‘A barbaric procedure’: Many state veterinarians support legislation to outlaw declawing cats

By SYDNEY KO, CHRIS LARABEE and MAX BOWEN

Staff Writers

Published: 05-05-2023 5:03 PM

Following the lead of New York and Maryland, veterinarians in Massachusetts are gathering support to ban procedures that declaw cats.

A bill introduced by Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, aims to ban the practice, a move veterinarians in Massachusetts believe is much-needed regulation to protect cats.

Joseph Campbell, external communications director at VCA Animal Hospitals in Athol, declined to comment on ongoing legislation, but cited their policy for medical teams. It states that “every pet owner has the responsibility for providing a safe and supportive home for their animal that enables appropriate expression of natural behaviors and fully integrates them into the home and family.”

The policy also states that every medical procedure supported by the practice has been put in place with the health and well-being of pets in mind and, based on this, VCA does not support the elective declawing of any animal.

“Declawing includes surgical onychectomy, digital flexor tendonectomy, and generalized phalangectomy for non-medical reasons,” the policy states. “Feline scratching and nail sharpening are normal behaviors and the removal of nails has been shown to lead to chronic pain and, in some cases, to cause long-term behavioral issues. We believe that education of pet owners about appropriate behavioral and environmental modifications are humane alternatives to these elective procedures.”

“I think it’s a positive thing … it’s something that is a humane consideration,” said Dr. Steven Ellis, the founder of Sunderland Animal Hospital. “It’s extremely uncomfortable, painful and afterward there could be deformities in the foot and how the cat is balanced.”

Declawing is the surgical amputation of the last joints of a cat’s toes, similar to the human fingertips below the last knuckle. This causes pain and permanent damage for the cats as it severs the bones, tendons, nerves and ligaments in each paw.

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At least 42 countries have made declawing cats illegal. The practice is banned in two states and over a dozen municipalities.

“They are a convenient surgery for people,” Ellis added. “There isn’t really any need for it in my mind. I haven’t heard of anybody doing declaws in well over 10 to 15 years. It’s fallen out of favor with the public.”

Corroborating that, Dr. Samantha Clay, who purchased South Deerfield Veterinary Clinic in 2021 and graduated veterinary school five years ago, said she wasn’t even taught how to declaw cats when she was purusing her education.

“I think it’s something most people don’t even think about,” Clay said. “Back when it was commonly being down, I think there was a breakdown in communication … Owners think it was a matter of removing the claws, when you were actually amputating a bone.”

There are more humane alternatives for dealing with cats that scratch people or furniture, according to local experts.

Jessica Dias, a veterinarian at Northampton Veterinary Clinic, said owners could use nail caps to prevent damage from scratching behavior or have groomers trim the claws regularly.

“[Declawing cats] has been reserved [for] situations where there really are no other options for the clients or patients, whether that be health concerns of an owner on anti-coagulant medications at risk of severe complications from a scratch, or a patient at risk of being abandoned,” Dias said.

Dias added that a veterinarian is more likely to help try to find a new home for a cat than agree to perform declawing.

Having worked at a clinic for more than 21 years, Nancy Long, office manager at the Hampshire Veterinary Hospital in Amherst, said the hospital has not declawed any cats in over a decade for ethical and medical reasons.

Long added that she hasn’t heard owners make any requests for declawing throughout her time there, either.

“You have to think and do the right thing … pets are like children,” she said.

Ellis, who has held a doctorate in veterinary medicine since 1993 and opened his Sunderland practice in 2001, said they used to perform them in the past, but “it was something that we discouraged,” unless it was for some sort of medical issue.

“It was certainly something that I didn’t want to do,” he said.

Currently, the bill does allow for declawing for therapeutic reasons, such as removing a cancerous growth from a cat’s toe. Penalties for violating the law would amount to a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense, $1,500 for the second offense and $2,500 for a third or subsequent offense.

Aside from developing chronic pains, when cats are declawed it also damages their mental and physical health and can cause behavioral problems. When cats are declawed, their toes can form neuromas and this can later cause reluctance to use the litter box.

Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore, president of Forensic Veterinary Investigations LLC. added there are limited, if any benefits to declawing a cat.

“The declawing of cats is a barbaric procedure, and for me it’s fundamentally wrong because it removes a part that belongs to the cat with no therapeutic benefit to the cat,” Smith-Blackmore said. “I really feel like it shouldn’t be allowed to be performed because it has no benefit to the cat.”

Smith-Blackmore added that cats are often surrendered to the animal shelter for having litter box problems.

A study showed that 33% of cats suffer at least one behavioral problem after declawing or tendonectomy surgery, 17.9% of declawed cats show an increase in biting, and 15.4% of cats would stop using a litter box.

Sydney Ko writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program. Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com. Max Bowen can be reached at mbowen@recorder.com. ]]>