Cat declaw under fire in New Jersey

Ban on feline onychectomy advances amid opposition from veterinarians

December 1, 2016 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

New Jersey could be the nation's first state to criminalize the surgical declawing of cats.

A bill that forbids veterinarians from performing feline onychetomy, the medical term for declawing, is under consideration by the state Legislature and is expected to pass despite objections from organized veterinary medicine.

The New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association went before lawmakers on Nov. 14 to testify against A. 3899, which seeks to add feline onychectomy, the medical term for cat declawing, to the state's list of criminal animal-cruelty offenses. Such crimes carry up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail. Violators also would be subject to a $500 to $2,000 civil penalty.

Violators would also face a civil penalty of $500 to $2,000, according to Bill A3899.

Read More: New Jersey To Ban Cat Declawing |

Anti-declaw advocates, a group that includes some veterinarians, consider feline onychectomy to be a barbaric procedure that's performed more for convenience than medical necessity. The surgery, they contend, causes long-term pain and often leads to lameness and behavioral problems.

Many veterinarians, however, consider adverse events to be uncommon. There's no doubt that feline onychetomy is painful, but the degree of pain experienced is "debatable," according to an American Veterinary Medical Association review of scientific literature on feline onychetomy.

Published in February, the AVMA's review notes that assessing pain in cats can be difficult because they often hide signs of discomfort. There's also "no scientific evidence that declawing leads to behavioral abnormalities when the behavior of declawed cats is compared with that of cats in control groups," an AVMA policy feline onychetomy states. The AVMA advises veterinarians to view feline onychectomy as a last-resort medical procedure reserved for extreme cases, be it an immunocompromised owner who's susceptible to cat-scratch infections or a client who'd rather euthanize a cat than deal with its destructive, albeit natural, scratching behavior.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners calls feline onychectomy a medically unnecessary and "ethically controversial procedure" but stops short of recommending a ban on it.

The NJVMA's message to lawmakers is that sometimes, feline onychetomy is needed. Having the option to remove a cat's claws could save a cat from relinquishment, outdoor housing or euthanasia. The procedure typically involves laser surgery as well as preoperative and postoperative pain medication. It's a medical decision that should be left to veterinarians and their clients, not legal mandate.

What's more, feline onychectomy is seemingly rare. A recent survey of NJVMA members revealed that the average practice performs nine declaws a year, stated Rick Alampi, NJVMA executive director.

"We've hired a public-opinion management firm to get message points out to our members. We created a brochure for legislators. Our rallying cry: 'We're not pro-declaw. We're anti-euthanasia,' " he said.

Unconvinced, the Assembly Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources voted 3-1 to pass the measure. The next stop for A. 3899 is the full Assembly, which reconvenes on Dec. 19.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton introduced the bill in June. A companion bill, introduced by Sen. Joseph Vitale, is pending in Senate Economic Growth Committee.  

Alampi describes Vitale as an "up-and-comer" who's well-regarded in the Legislature, elevating the bill's chance of becoming law. "The sponsor is a really strong legislator, and he's not returning our calls to meet with him," he said.

Vitale could not be reached at his office. Singleton was unavailable, but his chief of staff, Hilary Beckett, said the assemblyman sat down with NJVMA representatives earlier this year to talk about the bill.

While New Jersey is the latest jurisdiction to consider a ban on declawing, the concept isn't novel. In 2003, West Hollywood, California, became the nation's first city to criminalize declawing.

The California Veterinary Medical Association sued in response. In 2005, a California Superior Court judge declared the ordinance unlawful, asserting that local governments could not infringe upon the rights of a licensed professional practicing within the scope of his or her license.

The Superior Court decision was overturned two years later, when the California Second District Court of Appeal reinstated West Hollywood's right to impose the ban. In the 2007 ruling, justices found that the city's ordinance did not directly conflict with or contradict rules governing how veterinarians practice.

Since then, several municipalities have followed West Hollywood's lead. At least five more California cities have passed declaw bans.

At the state level, outlawing the procedure presents a larger battle. Bids to impose statewide bans on declawing have stalled or flopped in legislatures governing Rhode Island, Hawaii and California.

New York lawmakers also have considered anti-declawing legislation, and are likely to continue to do so. A bill introduced in 2015 by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who's written dozens of pieces of legislation concerning animals, sought to make declawing cats a civil offense that's punishable by fines and jail time.

The New York State Veterinary Medical Society lobbied against the bill, saying, "Medical decisions should be left to the sound discretion of fully trained, licensed and state supervised professionals operating within the standards of practice." 

While the bill failed to pass the Assembly Committee on Agriculture before New York's legislative session ended, a staff member in Rosenthal's Albany office said it will be reintroduced in January. "It will be reassigned a new bill number, and the process will start all over again," she stated.

In New Jersey, Alampi suspects that the legislation likewise will resurface until lawmakers pass it. If the bill is approved this time around, he hopes that Gov. Chris Christy vetoes it. But he knows that wouldn't be the end of it.

"Let's assume it gets to that point, and that happens," Alampi said. "There's no doubt in my mind it will reappear in the next session."

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