 2003.

Seven California cities have since followed: Berkeley, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Culver City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Monica. Denver, too, banned declawing in 2017.

The city bans were enacted despite opposition from the respective states' veterinary medical associations. The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association asserts that such medical decisions should be made by veterinarians and cat owners — not legal mandate. The California Veterinary Medical Association warns that allowing lawmakers to criminalize medical procedures could signal an end for other surgeries.

The American Veterinary Medical Association encourages declaw alternatives while advocating to preserve the right of veterinarians and their clients to choose to declaw cats, especially when done to protect immunocompromised owners from scratches.

New York State Veterinary Medical Society advocates the same. 

"NYSVMS believes a veterinarian, as a licensed medical professional with the education and knowledge to safely perform medical procedures on animals, should be permitted to make medical decisions after direct consultation with a client and a thorough examination of the patient and its home circumstances," reads a letter to lawmakers. "It is a veterinarian's obligation to consult with a client regarding the normal scratching behavior of cats, alternatives to declawing, the procedure itself and the potential risks to the patient."

If the declaw ban is adopted in New York, any veterinarian in the state who performs the procedure for a non-medical reason would be subject to a $1,000 fine.

Update: Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed A 1303 on July 22, according to a press release. The ban on declawing cats in New York is effective immediately.




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 news@vin.com.



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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