The Declaw Debate

Posted: Jun 8, 2015
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The Oregon state legislature is voting this week on a bill that would almost outlaw declawing cats and debarking dogs. The reason I say almost is that there are a few exceptions to this bill.

Declawing a cat would be allowed if the cat’s health is at risk, other efforts to stop destructive behavior are not working, or the cat’s clawing poses significant risk to the pet or owner or another member of the household. Amendments are being added and considered as I write this, including a 48 hour waiting period for the owners after mandated education about the procedure, and a move to fully ban declawing for non-medical reasons in 2018.

As you can imagine, there is a LOT of emotion surrounding this issue on both sides. You read one blog that declares declawing is mutilation; it causes chronic pain and precipitates other behavioral problems (like trouble using the litterbox). You read another blog that asserts declawing allows cats to remain in their homes and not surrendered to shelters. There are stories of declawed cats just as happy and active after the surgery as they were prior to surgery. As someone who has been in the emergency/specialty world for the past 15 years I am thankfully on the outskirts of this controversy. I am fully aware that declawing exists but it is not in my face unless I have to treat a declawed cat. Because we all know — take off those claws and that cat becomes lethal with his teeth — those teeth are going to be in my face if I’m not careful.

So where are you on this bill? Where is the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association? Where is the American Veterinary Medical Association? The OVMA and AVMA are so far staying neutral on the issue. They both agree that owners need better education prior to the procedure, and education regarding alternative methods to declawing to alter scratching behavior. So far they have not weighed in on banning the procedure entirely.

After just a little bit of thought I can clearly see both sides of this argument. On one side, declawing is a pretty drastic surgery — it is an elective painful procedure and it makes cats very, very good with their teeth. Trimming cat nails is not an impossible task and putting double sided sticky tape on the couch corners and buying a few scratching posts does not take herculean effort. But on the other side, some cats can make nail trims an impossible task. I know because I live with one such cat (nail trims involve banshee screams and a flannel blanket). I do not wish that on my worst enemy, especially one without years of cat wrangling training. Some cats are destructive beyond double sided sticky tape, some children have medical issues that do not allow for even one tiny scratch, and the thought at the top of this list — if we ban declawing, does that mean fewer cats will be adopted?

So where does this leave us? Are we honestly educating owners on the details of the declaw procedure and risks? The AVMA, AAHA, and AAFP have all written position statements or opinions on declawing and none of them (at this time) are in favor of an outright ban. They DO all push for client education and setting client expectation and only performing the surgery as an absolute last resort. As veterinary professionals we need to ensure we are living up to that expectation and spending the appropriate time with clients regarding cat clawing issues.

As more and more students are graduating with strong feelings about procedures like declawing, debarking, and ear cropping I think we will continue to see a decline in their practice. Until the practice goes away, are we doing our part? Are we making sure colleagues are educated on the position statements? Are we being honest with our clients who have questions regarding declawing? If our profession listens to its own national organizations and follows their recommendations maybe we don’t need states to legislate our duties. We will be trusted to make the right decision. I’m concerned that the public is losing that trust in us. 

Do you support an outright ban on cat declawing? If this were being voted on in your city or state on which side do you fall? Are you educating clients on alternatives to declawing? Do you think that owners should be allowed to make this decision on their own and keep the legislature out of the hospital? This is happening in my state, but it might be coming to yours.