In 1952, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published a letter to the editor from a Chicago veterinarian named A.G. Misener, who described a surgery his practice had been performing on cats: the removal of their front claws.
“This is a relatively simple surgical procedure,” Misener wrote, “and, we believe, a practical measure.”
That letter was the genesis of what Minnesota veterinarian Ron Gaskin, who considers himself a historian of cat declawing, calls a “Chicago urban legend” — a surgery that was dreamed up in one clinic and ended up being adopted by practitioners across the U.S.
“It was never investigated for long-term safety, or whether it generated pain later on in life,” Gaskin said of declawing’s origins. “It was never researched that way.”
More than six decades after Misener’s letter was published, many cat owners continue to have the family feline declawed, chiefly driven by a desire to prevent kitty from scratching up the furniture. But the surgery is the subject of a growing divide in the veterinary community, with critics saying it amounts to a painful amputation that can lead to behaviour problems in cats and others arguing that it prevents some owners from euthanizing scratch-happy cats. About 20 countries, mostly in Europe, have banned the procedure, as have San Francisco, Los Angeles and six other California cities. Some veterinary clinics refuse to perform the surgery.
Now the debate has reached the statehouse in New Jersey, where the General Assembly last month approved a bill that would add declawing, or onychectomy, to the list of criminal animal cruelty offences. The measure, if passed by the state senate, would make New Jersey the first to impose a statewide declaw ban; New York is considering a similar law. But the bill is facing strong opposition in Trenton.
“I’m a cat owner myself, and there’s no way we could ever take away the cat’s claws,” New Jersey Assemblyman Troy Singleton, a Democrat, the bill’s sponsor, said in an interview after the vote. “Not only is it barbaric, it’s an inhumane thing to do.”
Critics, including some veterinarians, agree. They say owners who choose to declaw their cats — and there are no firm figures for how many do, though some estimates hover around 25 per cent — are blithely unaware of the gravity, apparently thinking it’s not unlike what happens when we humans whip out the clippers to trim our toenails.
“It’s a total misnomer — it should really be called de-knuckling,” said Jennifer Conrad, a veterinarian who is founder of the Paw Project, which campaigns against declawing. “It’s an amputation at the last bone of every one of your cat’s toes. And it is one of the most painful routinely-performed surgeries in all of veterinary medicine.”
Conrad said that while cats may receive pain medication to take the edge off any post-operative agony, patients typically experience a sort of time-released pain some years later. As a by-product, she said, cats can develop difficulty moving around and often reach their height of misery when using the litter box. That can lead to a sad domino effect, she said: Cats tend to quit their boxes and start taking care of business elsewhere, eroding their popularity in the household. That they can no longer scratch to defend themselves — and start biting instead — expands their new status as unwelcome residents. All that can lead to cats being surrendered to shelters.
But even if the procedure sounds gruesome, the ban on it is hardly a shoo-in in New Jersey, where Singleton said he anticipated opposition to the idea — from veterinarians. “Now that we’ve seen the bill pass in one house, I’m sure they’ll turn the volume up and become a little more vociferous,” he said after the Assembly vote.
It didn’t take long for more vociferous to arrive. Among the detractors is the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association (NJVMA).
“I guess the first statement I’ll make is that we’re not pro-declaw, we’re anti-euthanasia,” Richard Alampi, the association’s executive director, said in an interview. “Our concern is that there are owners that may choose, for various reasons, not to have a cat if they can’t get it declawed. Or, if they have an intact cat, tempted to relinquish it or abandon it if they can’t get it declawed.”
But Alampi denied that the procedure is akin to amputation or that it results in severe pain. He said the Resco technique of declawing — also called “the guillotine”— is a method that hasn’t been taught in vet schools for years and has now been mostly replaced by laser surgery. However, the laser procedure still involves amputation of the last toe bone, resulting in the same potential for paw problems, pain and behavioural issues, some veterinarians say.
Alampi characterized some opponents to declawing as animal rights activists. “Some view animals essentially not as animals but as small people in furry coats,” he said.
Nicholas Dodman, a board certified veterinary anesthesiologist and animal behaviourist who is a professor emeritus at Tufts University Veterinary School, did not concur with Alampi. He said many cat owners do not request declawing, but vets often offer it as part of a package when they spay or neuter their cats. Those owners, many unaware of the implications, often agree.
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Defenders of declawing “start coming up with all these reasons why it must continue. And really, a lot of the reasons are fallacious,” said Dodman, author of the recent book Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and New Science of Animal Psychology.
Some cat owners, of course, specifically request the procedure, usually to prevent damage to their furniture or curtains, and sometimes in a bid to protect a human in the household who has health issues — such as immunodeficiencies or bleeding disorders — from being scratched.
If the New Jersey legislation advances all the way, cat owners and veterinarians alike will have plenty of motivation to dodge declawing: Veterinarians who perform the procedure and people who pursue it would face a fine of up to $1,000 or six months in jail, or both, as well as a civil penalty of between $500 and $2,000.
Conrad, the Paw Project founder, has been consulting on the New Jersey and New York legislative efforts. She has long performed reparative surgery on declawed big cats, a procedure that involves reattaching tendons to improve grasping abilities. But fuelled by a desire to eradicate declawing, she willed herself into the role of politico to help pass the bans in the California cities. In 2013, she directed a documentary, also called The Paw Project, that chronicles her efforts to help enact the California bans, and widens out to become a political thriller of sorts.
For those passionate about this topic, a modest political thriller is playing out in New Jersey. The pivotal next scene involves the bill advancing through the state senate. And if it does, the climax would unspool in Gov. Chris Christie’s office, where he’ll decide whether to sign it.
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