2015 “Favorite Vet” contest outcome tipped balance toward declaw bans across North America
ALBANY, New York––Governor Andrew Cuomo on July 22, 2019 signed into law Assembly Bill A-1303, making New York the first U.S. state to ban declawing cats.
There are about 4.2 million cats in New York state, about half of them in the New York City metropolitan area. Nearly two-thirds of the cats are kept by renters, and almost all of those cats kept exclusively indoors, agree a variety of pet ownership surveys.
This is the combination of circumstances most likely to result in declawing.
More declawing in NYC than national norm
Across the U.S., less than 1% of feline veterinary visits involve declawing, according to American Veterinary Medical Association data. By comparison, about 14% of feline veterinary visits involve spay/neuter.
But, based on owner-surrender data gathered decades ago at New York City animal shelters, the rate of declawing owned cats in New York City is believed to be about three times the national average.
A-1303 will dramatically change that.
Introduced in January 2019 by state assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan, A-1303 specifies that “no person shall perform an onychectomy (declawing), partial or complete phalangectomy or tendonectomy procedure by any means on a cat within the state of New York except when necessary for a therapeutic purpose.”
What the new law means
An onychectomy “involves the amputation of the last bone of each of the animal’s toes. A phalangectomy is the surgical excision of a phalanx of a finger or toe, and a tendonectomy is the surgical cutting of tendons,” explained U.S. News & World Report staff writer Alexa Lardieri.
A-1303 further states that therapeutic purposes accepted under the new law do “not include cosmetic or aesthetic reasons or reasons of convenience in keeping or handling the cat.”
Acceptable examples of therapeutic purposes, though not explicitly stated in the law, would be treating cancer, gangrene, or a severe and irrecoverable paw injury, such as a bone-crushing dog bite, being accidentally slammed in a door, or getting caught in a leghold trap set for wildlife.
The new law takes effect immediately.
Violations of the law may be punished by a fine of up to $1,000 per convicted offense.
Massachusetts bill pending
The New York state declawing ban may soon be emulated in Massachusetts, where a similar bill went before a public hearing on July 22, 2019 before the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure at the Statehouse in Boston.
There are only about 500,000 cats in Massachusetts, according to American Veterinary Medical Association surveys. About 10% of the Massachusetts cats, approximately 50,000, are in Boston. As in New York City, nearly two-thirds of the Boston cats are indoor-only and are kept by renters.
Formerly vehement AVMA and state veterinary association defenses of declawing––one of the most profitable of veterinary procedures––appear to have weakened since August 26, 2015.
How contest outcome influenced opinion
On that day the American Veterinary Medical Foundation announced that it had suspended its annual “America’s Favorite Veterinarian Contest” because of controversy over some of the contestants’ views on declawing.
The American Veterinary Medical Foundation declared all 20 finalists “America’s Favorite Veterinarians,” because of what the foundation called “a vicious cyber-bullying attack [by declawing opponents] which disrupted and contaminated the final election process.”
Investigating at the time, ANIMALS 24-7 found little online evidence of “cyber-bullying” by declawing opponents.
Anti-declaw vet surged
However, 48 hours after the anti-declawing Paw Project endorsed finalist Gary Richter of the Montclair Veterinary Clinic in Oakland, California, an outspoken opponent of declawing, Richter surged from sixth place in the online voting to second.
Conrad told ANIMALS 24-7 that she believed Richter had moved into first place when the American Veterinary Medical Foundation pulled the plug.
Richter was also endorsed by the “City the Kitty” Facebook page, produced by former Los Angeles Times photographer Lori Shepler, with a daily audience of more than 268,000 followers; by Paw Project assistant director Jim Jensvold; and by American Veterinary Workers Against Declawing, among many other prominent declawing opponents.
Pricy declaw vet “called names”
Plant City, Florida veterinarian Christy Layton, whose Timberlane Pet Hospital & Resort does declawing at $425 to $500, complained to ANIMALS 24-7 on June 15, 2017, nearly two years after the “America’s Favorite Veterinarian” contest was cancelled, that “I was not in a declaw/no declaw contest. We got multiple phone calls, calling me names and saying I am barbaric and should be in jail and have my license removed,” Layton said.
“I don’t feel the AVMF should have cancelled the contest,” Layton continued. “I think that was the wrong decision and I told them so. I was still in first place when the contest ended, with a nice lead. The contest went on for five weeks and I put a lot of time and effort into it, to have it cancelled with six days left due to a group of activists.”
Pro-TNR vet was also harassed
Beth Frank, founder of the Michigan neuter/return organization Community Cats United, in July 2019 told ANIMALS 24-7 that another of the semi-finalists, Saginaw veterinarian Tina Roggenbeck, had also received harassing telephone calls.
Roggenbeck, best known for support of Michigan neuter/return programs, no longer does declawing. “City the Kitty” author Shepler and ANIMALS 24-7, in separate inquiries, were unable to find out when exactly Roggenbeck quit.
Frank blamed Shepler “and her crew of bullies” for the harassment of Roggenbeck, but an October 2015 investigation by Brad Devereaux of MLive and a retrospective look by ANIMALS 24-7 at social media postings both suggest that the nastiness started when several Hollywood celebrities became involved––in particular, several who are more closely associated with pit bull advocacy than with anything done on behalf of cats.
Some of those people call ANIMALS 24-7 names and send us threats too, practically nonstop.
A third of contestants who did declaw have quit
Meanwhile, the most significant outcome of the “America’s Favorite Veterinarian” contest cancellation appears to have been simply that it dramatized to veterinarians nationwide how little support remains for declawing, how many animal advocates oppose it, and that growing numbers of their veterinary peers also now find it unethical.
Shepler on October 31, 2018 posted a follow-up reporting that while nine of the 10 finalists in the “America’s Favorite Veterinarian” contest did declawing as of 2015, with Richter the only exception, three others––including Roggenbeck––no longer do.
“Listened to some who reached out”
“I listened to some of the people who reached out to me and took a hard look at all of the risks vs benefits of this procedure,” Marcy Hammerle of the Pet Doctor clinic in O’Fallon, Missouri explained to Shepler.
“I had never done many of these surgeries,” Hammerle said. “I always used good technique and appropriate pain medication, but there are complications even with the best techniques. I had never done any other cosmetic procedures, and after researching, decided that ethically I could not ever do another declaw.
“I now work closely with rescue groups doing revisions on cats who have chronic pain due to declaw complications,” Hammerle added. “This includes bone fragments and contracted tendons. Some of them come into an animal shelter aggressive or inappropriately urinating due to the pain in their feet. After revision surgery, they are able to find happy adoptive homes.”
Hammerle now counts herself part of “the Paw Project team,” as does Mitsie Vargas of the Orchid Springs Animal Hospital in Winter Haven, Florida.
“I stopped declawing after the ‘America’s Favorite Veterinarian’ controversy because I was challenged to defend the reasons why I performed declaws,” Vargas told Shepler. “I grew up in Puerto Rico and had never heard of this procedure until vet school. I declawed my first cat on the advice of my professor. I felt awful and swore I would not do it again. Sadly, once you declaw one cat,” Vargas found, “adding another one to the household is hard. I ended up declawing my next two cats. I’ll always regret it.
“After the myths I believed in since vet school were debunked by Dr. Jennifer (Paw Project founder Jennifer Conrad), I decided to become part of the movement to end this cruel procedure,” Vargas affirmed. “I’m proud to be a PawProject co-director in Florida and to have done several declaw repairs at discounted price. I firmly believe we as a nation can do better for our kitty population. We can ban declawing.”
California cities first
California cities including West Hollywood, West Covina, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Francisco, Berkeley, Beverly Hills, Culver City and Burbank had already banned declawing, some of them as early as 2003, when the ‘America’s Favorite Veterinarian’ contest ended.
Denver, Colorado, in November 2017 became the first U.S. city outside California to ban declawing.
Efforts to ban declawing in Canada have gained momentum since the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association in March 2017 resolved that declawing causes cats unnecessary and avoidable pain.
The Nova Scotia Veterinary Medical Association on December 13, 2017 made elective and non-therapeutic declawing a violation of veterinary ethics, effective on March 15, 2018, after a three-month education period.
The Alberta Veterinary Medical Association passed a similar resolution on February 25, 2019, reportedly with 98% support from the almost 300 members who participated in the voting.
The Alberta Veterinary Medical Association resolution also prohibits a variety of other cosmetic surgeries commonly performed on cats and dogs.
Banned along with declawing are ear cropping, tail docking, cutting and resetting a tail ligament to force it to heal in a raised position, numbing or nicking tendons to paralyze the animal’s tail, front dewclaw removal, cosmetic dentistry, body piercing, tattooing other than for the purpose of registration and identification, and devocalization, which usually takes the form of debarking.