New Documentary Condemns Declawing of Cats; Who Is Right?

Vet and filmmaker seeks to end controversial surgeries, but science is divisive.

A California veterinarian is taking her crusade across North America with a documentary that opens this month.

The Paw Project is directed by Jennifer Conrad, a vet who spent much of her career working with exotic animals. After observing the debilitating effect of declawing on tigers, lions, and other big cats, she began to perform reparative surgeries on their paws. Her attention soon turned to smaller felines: the millions of domesticated pet cats in America.

"Cats are the underdogs," Conrad told National Geographic about her motivation for the film. "I wanted to challenge this; I wanted to protect them."

The documentary—Conrad's first film—follows her quest to ban declawing in North America. She has seen some success so far: Eight cities in California, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, have banned the practice unless it is medically necessary. Conrad also said that veterinary students she has met with have been receptive and "relieved" by her message, but that she has had a strong pushback from practicing veterinarians and veterinary organizations.

While Conrad and her film condemn declawing, many vets continue to defend the practice. Science on the subject remains divisive.

While both the Humane Society and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) strongly discourage declawing except in very specific medical circumstances, major veterinary organizations including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners do not take a hard-line stance.

In position statements posted on their websites, the latter two organizations outline their belief that declawing should be rare, but remain an option when behavior modification fails. That sentiment is echoed by many vets across the country who call for increased education about cat behavior rather than outright bans on declawing.

"It is a major problem when there is no education about alternatives," said Carlo Siracusa of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. "There is a lot of misinformation about animal behavior."

What Is Declawing?

When cats start scratching people or furniture, declawing can seem like a way to make a problem kitten more house-friendly. But the surgery is not an easy procedure for the cat, said Siracusa. Instead, "it's a stressful, major event."

The most common procedure, called an onychectomy, is actually an amputation of the last bones in the cat's paws—often likened to cutting off a person's fingers at the top knuckle. The surgery is performed on the two front paws—declawing of the rear paws is rare—with a scalpel, guillotine-style nail clippers, or a laser. Wounds are closed with surgical glue or bandages.

If all goes well, the declawed cat recovers in a matter of days. However, studies estimate that some form of complication—including pain, hemorrhaging, and claw regrowth—occurs in 25 to 50 percent of declaw surgeries.

Another procedure, deep digital flexor tendonectomy, involves cutting the tendon on the back of the cat's paw that allows a cat to control its claws. Following a tendonectomy, claws tend to grow in thicker because cats cannot scratch to condition them, so they may grow into the paw pad. Owners are advised to trim their cat's nails every week or two, which can prove to be arduous.

Due to such complications, the American Veterinary Medical Association advises against tendonectomies.

A 2001 study by the National Council for Pet Population Study and Policy estimated 25 percent of pet cats in America are declawed, although a more recent regional study in North Carolina suggests the number might be slightly lower. In many countries, including Australia, Brazil, and much of Europe, the procedure is banned unless it is necessary for the health of the cat.

(See "First Person: It's Hard to Send a Pet to Heaven.")

What Are the Alternatives?

Scratching is perfectly natural for cats, said Barbara Sherman, a professor of veterinary behavior at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. Cats scratch and use their claws to mark their territory, condition their nails, defend themselves, capture prey, and play, she said. They also use their claws to stretch their backs.

Dealing with scratching is especially important for indoor cats, Sherman said, because "when cats live exclusively in the house, you have to meet all of the cats' needs in a contained space."

That means several simple but important steps for owners: getting kittens used to having their paws handled and their nails clipped, providing a scratching post near where the cat naps and an elevated resting spot where the cat will feel safe, and meeting their needs for exercise and play. These accommodations can eliminate problem behavior, said Sherman, making it unnecessary to consider declawing.

Another alternative is to have small plastic caps put over cats' claws to prevent scratching. The caps are applied to each claw using an adhesive by a vet or pet owner. As the claw grows out, the caps fall off, so they need to be replaced about every six weeks. They are sometimes recommended for cats that are adjusting to a new home or other change.

Why the Controversy?

The debate over declawing reveals deep divisions in the veterinary community, a fact noted by nearly every research paper on the subject. While some vets—like Conrad—are totally opposed to the practice, others believe that it should remain an option for pet owners.

Just what is best for cats' welfare depends on if the surgery is viewed as animal cruelty or a humane way to maintain harmony between cats and their owners.

Much of the debate hinges on whether declawing makes cats more likely to stay in a family home, or puts them at risk of being surrendered to a shelter. Conrad argues that declawing can make cats prone to litter box avoidance and biting, and that these troubled cats are more likely to end up abandoned.

But "there is no solid evidence that declawing leads to behavior problems," said Siracusa. He wants to see well-designed studies on the effects of declawing and said he has concerns with available research because it relies on the outcomes of declaw surgeries conducted by students.

"What we do know about, though, is pain," said Siracusa. There are legitimate concerns with declawing, he said, and "it should not be a standard procedure."

Siracusa believes that, eventually, America will go the way of Europe and require special permission for the procedure.

Julie Meadows, a professor at the University of California Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, said she has seen the popularity of declawing decline during her 25-year veterinary career. She thinks declawing can play a role in protecting the human-animal bond, and in some cases it can keep cats in happy homes.

"It's not fair to say we are never going to declaw cats because some people will be put in a bind," she said.

Meadows is concerned about the decline of declawing training at vet schools. A recent study showed that only 50 percent of U.S. veterinary programs have mandatory declawing instruction. "The potential complications of declawing are associated with inexperience and less than perfect technique," Meadows said.

Gary Patronek of Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, whose publications have been quoted by people on both sides of the declawing debate, said in an email that his older research offers "something for everyone" and his work on the risk factors for cats being left at shelters was "really quite inconclusive" when it came to declawing. But for Patronek, the issue is about much more than cats being abandoned.

"Supporting science can help, of course," he writes, "but this is an issue very firmly rooted in ethical notions about cats and how they deserve to live—even if declawed cats are not at increased risk of relinquishment, it doesn't mean that they are 'happy' living in their homes without claws."

Conrad calls declawing a "peculiar practice" in North America because she says it is considered unethical in so many other parts of the world.

"We have let it happen here and no one has challenged it," Conrad continued. In The Paw Project, Conrad attributes the continued existence of declawing to vets who rely on the income from the surgery and fail to provide alternatives to their clients.

With this film Conrad wants get all pet lovers thinking about the choices they make and end declawing once and for all. "I hope that Americans and Canadians begin to really question what's right for their animals," she said.

Do you have any experience with declawed cats you'd like to share?

Read This Next

'World’s worst shipwreck' was bloodier than we thought
World’s first ultrasounds of wild manta rays reveal a troubling truth
Titanic was found during secret Cold War Navy mission

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet