Lawmakers in more than a dozen states have filed legislation this year to outlaw the declawing of cats, which many animal advocates and some veterinarians say is a cruel deforming of felines’ bodies and impedes their natural instincts to climb and scratch.
Maryland last year joined New York, which prohibited declawing in 2019, as the only states that bar the practice. But some U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C.; Pittsburgh and Allentown, Pennsylvania; Austin, Texas; Denver; Madison, Wisconsin; St. Louis; and eight cities in California have their own bans, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. And nearly 40 foreign countries do, too.
Opponents of the bans, including groups representing other veterinarians, argue that sometimes declawing is appropriate for cats — and their owners. In the latter group are people for whom deep cat scratches might hamper their ability to work, such as infectious disease lab workers. They also say blanket bans undermine veterinarians’ ability to make medical decisions based on a pet’s needs.
Declawing opponents point to a seminal study published in 2018 in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery on the procedure. It found that declawing cats resulted in a “significant increase in the odds of developing adverse behaviors,” such as biting, licking the fur and skin raw, displaying aggression, urinating and defecating in inappropriate places and showing signs of back pain.
“It’s a needless and painful mutilation that results in decreased mobility, chronic pain, and mental anguish that can manifest as avoidance of a litterbox and hiding due to a feeling of vulnerability,” PETA spokesperson Catie Cryar wrote in an email to Stateline.
What does it involve?
Cryar said the term “declawing” is a misnomer because the procedure involves the removal of tendon, bone and muscle, not just nails. She said it is akin to removing a person’s finger at the first knuckle.
The American Association of Feline Practitioners agrees. That group’s policy says that most declawing is not medically necessary and that “scratching is a normal feline behavior.” The cat vets group said owners should be instructed on safe ways for cats to scratch, such as training them to use designated scratching posts instead of furniture.
But in some states, veterinarians have helped defeat proposed bans.
In Virginia, for example, a bill that would have prohibited declawing of cats was, as the committee chair put it, “laid gently on the table,” on a 6-4 vote after testimony against it from Susan Seward, representing the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association.
Seward said veterinarians often are asked to declaw a cat “because of the medical needs of the owner,” citing two HIV-positive clients who wanted to minimize their risk of bleeding from cat scratches. She said another vet in the Fairfax County area, near Washington, D.C., works in a biohazard area and any animal bites or scratches could keep them out of work for two weeks or until their wounds healed.
“We simply ask the committee to trust Virginia’s veterinarians to do the right thing,” and to give the animal doctors discretion, she said. “We ask that you not, in effect, criminalize veterinarians for performing a procedure.”
Virginia Democratic state Del. Wendy Gooditis, who sponsored the bill, said at a hearing that she has owned dozens of cats, including declawed ones she adopted from a shelter. Echoing PETA’s language, she urged her colleagues at a January hearing to “look at your hands; it’s the equivalent of your fingers or toes being chopped off at the first knuckle.”
She said declawed cats are “more likely to bite. They are no longer that soft pet sitting on your lap while you watch Netflix.” And, she added, “a cat scratch … is a lot less dangerous to your health than a cat bite.”
Last month, the Illinois House approved a bill to prohibit declawing; Senate committees are now considering it.
State Rep. Barbara Hernandez, the Democrat sponsoring the ban in the Illinois House, said her intent is “not to challenge vets or experts. I do not see how this would hurt the relationship-building of the vets and the owner,” she said in an email to Stateline. “There are other ways to build relationships, not by hurting the animal.”
Hernandez said she is hopeful the Senate will act swiftly, arguing that people who decide to declaw their cats are more concerned about their furniture than their animal’s welfare.
The New Hampshire House also approved a bill last month that would bar declawing. Republican state Rep. Mike Bordes, the primary sponsor, made a similar argument in a hearing last month, arguing that the “majority of people get their cats declawed to save their furniture. … It’s used for convenience, not medical purposes.”
Bordes called the procedure an “old barbaric treatment” for cats. Under questioning from committee members, Bordes said he did not have statistics on how often the procedure is performed in New Hampshire, but he said some veterinarians urged him to sponsor a ban because they don’t want to perform it.
Dr. Jane Barlow Roy, a New Hampshire veterinarian representing the American Veterinary Medical Association with 400 members in the state, said the group’s membership is divided evenly on the issue.
But, she said, passing a law “takes away the ability for us to make decisions on medical care that we have worked so hard to build. … This would circumvent our professional judgment.”
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