Last month New York became the first state to ban the practice of declawing cats.
The elective surgery is usually done to protect furniture from an indoor cat. But in recent years, it has become controversial with animal-rights advocates deeming declawing an inhumane and unnecessary amputation. Known technically as onychectomy, declawing had already been banned in most European countries, along with some Canadian provinces and U.S. cities including Denver, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Declawing is not a matter of simply removing a cat's nails. The surgery, which takes anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, involves the removal of all or most of the last bone of each of the toes of the front paws, including tendons, nerves and ligaments.
The New York law prohibits declawing unless done to treat a medical condition affecting the cat such as injury, tumor or an untreatable infection. Otherwise, veterinarians will face up to $1,000 in fines if they perform the operation for any other reason.
Though still legal and available locally, veterinarians such as David Mullins of Midway Veterinary Hospital do take care to advise pet owners not only about the procedure but also alternatives to that permanent outcome.
If someone with a new kitten asks whether it should be declawed, the answer is not an immediate yes, Dr. Mullins said, but rather to ask the client why it's being considered.
If the problem is excessive scratching, cats can be redirected away from furniture to exert their normal behavior on an acceptable surface such as a scratching post with a little patience and training. Rubber nail caps, which are glued onto a cat's existing nails to manage scratching, are another harmless alternative but Dr. Mullins noted that they only last about three weeks.
The veterinarian recommended nail trimming as an easy alternative. Unlike dogs which require careful avoidance of the nail quick, the non-pigmented nails of a cat makes it easier to see where not to cut. "It's not hard to trim a cat's nails," Dr. Mullins said, adding it can even be done with human trimmers.
"We're trying to counsel people," the veterinarian said of declawing inquiries. "We don't pull the trigger too quickly on that…We do the procedure but each case is situational, and we counsel in an appropriate manner."
If alternatives haven't worked -- and a pet owner is considering kicking the cat outside or even surrendering it to a shelter where it could be subject to euthanasia -- declawing can be the answer. The American Veterinary Medical Association policy is: Declawing of domestic cats should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively or when its clawing is an above-normal health risk for the owner(s).
Dr. Mullins pointed out that the procedure may be done in cases where the pet's owner takes blood thinners or has a weakened immune system and cannot risk a scratch. "I know many clients who have been in the hospital because they got scratched by the cat, and not a vicious attack," he said.
Elderly pet owners moving into assisted living facilities and required to declaw a cat for safety reasons would otherwise have to give up their pets.
The procedure has been made a bit easier, Dr. Mullins continued, with the advent of laser equipment as opposed to blades. Midway implemented a laser surgery unit some 13 years ago. Advantages of laser surgery include virtually no bleeding and quicker recovery time.
"It really changes that whole procedure, how it goes and recovery from it," Dr. Mullins said. "The laser is absolutely key to this procedure…I wouldn't do it otherwise."
Dr. Mullins explained that the laser cauterizes blood vessels and nerves, plus pain management with general anesthesia, lidocaine, antibiotics and post-operative anti-inflammatories have improved as well. "What used to be two days or longer of heavy bandages in the cage is now walking within an hour of waking up and going home the next day," he said. "We don't want these guys to hurt at all."
A newly-declawed cat will need some special care for a week or two during the post-operative healing period: special litter, pain medication and some activity restriction. "We control pain and complications as best we can," Dr. Mullins said, adding that complications are, in his experience, rare but usually involve toe infections when they do occur.
Perhaps evolving attitudes more than legislation will affect the procedure's availability in years to come. "We don't do half as many as we used to," Dr. Mullins acknowledged, saying this generation of pet owners are not asking for declawings as they did back in the 1990s.
"This is a sensitive issue nationwide," he said. "It's one of those issues that is easy to talk about on the grand scale but in individual cases, it's a different thing altogether…It's about what it takes to keep the human-pet bond as good as it can be."