A Cat Fight Over Declawing

A common surgery for pets becomes the next battleground for animal rights.

A Cat Fight Over Declawing
Photo Illustration by Jay Vollmer
Note: No kitties were harmed creating this cover.

Over the years Jennifer Conrad has come to see her fight as one against greed and stupidity, a nasty pocket of the stuff festering deep in the heart of her own profession. When her crusade began, though, Conrad wasn't thinking that way. She was focused on one patient, Drifter, a 3-year-old, 550-pound tiger who was in agony and pissed off about it.

Growing up in a family of physicians in Malibu, Conrad was always passionate about animal welfare. She'd gone to veterinary school with the idea of helping endangered species and had traveled to six continents, working with exotic animals and often trading her services for room and board. Around Hollywood, where she was known as "the Vet to the Real Stars," her patients included many famous film performers, including the tiger featured in The Hangover.

But Conrad treated less-celebrated felines, too — big cats that had worked in circuses or in Vegas-style magic acts until they became too old or sick and were farmed out to carnivore sanctuaries. Many of them had been declawed in their youth in an effort to make them easier to handle on stage. The surgical procedure, known as an onychectomy, involves amputation of the final segment of toe bone as well as the attached claw and can have numerous long-term complications, including chronic pain, bleeding, lameness, arthritis, aggressiveness and nail regrowth.

Veterinarians Aubrey Lavizzo (above) and Jean Hofve are leading the campaign to ban declawing across Colorado.
Philip Poston
Veterinarians Aubrey Lavizzo (above) and Jean Hofve are leading the campaign to ban declawing across Colorado.
Dr. Jennifer Conrad explains the difficulty of reconstructive surgery in a scene from The Paw Project, a documentary written and directed by Conrad.
Photo courtesy of The Paw Project
Dr. Jennifer Conrad explains the difficulty of reconstructive surgery in a scene from The Paw Project, a documentary written and directed by Conrad.

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Several of the tigers and lions Conrad saw had been practically crippled by the anatomical changes wrought by the surgery. Some walked on their wrists or elbows or hardly moved at all because putting weight on their toes was too painful. One of the worst was Drifter, a Siberian mix with a pronounced limp. He was so debilitated that Conrad decided to organize a surgical team to reattach tendons in Drifter's paws that had been severed by the declawing.

In the course of the innovative five-hour operation, the team also removed hefty nuggets of nail fragments, several centimeters in length, that had been growing under the skin, causing pain and distorting Drifter's gait. The results were dramatic.

"After surgery he was standing up like a normal cat and walking like a normal cat," Conrad recalls. "He never fell back down onto his wrists. Then we knew we were on to something."

Beginning with Drifter's operation in 1999, Conrad began documenting on film her efforts to rehabilitate declawed exotics. She paid for the first eight surgeries out of her own pocket. She figured that the "before" images might help persuade authorities to ban the declawing of wild animals and that the "after" pictures could prompt their handlers to seek relief for those already afflicted. She was right on both counts. In 2004, thanks largely to her efforts, California banned the declawing of wild cats; two years later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture enacted a nationwide ban on declawing for virtually all large carnivores.

Conrad has now performed around 225 tendon-repair surgeries on 76 lions, tigers, panthers and other declawed exotics. But her film project has morphed into something else: an emotional, provocative yet scientifically grounded documentary, The Paw Project, about her decade-long battle to stop the declawing of the common American house cat.

Most pet-friendly nations already outlaw onychectomy. The United Kingdom's Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons deems the procedure "not acceptable" under most circumstances, and laws in most European countries explicitly prohibit it. In Israel, declawing a cat can result in a fine of 75,000 shekels — more than $20,000. Authorities in Brazil, Japan, Turkey and Australia also frown on the practice.

Yet in the United States, declawing is still a common — and lucrative — part of the veterinary business. A surgery that's now considered too barbaric for wild animals is widely marketed through coupons and special spay-neuter "package deals" to cat lovers of all stripes. Studies indicate that 22 million cats, about one-fourth of the country's total domesticated feline population, have been declawed. On average, vets charge between $400 and $800 for the surgery, which takes less than 10 minutes per paw and can be done with a scalpel, laser or guillotine-type trimmer.

In more than 90 percent of the cases, pet owners request the surgery on a cat's front paws (and sometimes all four) because of concerns about Fluffy scratching the furniture. Veterinarians justify the procedure by describing it as an effective solution to a behavior problem that might otherwise lead to the animal being abandoned or surrendered to a shelter. But Conrad and other critics of declawing say it's the vet industry's dirty, bloody, money-making secret, an excruciating and unnecessary procedure that's fraught with complications and mutilates cats. In many cases, they say, declawing leads to even more problematic behavior — including biting and a refusal to use the litter box — that dooms cats to shelters and euthanization.

"If declawing helped the cat in any way, I would not be fighting like this," Conrad says. "Declawing does not keep a cat in its home. If someone is intolerant of a cat scratching a couch, they're really going to be intolerant of a cat not using the litter box."

Conrad has a letter from one veterinarian in Southern California who bragged that "he declaws every cat that comes in the door because it makes him between $75,000 and $80,000 a year," she says. "The bottom line is that veterinarians make a lot of money doing this, and they recommend it without disclosing what the surgery does to cats."

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87 comments
R_Chase
R_Chase

I had my kitten declawed (just the front) a couple months ago - I would've had to have set him free otherwise. He doesn't seem to mind. He's an indoor cat. I'm fine my decision.  I eat animals, so I don't have a problem declawing a cat.  I wouldn't eat or declaw a dog, though.  While I'm here, might as well mention that I don't don't have a problem with horse slaughterhouses either.  I'm from Texas and I like horses. I had a couple when I was a kid. But they're not dogs.  They're not your friends like a dog can be. They sure as hell wouldn't alert you to an abusive nanny.  Neither would a cat.  Cats are assholes.  My cat and I get along fine.

Oldschool
Oldschool

I have two kittens that despite having scratching posts etc. have destroyed all my cloth upholstered furniture! I knew this was a possibilty before they became part of our family. As they're maturing now I see them engaging in this activity less and less. Despite everything I would NEVER amputate the fingers and toes of a defenseless creature! Planning on reupholstering next year...

josey-pussycats
josey-pussycats

Cats are exquisite creatures.  I'm disgusted at the level of greed among veterinarians as well as the ignorance and laziness of pet guardians.  I'm anxiously awaiting national release of The Paw Project documentary.  I have five beautiful rescued cats - all with claws!  They do very little damage to my home.  I've witnessed the change in behavior and elimination problems with declawed cats, due to my unfortunate association with individuals who have chosen this option.  I am extremely supportive of a ban on de-clawing cats in Dallas.  If anyone is interested in working towards this goal, please contact me.

casiepierce
casiepierce

1. Cats bite because they're cats and, well, cats bite. They just do. Irrespective of having claws or not.

2. Cats use their back claws in a fight. My sister's Great Dane and English Mastiff are terrified of my cat's clawless front mitts. Not having claws doesn't make a cat stop taking swipes. 

3. Many years ago I adopted a cat who had been declawed on all four paws. He was surrendered not because of any behavior issues, but because the guy was getting married. I guess his fiancee also wanted him to get rid of everything else he'd owned. The point is, people who surrender pets are likely to surrender them anyway. For whatever stupid reason. (he lived to be 18, I put him to sleep for renal failure, but for the last two years of his life, I noticed that his nails on his back paws were coming back, so I knw he was in pain from it.)

4. I worked in veterinary medicine for many years and I even worked at a cat clinic in Georgia, where we sold special scratching posts. I learned that the if the cat walks on a carpet floor, it's not likely to use a post made of carpet. So, there are a few qualifiers to just "get a scratching post". It's why they like the furniture, because it doesn't tip over and the fabric is unique. I'm not sure exactly how willing American practitioners are going to be in spending the extra time teaching a client about all the nuances of cat behavior. Which is, still very much a mystery.

5. The guillotine trimmer method. If there is any veterinarian still using this method, he or she should be put out of practice. In my experience, we noticed that the laser method was so painless that the cats responded to the fentanyl as if they were drunk. In other words, the fentanyl wasn't mitigating any pain. I'd like to see some of the proponents for declaw bans tell us something about the laser method.  

 

CogitoErgoSum
CogitoErgoSum topcommenter

Had my cat de-clawed after he raked me and others a dozen or so too many times. I hated to do it, but it seemed like the only option. The soft claws come off frequently, and even trimmed claws will break the skin. I do have a guilty conscious about it. Probably won't get another cat after this one dies.

primi_timpano
primi_timpano topcommenter

All the people I know who declawed their cats did so because they valued their furniture more than their cats.

Is there a group trying to get a ban in Dallas?

Jai Bird
Jai Bird

Again, I will reiterate what others have mentioned. There are less expensive, healthier (and much less painful for your cat) ways to keep your furniture intact. Trim their claws regularly, or get a set of Soft Paws.

Karrie O'Casey
Karrie O'Casey

As a veterinary assistant who regularly assists with these procedures, the cats do just fine. I haven't heard of 1 client complain that their cat started to refuse to use the litter box immediately afterward; they are supposed to have strips of paper in there instead of regular litter for the 1st 2 weeks. The cats are put on pain medication afterward. And they usually heal up completely within a month. The trick is to get the procedure done when they are young. Just my 2 cents.

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

I cry bitterly over this inhumane act of barbarism.  There are so many scratch pad products that cats can use to keep their claws trimmed, without resorting to shredding the furniture.  As for scratching people, you simply must learn to sense what upsets a cat so much that it will scratch you.

Bobby_Moffatt
Bobby_Moffatt

"Myrna Minkoff-Katz, please pick up the white courtesy phone."

lobar
lobar

This sickings me to the max,,though I do have 'family' that does this atrocious crap to her cats,,the very thought of it being done to large cats so they can be controlled is just F-KIN HORRIBLE. Get another occupation entertainers. But u love ur cats, huh???

Kristofer Cook
Kristofer Cook

It certain circumstances, it's necessary but the vast majority of the time, it should never be done.

ChrisHarris
ChrisHarris

Great article. Those who don't realize the negative effects of declawing on taxpayers & shelters as well as consumers should read the municipal legislation posted on the Paw Project site, and definitely see "The Paw Project Movie" documentary.

Veterinary professionals are aware that declawing causes physical changes to cats' paws. They will tell you they can tell if a cat is declawed by the way the cat walks. 

They should be willing to x-ray the paws to observe the changes over time if they think declawing is okay. 

The truth is that the paws become more and more deformed!  (See http://www.littlebigcat.com/declawing/physical-consequences-of-declawing/)

Declawed cats end up walking on toes that are at the wrong angle, resulting in arthritis and trying to shift their weight so it doesn't hurt. This changes their conformation and affects the rest of their body. This can be seen when you compare normal, healthy paws to declawed ones. Even the toe pads on declawed cats are shrunken; smaller toe pads mean more weight being borne on less area, and painful calluses often develop due to this abnormal pressure. The amputated ends of the bone press down and they have to walk on them for the rest of their lives. This pain and the complications goes largely unrecognized, undiagnosed and untreated, which is cruel.

Force plate studies on declawed cats shows pain management for cats having this surgery is STILL not adequate, despite the evidence being published.   (See Declawing and Science - http://www.littlebigcat.com/declawing/declawing-and-science/)

For the veterinary profession to ignore the evidence as well as the evidence provided by the many shelters and rescues is unethical. Declaw bans are needed to protect not only cats, but taxpayers, clients, veterinary and shelter workers, and consumers.

Angel Jones
Angel Jones

I want you to imagine someone removing the tip of your finger bones....

Cheryl Casey
Cheryl Casey

Cruel. Trim their claws as needed. It's very do-able.

Angela Williams
Angela Williams

No I don't believe in declawing cats. I simply took the time to train her to use a scratcher. She's never scratched up my house/furniture.

jamessavik
jamessavik

Here's an idea: let's cut your fingers off and see how you like it.

Cats have two modes of defense: claws and bites. Given their social behavior, the only option that you leave them is biting when you take their claws.


James Savik
James Savik

I don't know- let's cut your fingers off and see.

Louise Clifton Siebert
Louise Clifton Siebert

And as it hurts during the"healing" cats very often revert to not using litter boxes and anti social behaviors. I'm telling you this as fact. I volunteer at animal shelter and see cats coming in to be given up all the time following this operation

Louise Clifton Siebert
Louise Clifton Siebert

Stephen Conley..no offense but that's totally besides the point. Any animal having an amputation can be "ok" afterwards. It's the point that this is cruel and almost always unnecessary. The word "declawed" is confusing and inaccurate as this is not about just taking the claws off. It's a form of amputation (removal goes to what would be the first knuckle)

Stephen Conley
Stephen Conley

You're all talking about what can happen if it's done incorrectly or if it goes wrong. If it's done correctly then it heals quickly and the cat is fine.

Jon Pitt
Jon Pitt

Yes it is.... Imagine having the tips of your fingers where most of the feeling is located clipped off...

Chris Broussard
Chris Broussard

If an owner declaws their cat, then the owner should have their finger nails removed.....

Louise Clifton Siebert
Louise Clifton Siebert

I don't doubt that there are cats who "are ok" after the surgery and go on to live happy lives. It doesn't change the fact that this is a cruel procedure (illegal in almost every country where humans keep cats as pets). Your cats may have "adjusted" (that's what cats do in the wild to survive) but it doesn't make it ok to do.

Tyler Atnip
Tyler Atnip

Exactly ... people don't realize that by 'solving' their one FWP (First World Problem - I have to clip my cats nails because they keep growing and scratching things) that they create many more behavioral and health issues.

Brian Chestnut
Brian Chestnut

My cat is declawed. And he is 10x cooler than everyone else's cat.

rongaskin
rongaskin

@R_Chase Spoken by a true dog person. I am sure your cat knows how you feel towards him. I feel sad for your cat. If he starts peeing around your house as his digits contact and become more painful be sure to remember your post here.

R_Chase
R_Chase

@casiepierce I read that first line. I had my cat declawed - front paws.  He DOES bit a lot though.  Can I have his little front fangs filed down or removed? I haven't consulted a vet yet.  What are your thoughts?

R_Chase
R_Chase

@primi_timpano I had my kitten declawed because he kept scratching the shit outta me. He's an indoor cat. I'd recommend declawing cats.  Cats are WAY cheaper than nice furniture too. 

R_Chase
R_Chase

@Karrie O'Casey Thank you, Karrie. I had my kitten's front paws done and he's fine. For a cat confined to an apartment, it's a "must have" procedure. 

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@Karrie O'Casey 

2-cents for that advice?

Worth every penny.

kayladmurphy
kayladmurphy

@ChrisHarris 

odd.... Our cat Jake is 15 years old, he was declawed at 7 months old.  To this day he's never been in any pain, and his paws look the same as they always have.  Jake doesn't bite and he uses his litter box each and every time.  Jake couldn't be more loving. On another note we have another cat who's 10 who's never showed any negative sign to having been declawed. 

Fyi,

Both cats came from a shelter and most likely would have been put to sleep and not had the great life of sun bathing inside the window, playing with toys, eating, sleeping and pretty much living like Kings had they have not been adopted.  More than 1/2 the animals who go in shelters are put to sleep.  If you guys want to cry about cats being declawed go for it.  As for me and my two cats we're happy as can be and I SAVED two cats from being put to sleep.

casiepierce
casiepierce

@jamessavik No, my cat still swipes at me and the big dogs are terrified of her. And she has no front paws. When a cat is in a fight, they get on their back and kick/claw with their back paws.

kayladmurphy
kayladmurphy

@Stephen Conley Both my cats are happy and healthy, both were declawed well over 10 years ago.  People need to remember while I love my pets they are not your CHILDREN.  STOP trying to make pets humans when they are not.  My cats were taken very well care of and never seemed to be in any major pain.  I've had cavities that put me down longer than my cats were down after being declawed. 

ChrisHarris
ChrisHarris

@Stephen ConleyIt's possible to see the physical changes in cats' paws after they've been declawed. This webpage would be good to show to vets since photos of x-rays don't print very well. Also shows comparative photos and descriptions. 


Over time, the toes of declawed cats can retract (100% of the declawed cats I've seen), so they end up walking on toes that are at the wrong angle. This changes how their weight is distributed and changes their conformation. If the same damage was done to dogs or horses, clients would be outraged. Other articles in this category include dealing with chronic pain of declawing. "Physical Consequences of Declawing", by Dr. Jean Hofve - (click on first picture for slide show) - http://www.littlebigcat.com/declawing/physical-consequences-of-declawing/ .

spanish.doll
spanish.doll

@Stephen Conley I rescued a declawed cat myself, actually.  Her original owners are my in-laws and they had her declawed, and then decided to ditch her after she developed behavioral problems.  After acting very withdrawn and like she was in pain, we took her to a vet to see if there was something we couldn't see causing her pain.  There wasn't.  No bone regrowth, no bone fragments, nothing appeared to have been done poorly and yet this cat still acts differently.  This isn't to say she is not a very sweet cat, because she is, but out of the 4 cats I own EVERY person who comes over immediately knows which cat has been declawed- she just acts differently.  She's withdrawn, aggressive and is never really able to fully relax around people and other animals.  We spoke with the vet who did her declaw surgery and technically, her procedure was done "correctly" and nothing went wrong and her original owners claim she healed very quickly.  But you can't deny this cat has been changed forever.  Your anecdotal evidence might tell you otherwise, but mine tells me something different.  My heart breaks for Izzy (that's her name) every time she jumps onto a chair and falls off and even every time she bites me because she's freaked out and has no other recourse to defend herself.  A human did this to her and then wouldn't even keep her after she developed problems from a surgery she didn't ask for.  It's just monstrous.        

R_Chase
R_Chase

@rongaskin @R_Chase If he starts peeing around the house, he's gone! I'll put a note on his collar and show him door - or drop him off at a shelter, along with money for the disposal fee, of course.  I like animals. I'm just not cat crazy like some people, and don't "cry bitterly" over them, like some commenters here. (that's the one that got me to post anything here - "cry bitterly" - really?) people here act like declawing is senseless cruelty.  It's not. 

casiepierce
casiepierce

@The_Pilot @casiepierce I'm not sure how tongue-in-cheek your comments are or not. My only point is that animals bite. And cats, for whatever reason, do. Cats are special. I sometimes catch my cat sitting facing a wall, staring at seemingly nothing. I think she uses these moments to communicate with the home planet. If aliens ever landed on earth and they first thing they encountered was a cat, they'd high-tail it outta here. I don't know why my cat bites, she just came that way. So I believe that cats are, by nature, biters, plain and simple.

R_Chase
R_Chase

@primi_timpano ALso, my cat did not have bloody bandages when he got back from the vet. That's a stupid picture up there.


Mervis
Mervis

Replying to Facebook commenters is a waste of time. They can not see what you are posting. Go over to the facebook thingy on the right to get to these people.

ChrisHarris
ChrisHarris

@spanish.doll It's possible to see the physical changes in cats' paws after they've been declawed. This webpage would be good to show to vets since photos of x-rays don't print very well. Also shows comparative photos and descriptions.

Over time, the toes of declawed cats can retract (100% of the declawed cats I've seen), so they end up walking on toes that are at the wrong angle. This changes how their weight is distributed and changes their conformation. If the same damage was done to dogs or horses, clients would be outraged. Other articles in this category include dealing with chronic pain of declawing. "Physical Consequences of Declawing", by Dr. Jean Hofve - (click on first picture for slide show) - 
http://www.littlebigcat.com/declawing/physical-consequences-of-declawing/ .


R_Chase
R_Chase

@casiepierce @sammiemacrae @R_Chase 

Does that mean you won't go out with me? I thought we were on the same page here.  

BTW, my cat is an INDOOR cat. He doesn't have to defend himself. Of course, I haven't decided to keep him yet - I may have to set him free...  Also, while he's more apt friendly with NO CLAWS, it is kinda sad to watch him go paw his old scratching posts. But it's kinda funny too.  


R_Chase
R_Chase

We should go on a date.

 
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