Sore toes & veterinary tradition
SCHAUMBURG, Illinois––Did the American Veterinary Medical Foundation “take their Frisbee and go home,” as Paw Project founder Jennifer Conrad, DVM, suggested to ANIMALS 24-7, because Gary Richter, DVM, an outspoken opponent of declawing cats, was about to be elected “America’s Favorite Veterinarian”?
Blaming opponents of cat declawing, the American Veterinary Medical Foundation on August 26, 2015 announced that it had suspended its annual “America’s Favorite Veterinarian Contest,” and had declared all 20 finalists “America’s Favorite Veterinarians,” because of what the foundation called “a vicious cyber-bullying attack which disrupted and contaminated the final election process.”
From 6th to 2nd in 48 hours
But did that really happen? ANIMALS 24-7 found little online evidence of “cyber-bullying” by declawing opponents, but 48 hours after the Paw Project endorsed anti-declawing finalist Richter of the Montclair Veterinary Clinic in Oakland, California, Richter had surged from sixth place in the online voting to second. Conrad told ANIMALS 24-7 that she believes Richter had moved into first place when the AVMF called it quits.
Richter was also endorsed by the “City the Kitty” Facebook page, which had 266,868 “likes” as of August 26, 2015, and by Paw Project assistant director Jim Jensvold, and by American Veterinary Workers Against Declawing, among many other prominent declawing opponents.
Alleged the AVMF, the charitable arm of the American Veterinary Medical Association, “Activists opposed to cat declawing “hijacked” the three-year-old contest, which has been conducted since 2013 through online voting.
“One contestant, for example, was called ‘a whore, a butcher, a mutilator, a hack, an animal hater, a disgrace to the profession,’” said the AVMF announcement. “Other contestants were subjected to the circulation of fraudulent negative advertisements, negative reviews, and threatening phone calls.”
Acknowledged Conrad, “The people who adamantly support declawing are just as passionate as those of us who stand adamantly against it. Most people engaged in this argument are respectful, although there are a few on either side who let their emotions overpower their civility. It happens both ways. Neither side is without its zealots lashing out or its ‘cyber bullies,’” Conrad said, “and therefore, each side can claim to be a victim. But let us remember the truth of the matter is that there remains only one true victim in this battle, and that victim is the cat who suffers because of declawing.”
The Paw Project
Declawing, formally called onychectomy, is actually cutting the lower portion of the toes off of cats.
Though long promoted by many veterinarians as a profitable add-odd to sterilization surgery, declawing has never been widely accepted within the humane community. Friends of Animals, for instance, subsidizing cat sterilization since 1957, has never allowed declawing to be performed as part of an operation that FoA helps to pay for.
Controversy over cat declawing intensified after Southern California wildlife veterinarian Jennifer Conrad began pursuing legislation to prohibit it in 2002, and again after Conrad made a documentary film about her efforts, called The Paw Project, in 2012.
The declawing issue spilled over into the “America’s Favorite Veterinarian Contest” just over one year after the AVMA in July 2014 “clarified” its stance on declawing.
According to the “clarified” AVMA policy, “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 presents an above normal health risk for its owner(s),” which may occur when people with severely impaired immune systems, such as HIV patients, live with cats.
“Not medically necessary”
However, the AVMA policy adds, “Surgical declawing is not a medically necessary procedure for the cat in most cases. While rare in occurrence, there are inherent risks and complications with any surgical procedure including, but not limited to, anesthetic complications, hemorrhage, infection and pain. If surgical onychectomy is performed, appropriate use of safe and effective anesthetics and perioperative analgesics for an appropriate length of time are imperative. Pain management is necessary (not elective) and required for this procedure.”
Observed the online veterinary magazine DVM 360 when the “clarification” was announced, “The policy holds fast to the AVMA stance that municipalities should not have jurisdiction over licensed veterinary procedures such as declawing. Seven cities in California, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Burbank, Santa Monica, Berkeley, Beverly Hills and Culver City, have had declaw bans since 2009.”
1% of vet visits
Nationwide, declawing reached peak popularity in the 1990s, when it was performed in under 1% of cat veterinary visits, according to the U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook, published by the AVMA. Sterilization was performed in 14% of cat veterinary visits.
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. Among them, perhaps four to five million have been declawed––about 7%.
As likely to suffer declawing as to land in shelter
What this means is that cats are approximately as likely to suffer declawing as to suffer from any cause or combination of causes that land them in a shelter, including complications of declawing itself.
Further, cats are about twice as likely to be declawed, with lifelong painful consequences, as they are to be killed in a shelter.
But despite the frequent argument of veterinarians who defend declawing that cats are often surrendered to shelters for clawing humans and furniture, there has never been much data suggesting this.
In 1995 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, New reported in 2000.
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 problem practicing cruelty to humans”
“Apparently many of the so-called animal rights activists [opposed to declawing] have no problem practicing cruelty to human beings,” fumed American Veterinary Medical Foundation chair John Brooks in announcing the suspension of the “America’s Favorite Veterinarian Contest.”
This much might have been recognized by all sides, since vicious infighting and nastiness toward opponents have long been recognized within animal advocacy as oft-erupting self-defeating behaviors.
But, scrambling as awkwardly toward the moral high ground as a declawed cat trying to climb a tree to escape a pit bull, Brooks proceeded onto a thin limb.
“We have always respected the rights of others to have differing opinions,” Brooks claimed.”
Reality is that the AVMA has long been notoriously thin-skinned toward humane criticism, including in response to Conrad and the Paw Project.
JAVMA non-disclosure of conflict
A second recent example is stony silence from the editors of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, despite appeals from other researchers and dog attack victim advocates, in response to gross distortions of data and non-disclosure of conflicts of interest among the authors of an article entitled “Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite–related fatalities in the United States (2000–2009).”
Published on December 15, 2013, the JAVMA article concluded that dog breed is not a relevant factor in dog attack fatalities, even though pit bulls have caused more than half of the documented dog attack fatalities in U.S. history, and more than 60% within the 2000-2009 time frame. Not acknowledged by JAVMA was that four of the five co-authors are full-time employees of nonprofit organizations engaged in pit bull advocacy.
Barred Animal Welfare Institute
AVMA intolerance of critics has also memorably surfaced in response to concern for the suffering of farmed animals and laboratory animals. Both the Animal Welfare Institute and the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, for instance, were within relatively recent memory barred from tabling at the AVMA annual conference, after paying for exhibition hall space.
The Animal Welfare Institute, founded in 1952, “since 1963 has exhibited at the annual meeting of the AVMA 21 times,” recounted AWI president Cathy Liss after being barred in 2005.
Liss noted two potential conflicts with AVMA policy. One was AWI opposition to horse slaughter for human consumption, which the AMVA has endorsed. The other, Liss said, was “our exhibit at the 2004 convention, which was described by an AVMA representative as ‘very contentious,’” apparently because it “displayed a life-sized cloth pig in a real gestation crate.”
Barred AVAR, too
AVAR, founded in 1981 by Neil Wolff, DVM, and Nedim Buyukmihci, VMD, merged into the Humane Society of the U.S. in 2008, becoming the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.
In 2004 then-AVMA executive vice president Bruce Little allowed AVAR vice president Holly Cheever to address a pre-conference meeting of convention delegates, but otherwise excluded AVAR for “espousing philosophies or actions in opposition to those of the AVMA.”
AVAR had asked the AVMA to reconsider a 2002 resolution approving use of sow gestation crates; to oppose veal crating; to opposed allowing producers to starve laying hens for an average of 10 to 14 days to shock those who survive into a second laying season; and to reconsider the retention of Gregg Cutler, DVM, on the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee, “where he represented poultry welfare,” Cheever said, “despite the fact that he was shown in three separate affidavits, including his own, to have ordered the mass slaughter of 30,000 chickens in California by throwing them alive into a wood chipper [during an outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease, a highly contagious viral infection]. Needless to say, death by wood chipper is not included among the acceptable methods listed in the 2000 Report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia,” and is not listed as acceptable in the current AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals either, adopted in 2013.
The AVMA likes to be seen as a professional body setting veterinary standards, as a provider of public education about animal issues, and as an umbrella for ongoing efforts to advance veterinary science. The AVMA is also a provider of continuing professional education to vets, and a disaster relief agency.
But the AVMA is first and foremost a trade association representing the economic concerns of veterinarians.
The AVMA was founded in 1863 at the Astor House in New York City as the U. S. Veterinary Association, with 40 charter members.
Henry Bergh founded the American SPCA in 1866 at Clinton Hall, on Astor Place, just a few doors away, in part because the AVMA had yet to address humane concerns.
Rather, the early AVMA focused on who should be allowed to make money by claiming to be a veterinarian.
Traditionally, animal health care providers developed their skills through apprenticeship, usually to a farrier, who was then typically just a blacksmith skilled at making horseshoes. The very term “farrier” means simply “iron worker.” Though typically calling themselves “horse doctors,” few proto-veterinarians had much formal education.
Academic veterinary study began at the Universite de Lyon, France, in 1764. The Alfort Veterinary School in Paris opened a year later. The Boston Veterinary Institute, the first vet school in the U.S., opened almost a century later, in 1855.
Accordingly, few early members of the U.S. Veterinary Association held any sort of academic degree. Among the few who did was 28-year-old Alexandre Liautard (1835-1918). A recent Alfort graduate who had also earned a U.S. medical degree, Liautard was elected first president of the U.S. Veterinary Association.
Liautard in 1877 founded the American Veterinary Review, ancestral to JAVMA. In his editorial role, Liautard translated some of the writings of pioneering immunologist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) for American readers.
This in 1886 brought Liautard into conflict with Henry Bergh.
Wrote John D. Blaisdell in a 1996 review of “The American Veterinary Community’s Reception of Pasteur’s Work on Rabies,” published by the journal Agricultural History, “Bergh believed the incidence of rabies was overblown. Furthermore, he had doubts about Pasteur’s work, especially that Pasteur had not identified the causative organism of the disease.”
Eager to defend dogs from persecution, Bergh dismissed data derived from animal experiments. Bergh’s public rejection of the vaccination principle, as explained by Liautard, might be seen as the origin of stress between the humane and veterinary communities, except that Bergh’s skepticism of vaccination also prevailed among vets. The U.S. Veterinary Association in 1887 adopted resolutions rejecting vaccination and “favoring the destruction of all animals exposed to, or having disease,” reported the Atlantic Daily Telegraph.
The substance of the 1887 resolutions persists to this day as the “stamping out” response to animal disease outbreaks still practiced worldwide. Only relatively recently, largely through the influence of ProMED-mail, founded in 1994, have the Organization for Animal Health (OIE), United Nations Agricultural Organization (FAO), and World Health Organization come to accept Liautard’s preference for prophylactic vaccination.
As late as 1908 the AVMA was still divided over whether animals should ever be vaccinated. The focus issue was hog cholera. In 1907 the USDA introduced a vaccine meant to stop hog cholera. Emerging in southern Ohio in 1833, hog cholera outbreaks had killed 13% of the pigs in the U.S. in 1886-1887 and again in 1896. The AVMA membership balked at using the vaccine, however, recommending instead that infected pigs be treated by forcing cheap bourbon down their throats. Six generations of improved vaccines later, the USDA finally eradicated hog cholera in 1978, after a 17-year effort driven by federal legislation.
Vet oath adopted in 1969
Frustrated at his inability to bring AVMA policies into line with scientific discovery, Liautrad served as dean of the New York University Veterinary College for 25 years, 1868-1893, then retired back to Paris, after which the NYU Veterinary College became the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University in Ithaca.
Long outliving all of the other AVMA cofounders, Liautard died in 1918, days before the end of World War I.
Despite Liautard’s efforts to introduce a professional oath, the AVMA did not adopt one until 1969, and did not add obligations to protect animal welfare and prevent animal suffering to the veterinary oath until 2010.
Met the devil at the crossroads
By then most vets––and vet students––had for more than half a century found themselves having to choose which way to ride from a professional crossroads, away from horse-doctoring into specialties emphasizing almost opposite values.
As horses were by the early 1920s disappearing from transportation and farm work in the U.S., for most vets to remain horse doctors was no longer an option.
For vets who went into agricultural practice and laboratory animal research, the animals to be treated were vastly more numerous and the customers fewer. Each animal had just a fraction of the value of working equines. The veterinary goals in either animal agriculture or research, then and now, center on maintaining herd or flock health. This mostly means preventing the spread of contagious disease.
As bacteria and viruses became better known and understood, agricultural vets followed the lead of lab vets in promoting intensive confinement and prophylactic use of antibiotics. Agricultural vets also introduced the use of steroids to stimulate animal growth, recycling animal remains into feed for ruminants, gestation stalls, and most of the other practices which are together called “factory farming.”
Small animals & surgery
Most agricultural and lab vets did little surgery circa 100 years ago, and most today still don’t.
Dog-and-cat veterinary practice, however, from the beginning focused on individual animals, and especially on surgery, the most lucrative part of the work. But the first problem for dog-and-cat vets in the 1920s was finding procedures to perform.
The AVMA in 1923 approved and advocated dog and cat sterilization surgery to prevent overpopulation. The American Humane Association, however, which was then still the collective voice of U.S. humane societies it had begun as in 1877, also supervised the orphanage system for New York state. Under AHA direction was the largest orphanage in the U.S., housing 10,000 children on the premises of the Mohawk & Hudson Humane Society in Albany, near the original AHA home office.
Fighting eugenicists who favored forcibly sterilizing the poor, and had considerable influence in the New York state legislature, the AHA board believed that allowing dogs and cats to be sterilized would set a bad precedent jeopardizing the girls in their care. The AHA––which had earlier expelled anti-vivisection societies from membership––denounced dog and cat sterilization as an alleged money-grubbing scheme advanced by vivisectionists, echoed that perspective as recently as 1968, and did not back away from opposing dog and cat sterilization until 1973.
The AVMA meanwhile increased humane skepticism of dog and cat sterilization by introducing dog devocalization in 1925. For years thereafter the AVMA annual conferences featured floor demonstrations of devocalization, along with demonstrations of tail-docking, ear-cropping, and declawing cats.
Ironically, after failing for more than 30 years to persuade the humane community to promote dog and cat sterilization, the AVMA later became a vociferous foe of high-volume, low-cost sterilization surgery. Instead, the AVMA promoted sterilization as part of a suite of procedures including tail-docking, ear-cropping, and declawing, accessible only to the affluent.
AVMA tried to stop low-cost s/n
Friends of Animals opened the first low-cost sterilization clinic in the U.S. in 1957, in Neptune, New Jersey. The Long Beach SPCA, of California, was by 1958 sterilizing all dogs and cats before adoption. The organized veterinary profession responded to both initiatives by trying to stop them.
The AVMA itself has not led most of the opposition to low-cost spay/neuter in recent years, but neither has it stood up prominently against anti-low-cost s/n entities such as the Alabama Veterinary Practice Owners Association and the South Carolina Veterinarians Association.
Most advances in controlling dog and cat overpopulation have been seen by vets as threats to their income, and still are, despite a wealth of evidence that sterilized pets are valued more, kept longer, and taken far more often for other veterinary treatment.
This may not include declawing, but includes geriatric care, which for more than 20 years has documentedly accounted for more than half of the lifetime veterinary expense incurred by pets who live to at least age 10.
Even neuter/return, now almost universally accepted by the humane community and broadly recognized by the public, appears to be viewed with suspicion by the AVMA.
This may be because sterilizing feral cats for neuter/return programs is a big part of the work of many nonprofit clinics––and may also be, in part, because cats in neuter/return programs are not declawed, while the cat advocacy organizations promoting neuter/return are almost unanimously opposed to declawing any cat.