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Cat declawing: Vets agree to call the surgery an "amputation" -- but not to ban it

At its national convention in Denver this week, officials of the American Veterinary Medical Association have taken the unusual step of "clarifying" the organization's policy on cat declawing to stress that it's a major surgery -- making prominent use of the word "amputation" in describing the procedure for the first time. It's a step toward candor concerning the operation, but one that probably won't placate the AVMA's critics on the issue, including many vets who consider declawing to be cruel and unnecessary.

See also: The debate over cat declawing sharpens

"The main intent [of the revised policy] is to elevate the seriousness of the procedure in the minds of veterinarians and, hopefully, the public," says Dr. Ted Cohn, a longtime local vet who will assume the office of AVMA president tomorrow. "It's imperative that pet owners know that this is not a simple procedure."

Declawing, or onychectomy, involves removal of the final segment of toe bone as well as the attached claw. Up until the last decade or so, it was a relatively common procedure in American veterinary practices, often offered as a package deal with spaying or neutering to insure that Fluffy didn't claw up furniture. But as detailed in my 2013 feature on cat-declawing called "The Cruelest Cut", numerous other countries have banned the procedure as barbaric -- and successful efforts to outlaw declawing in several California communities in recent years have led to a statewide campaign in Colorado by concerned vets and animal welfare activists, spearheaded by the Paw Project.

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Defenders of the procedure describe it as an effective solution to a behavior problem that might otherwise lead to the animal being abandoned or surrendered to a shelter. But 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.

The AVMA policy emphasizes that declawing should be considered only as a last resort and that vets need to educate pet owners about other ways to deter cats from destructive clawing, such as scratching posts and nail caps. But opponents say the organization has done a terrible job of educating citizens or researching behavior problems associated with the surgery; they also object to the AVMA's continuing assertion that cats with claws "may present an increased risk of injury or disease" to pet owners with compromised immune systems, such as people living with HIV.

"It's a change in language, but they move one step forward and two steps back," says Aubrey Lavizzo, Colorado director of the Paw Project. While HIV patients are at a higher risk of infection from their pets for several reasons, he notes, the available research doesn't support the idea that being scratched by a cat is much of a risk: "If you go through the guidelines for the immunocompromised prepared by the Centers for Disease Control, you can't find any place where it says they should declaw their cats. It's really quite dishonest to use that as a justification."

In nearly forty years as a practicing vet, many of them at the University Hills Animal Hospital, Cohn acknowledges that he's performed numerous declawings. But the number has gone down drastically in recent years, he adds, as pet owners understand more about the surgery and other options.

"Declawing is not my favorite thing to do, but it's still necessary in some cases," Cohn says. "Yes, it is an amputation, but with proper anesthesia and post-surgical care, cats do very well. If we stopped doing them entirely, there would be many more cats running feral or in the shelters."

"In most cases, it's not medically necessary at all," Lavizzo responds. "It's just cruel." Have a tip? Send it to alan.prendergast@westword.com.

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