Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Declawing Bans Also Passed in the Face of Veterinary Opposition

Prop B's success prompts me to mention another animal protection effort that succeeded despite fierce opposition from its state veterinary medical association. Legislation to ban cat declawing passed last year in San Francisco and 6 other California cities even though the CVMA publicly expressed disapproval. Now, before you make that cliche quip that San Francisco is not representative of anything but itself,  know that upwards of 25 countries have also outlawed declawing and labelled it an act of animal cruelty.

Declawing has become an ethics poster issue for veterinarians. In a way, that's unfortunate, because declawing is a problem created by veterinarians for veterinarians. In other words, the veterinary community winds up quibbling internally over its own issue when it could be weighing in on other issues that cause massive animal suffering elsewhere in society.

As a person who repeatedly comes face to face with severe animal abuse and neglect, I would not place outlawing declaws high on my list of priorities for practical animal protection, even though I will not perform them. It is true that declawed cats can still have a relatively good quality of life. It is true that I would rather be a declawed housecat than a starving stray, a dogfighting dog, a puppy mill breeder, a circus elephant, a battery caged hen, a gestation crated sow, a male dairy calf, or a pit bull mix in a high-kill shelter.

However, even if declawed cats don't typically suffer as badly as some other animals, declawing is ethically significant. It's significant that doctors can be paid to amputate an animal's digits when the procedure has no medical justification. People do not bring their toddler into a doctor's office and appeal to their physician because little Joey's fingers keep picking up crayons and scribbling on the walls. A "real doctor" would never even consider amputating Joey's distal phalanges for that reason. Especially when there will always be other potentially destructive body parts that cannot be amputated.

We know declawing doesn't contribute to animal welfare as a whole or to the health of the individual animal. On the contrary, it induces pain; cats don't get a consolation prize weeklong supply of happy juice for nothing. Declawing also puts cats at greater risk of injury, predation or death if they do escape outside.

Because declawing jeopardizes the natural interest and well-being of the patient, it follows that any veterinarian performing it needs to have a "but it is in the best interest of the patient"-type statement ready in order to justify it.You already know what The Statement is, because it's uttered in automaton fashion whenever and whereever the declawing issue comes up: "I would rather declaw a cat than risk having the owner relinquish it to a shelter, dump it somewhere, or worse!" There's also this occasional addendum to The Statement:  "I've had clients be threatening." 

You don't have to be a psychologist to recognize The Statement for what it is: a weak attempt at rationalization based on a relatively improbable scenario. It does not justify the overwhelming majority of declaws, which are performed even when possible relinquishment is not a factor. 

The Statement's addendum about clients being threatening is even more improbable. I've had numerous people of all different values and walks of life approach me about the possibility of declawing their cat. Not one of them has shot through the hospital door with an uzi, assaulted the first person wearing a stethoscope, and said, "Let me pay you hundreds of dollars to cut off my cat's toes, or I'm droppin' her at the pound... where she'll surely be killed!" It's not that dramatic, and we know it. If it was, we'd be trained in self-defense as well as surgery. Even if a client did act this way, we're not here to give in to and reinforce people's bad behaviors; we're here to set an example for society's treatment of animals. It is possible to deal with bad behaviors gracefully.

What normally happens when clients ask about declawing is just that...they ask about it. So I tell them the known facts. I tell them that declawing involves amputating bone, that it's a procedure with a significant amount of postoperative pain, and... most people stop me right there (has anyone had this experience?) to say they thought only the claw was removed and they are not actually interested in doing that to their cat. In terms of analogy, they thought declawing was to nail trims what waxing is to shaving. No, not's more like cutting off your legs so you don't have to worry about waxing or shaving.   

Even clients who assert their wish to declaw rather than inquiring about it seem to change their minds when I state that I do not personally perform them and explain why. I've never once been forceful with my opinion nor have I needed to be. I don't question my mechanic when he recommends changing my timing belts at a certain mileage. Do you?
But obviously, not all veterinarians discourage declawing and some are upset that non-medical people (i.e. lawmakers) are now "telling them what to do medically." But, again, whether or not to declaw a cat is not a medical issue when it induces pain, alters an animal and there is no medical reason to do it. It's an ethical issue. Lawmakers, activists and the general public are increasingly overruling the veterinary profession on ethical issues. It's deja-vu of many other animal protection vs. veterinarian battles out there (see all my previous blog posts). Perhaps veterinarians need to start re-evaluating what we condone. Again, these are ethical issues.

But for those who prefer to jam a square peg into a round hole by debating declawing on scientific rather than ethical grounds, I'll talk about research studies. A large case-control study published in JAVMA back in 1996 found in its multivariate analysis that declawed cats were 89% more likely to be relinquished to animal shelters. (That's a large percentage, but part of the study did contradict what was found in the univariate model, making it "difficult to interpret.") In this same study, inappropriate elimination was found to be 80% more likely in declawed cats. There have been other studies since that have found an increase in unwanted behaviors after declawing. The most recent retrospective study I know of to date found 18% of cats developing increased biting and 15% developing inappropriate elimination (two potential causes of shelter relinquishment) after being declawed.

However, the AVMA has this political statement on its website: "There is no scientific evidence that declawing leads to behavioral abnormalities when the behavior of declawed cats is compared with that of cats in control groups." Studies like the 1996 case-control study and the retrospective study aren't mentioned by the AVMA, allegedly because they are case-control and retrospective.  However, researchers cannot ascertain development of behavioral problems in a household or whether shelter relinquishment occurs using the same type of study used to determine something like whether or not catecholamine levels rise post-op. Who is going to relinquish cats in a controlled experiment to a shelter? The scientists? And here is my answer to the AVMA regarding whether or not case-control studies should be left out of mention in the future:

British physiologist and epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll and other researchers after him used large case-control studies to demonstrate a statistically significant association between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. Opponents dismissed these studies for many years, insisting that it did not prove causation. Technically, it didn't prove causation, but the correlation was so strong researchers would have been foolish to ignore it. Cohort studies subsequently proved that tobacco smoking is the cause of almost 90% of lung cancer mortality in this country.

My point is that declawing may actually even increase a cat's chances of ending up dumped, euthanized or in a shelter. I hope you will consider that the next time you hear a veterinarian utter The Statement.

This was a long post and you're a trooper if you made it through. In the words of my hero Rod Serling.... thank you and good night.


  1. Dr Jefferson, your statement 'It is true that declawed cats can still have a relatively good quality of life' says it all ! Why should they only have a relatively good quality of life when it's their right to have very good quality of life! I admire your no declawing stance very much and I wish all USA vets were the same.
    I live in England where of course declawing is banned, but even before that our vets wouldn't do it. It's pre meditated animal abuse and totally uneccessary and many of us are fighting to educate as many people as we can, with the ultimate aim of having it banned worldwide !As you say, many people don't know it's more than simply trimming the claws down and when they find out it's ten amputations, most change their minds.But many vets don't inform their clients that declawing is major surgery.
    Particularly wrong is that some vets give neuter /declaw packages or declaw discounts to enable people to have a kitten disabled rather than train him to a scratching post.These are the people who should not have cats in the first place, they are the ones who relinquish or abandon their cats at the least excuse.
    (We are the International Coalition Against Declawing and we are in the USA, the UK and Australia)
    Retired vet nurse

  2. Great article. Refreshing to see an American Veterinarian speak the truth about declawing. Maybe you would like to do a short article on my site: There are well over 100 articles on the site about declawing. We are a family of cat lovers and I have arranged a demonstration in St. Louis next July! I will provide a good link to your site in exchange.

    Here is the form:

    Michael Broad
    (my Google user name is Freddie Fox)

  3. THANK YOU for this excellent article. It is really GREAT to read this article especially since you as a veterinarian are willing to step up to the plate and tell it like it is.

    I just wonder when others in your profession will really start CARING about their patients and do the right and ethical thing by them. Declawing serves no purpose at all.. and saying that it prevents cats from being surrendered and preserves homes is just not true. So many declawed cats languish in shelters because they have stopped using their litter boxes, may start biting and being more aggressive, so how in the world can this excuse hold water?

    Thanks again and again, from all the kitties in the USA who want to keep their claws.

  4. I'm so glad that you prioritise the welfare of your patients above the convenience of your clients. I'm sure that if the procedure were referred to as "de-toeing" that a lot less cats would be subjected to this cruel and unnecessary amputation.

    Anyone who can't accept that claws are an integral part of a cat's anatomy and necessary for them to express natural behaviours is not suited to caring for one. You only need to take a look on Petfinder to see the vast numbers of declawed cats available for adoption, to understand that the "forever home" argument is a myth. Far too many kittens are routinely declawed, meaning they were never even offered the opportunity to be taught claw manners.

    Education really is the way forward, so I applaud you for your efforts. Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading more of your blogs.

  5. Thank you so much for taking a stand against declawing. I personally believe a vet who promotes themselves as a vet who won't declaw will end up with all of the cat business. Many cat owners are banning declawing vets from basic care for their cats. I hope you and other vets will consider this. Promote your views in your advertising. People will flock to your office when they learn you don't declaw.