My sisters, the cats, evolved as hunters. Hence, it was important for their survival that they develop really sharp claws, something they still have though some have been domesticated and no longer hunt for their foods. However, cats need to “file down” these claws lest they grow too long. As a result, if they don’t have a scratching post they’ve been known to scratch out furniture. Some cat “owners” don’t take too kindly to this and have had their cats declawed, a practice known as onychectomy or flexor tendonectomy. Some landlords have also been known to require tenants to declaw their cats.
But a cat’s claws are used for more than just hunting, whether a mouse or your favorite couch. Unlike most mammals, who walk on the sole of their feet or paws, cats are digitigrade, meaning they walk on their toes. A cat’s claws have thus also evolved to be used for balance, exercise, and for stretching the muscles in their legs, backs, and shoulders by digging their claws and pulling back. A cat’s claws help its paws meet the ground at a precise angle to keep everything properly aligned. That’s because a cat’s claws are not nails, as is a human fingernail, but rather is part of the lasts bone of the cat’s toes, known as the distal phalanx.
When the claws are removed, a cat’s paws meet the ground at an unnatural angle, causing back pain similar to that experiencing by a man or a woman wearing badly fitting shoes. That’s because, to prevent the growth of a vestigial claw, a vet must amputate the entire distal phalanx at the joint. This includes bones, nerves, joint capsule, collateral ligaments and the extensor and flexor tendons. Declawing thus involves 10 separate and painful amputations of the third phalanx up to the last joint of each toe. This would be equivalent to cutting off each of your fingers at the last joint!
Like any surgery, the amputation of a cat’s claws is not without possible complications both physical and behavioral. These range from excruciating pain (for the cat), damage to the radial nerve, hemorrhage (a fairly common occurrence), bone chips preventing healing, painful regrowth of deformed claws invisible to the eye (i.e., inside the paw), chronic back, shoulder, and leg muscle pain as the muscle weaken from lack of exercise, lameness due to wound infection or footpad laceration, “death” of the second phalanx, and abscesses associated with the retention of portions of the third phalanx. Of course, there is also the very real danger of disability or death caused by anesthesia. In two studies published in peer-review veterinary journals, 50% of the cats were found to have complications immediately following surgery while 19.8% developed complications after their release from the vet.
Some cats are so shocked that their personalities change. Cats previously lively and friendly can become withdrawn and introverted. Others, deprived of their primary means of defense, become fearful or aggressive. Cats can also become adverse to using their litter box, associating the pain of covering their excrement with the box itself. This often leads their owners to surrender the cats to shelters where, often, they are euthanized (According to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, “Among 218 cats relinquished to a shelter, more (52.4%) declawed than non-declawed cats (29.1%) were reported by owners to have inappropriate elimination problems.”).
Declawing is considered inhumane in many countries of the world. For example, the European Council’s Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals prohibits declawing. England, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Norway and Sweden all have enacted laws expressly prohibiting declawing. It’s a different story in the US.
In 2003, West Hollywood was the first city in the US to ban declawing. Later in the same year, the American Veterinary Medical Association no longer condoned the practice. In 2006, the US Department of Agriculture which has control over animals that exhibited, bred or sold, stipulated a regulation in the Federal Animal Welfare Act prohibiting licensees from declawing or defanging their animals. In 2009, San Francisco, Burbank, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Culver City and Santa Monica banned declawing (Note: West Hollywood allowed declawing for medical reasons). In 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a state prohibiting landlords from requiring that tenants declaw or devocalize their pets. Rhode Island followed suit in 2014.
These bans weren’t enacted without opposition. The ordinance was challenged by the California Veterinary Medical Association representing more than 6,000 vets in California.The organization’s then president, Dr. Mark Nunez, believed that the decision to declaw a cat should “be made in consultation with [the owner’s] veterinarian.” As such, the organization opposed a ban at the local level. Meanwhile, Santa Monica council member Kevin McKeown stated that the practice was “an unacceptable act of animal cruelty.”The ordinance was overturned by the court but reinstated by the Appellate Court. The California Supreme Court later refused to hear arguments in the case.
The issue became urgent after then-Governor Arnold Schwartenegger signed a law giving the state authority over scope-of-practice issues which would prevent counties and cities from enacting ordinances banning medical procedures as of January 1, 2010. The state law was sponsored by the same California Veterinary Medical Association which opposed the West Hollywood ordinance. In San Francisco, the measure was opposed by the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals which argued that politicians shouldn’t regulate veterinary procedures (Note: The organization opposes declawing in general).
Why would organizations that are allegedly looking out for the best interest of us 4-leggeds be against the procedure? Simple… follow the money trail. The procedure averages some $250. According to studies, 25% of cats are declawed. Since 34% of the US population owns cats, and there are approximately 34 million people in California, we can estimate that there are some 11.6 million cats in California, of which 25%, or 2.9 million will be declawed. At $250 a cat (i.e., $725 million) , it is obvious why the California Veterinary Medical Association actively lobbied against a ban.
For more information, see PawProject.org.