Time for feds to act
Fifty-one members of Congress nearly three months ago wrote on February 12, 2016 to federal Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Julian Castro, asking Castro “to prohibit public housing authorities from requiring declawing as a condition of residency for tenants with cats.”
Agreed the Congressional Representatives, some of whom seldom agree with each other about anything else, “Declawing is a cruel and unnecessary procedure and also an onerous responsibility for financially disadvantaged residents of Public Housing Authorities. When declawing is mandated, tenants must choose between putting their pets through a painful mutilation or relinquishing them to a local shelter.”
No response yet
Castro apparently has yet to respond––but he should respond, in the affirmative, before his tenure expires, probably at the end of 2016, when a new presidential administration is elected. While Castro may serve under the next U.S. President as well as under current President Barack Obama, few previous Secretaries of Housing & Urban Development have served under more than one President.
Declawing cats and ear-cropping and tail-docking dogs have in common that they are pointless surgical mutilations, profitable for the veterinarians who do them, but providing no benefit to the animals.
About 7% of pet cats are declawed
The frequency with which these mutilations are performed is often grossly exaggerated by campaigns seeking to ban them, including Paw Project founder Jennifer Conrad, who has claimed that up to 25% of indoor cats are declawed, but that is no excuse for the mutilations to continue.
Nationwide, declawing was at peak popularity, a generation ago, performed in under 1% of cat veterinary visits, according to American Veterinary Medical Association data, whereas sterilization was performed in 14%. Sterilization is still the most common surgical procedure done on cats; declawing is no longer in the top 10.
There are about 70 million owned cats in the U.S., according to the 2013 edition of the U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook, published by the AVMA. Among them, perhaps four to five million have been declawed––about 7%.
Myths about mutilation
What this means is that cats are approximately as likely to suffer declawing as to suffer from any cause that lands them in a shelter, and are about twice as likely to be declawed, with lifelong painful consequences, as they are to be killed in a shelter. This should be no small humane concern.
Surgical mutilations, especially declawing, are often excused as preferable to the fates of cats and dogs acquired by humans who may harm them further if the animals do not conform to those humans’ aesthetic sense.
Then, supposedly, the cat whose paws have been amputated at the bone equivalent to the first knuckle of the human hand may be less likely to be abandoned at a shelter for scratching furniture. The dog whose ears are cut short and whose tail no longer wags a visible greeting will somehow become a better pet.
Scratched chairs & breed standards
There are some people who will not keep cats who scratch furniture. No scratching post or training regimen will dissuade some cats from scratching furniture, though other cats never scratch furniture at all.
Some people insist that certain “purebred” dogs are not really of those breeds, despite any amount of genetic evidence, if those dogs have not been re-engineered from what nature intended to have ears and tails conforming to decidedly unnatural breed standards.
The real poop
But pervasive as the belief is among shelter workers that cats are often surrendered for clawing, there has never been much data supporting it. Nearly 20 years ago the National Council on Pet Population Study funded the late University of Tennessee researcher John New to conduct the largest study ever done of why cats and dogs are surrendered to shelters. Scratching furniture factored in fewer than 1% of cat surrenders, other as a possible [but seldom stated] reason for some landlords not permitting pets in rental accommodations.
Inappropriate elimination, however, was among the top 10 reasons why cats were left at shelters. Declawing is a frequent and long-recognized reason why cats balk at using litter boxes, since pawing in litter can irritate a declawed cat’s stumps. No reason connected with appearance or breed standards was cited at all as a reason for dog surrenders––but biting, often alleged to result from humans misreading dogs’ intentions, was among the top 10.
Dogfighters as veterinary innovators
Tail-docking was originally done to keep fighting dogs from signaling intent to prospective opponents that they meant to avoid a fight.
The first tail-dockers appear to have been dogfighters of the Elizabethan era, who also introduced ear-cropping, lest their dogs lose fights due to ear bleeding.
Cropping and docking spread from fighting dogs to other breeds through emulation of the “fancy,” which today means exhibitors of show dogs, but as recently as the early 20th century was a word used by The New York Times and other major newspapers chiefly in reference to gambling on dogfights.
Ironically, dogfighters mostly stopped cropping ears and docking tails by the mid-20th century, to avoid being conspicuous, after dogfighting was banned in most of the U.S.
Dogfighters preparing cats and kittens for use as live bait in training dogs may have become the first practitioners of onychectomy, as the standard declawing operation is formally called, but using hatchets rather than scalpels.
Newspaper veterinary columns began trying to popularize declawing as early as 1950, when one Herb Jacobs recommended the procedure, but it apparently was not formally described in veterinary literature until 1966.
Helen Keller, though deaf and blind, spoke out against the cruelty inherent in ear-cropping and tail-docking more than 100 years ago, and backed attempts to outlaw both procedures. She probably would have opposed declawing too, had she known about it.
Anti-ear-cropping and tail-docking bills were approved by the legislatures of various states as early as 1913, but were repeatedly vetoed by governors under pressure from the “dog fancy.” Pennsylvania finally passed an anti-ear-cropping bill that took effect in 1933. The Western Pennsylvania Humane Society won a conviction under the new law just two months later. Bitterly opposed by veterinarians, the law was later repealed, then partially reinstated in 2009 as part of a law which allows only licensed veterinarians to perform ear-cropping, and allows dog breeders to dock the tails of puppies only within five days of birth and then only under veterinary supervision.
Veterinary views changing at glacial speed
There is evidence that veterinary attitudes are changing––but entire glaciers in the Cascades, Andes, and Himalayas have melted in the interim.
Ear-cropping and tail-docking remain lucrative, but the British Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in November 1992 asked Parliament to ban tail-docking; Parliament complied in 2007.
The American Veterinary Medical Association executive board in November 2008 resolved that the AVMA “opposes ear cropping and tail docking of dogs,” when done for cosmetic reasons, and asked breed fanciers “to remove mention of the procedures from their standards.”
The American Animal Hospital Association and the Canadian Veterinary Association had adopted similar resolutions earlier, as had the AVMA House of Delegates in 1999.
Also in 2009, Banfield pet hospital vice president for medical quality advancement Karen Faunt announced that the 730 Banfield locations and 2,000 Banfield veterinarians would no longer crop ears, dock tails, or debark dogs.
Debarking, another common but often controversial surgical mutilation, like tail-docking tends to inhibit the ability of dogs to signal intent, and appears to increase the risk that dogs may bite.
“After thoughtful consideration and reviewing medical research, we have determined it is in the best interest of the pets we treat, as well as the overall practice, to discontinue performing these unnecessary cosmetic procedures,” Faunt told Elizabeth Weise of USA Today. Banfield recommends against declawing, but still does onychectomies if a cat keeper insists that it must be done.
Opposition to declawing began even before the procedure was formally recognized. Alice Herrington, who founded Friends of Animals in 1957, refused to honor coupons for discounted sterilization if declawing was done at the same time. Her successor, FoA president Priscilla Feral, has maintained this policy since 1986.
Nearly 30 nations have reportedly banned declawing, including the United Kingdom, but many humane societies grudgingly continue to accept it, hoping––against the weight of evidence––that declawing might reduce the volume of cats coming into shelters.
Claws in Hollywood
Declawing has also occasionally been banned in the U.S. at the community level, most prominently by West Hollywood, California, in 2003, and Norfolk, Virginia, in 2007.
Former California state assembly member Paul Koretz of West Hollywood tried in 2004 to ban declawing statewide, but the Koretz bill was passed only after it was amended to cover only exotic and wild cat species. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a non-binding resolution against declawing in 2003, and filed a brief in support of West Hollywood after the California Veterinary Association sued to overturn the West Hollywood ordinance.
The California State Court of Appeals ruled in June 2007 that cities have the right under current California state law to ban declawing. The verdict was expected to encourage other cities to ban declawing ordinances.
2007 House resolution was defanged, declawed, neutered by California legislature
A July 2007 resolution adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives, similar to the letter sent in February 2016 by the 51 current members, ordered the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development Department to quit telling applicants for subsidized housing that they were required to have their cats declawed.
But the momentum against declawing lost steam in 2009 when the California Veterinary Medical Association and other societies representing health professionals won passage of a state bill entitled the “Licensing Freedom Act.”
The “Licensing Freedom Act,” according to the bill summary, “Makes it unlawful for a city, county, or city and county to prohibit a licensed healing arts professional from engaging in any act or performing any procedure that falls within the licensee’s professionally recognized scope of practice.”
The “Licensing Freedom Act” did not repeal the West Hollywood ordinance, but blocked the passage of similar ordinances elsewhere in California, and appears to have inhibited the introduction of anti-declawing legislation throughout the U.S.
(See also: Against declawing: The Paw Project video, reviewed by Debra J. White.)