AVMA Adjusts Position on Declaw
“Let’s face it, a declaw surgery is an amputation,” says Dr. Marcus Brown, president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and a participant in the American Veterinary Medical Association House of Delegates, who helped craft the new AVMA position statement on declawing cats.
The statement is designed, “To clarify that the procedure is a major surgery that should only be performed after alternatives have been sought to prevent destructive clawing. The revised policy describes onychectomy (declawing) as an amputation and stresses the importance of client education about normal feline scratching behaviors, what the procedure involves, and alternatives to declawing.”
In fact, a declaw is an irreversible elective surgical procedure. A cat’s toe has three bones. In a declaw, the veterinarian amputates the final section of the last bone (which contains the growth plate and the nail — like cutting off a finger at the knuckle).
Of course, this is unimaginably painful. And while pain relief offers some respite, and most cats recover, Brown says, “I went into veterinary medicine to do no harm.”
Declaw remains controversial both within the veterinary profession and among cat owners.
Only a few decades ago, as more people began to keep cats indoors, declaw surgery was done routinely at the same time as spay/neutering. A few years back, the AAFP took a leadership role in saying declaw should not be routine. While some veterinarians have persisted in offering declaw as a matter of course, their numbers have diminished.
“I think many cat owners just had no idea that a declaw is an amputation, and public education has changed minds,” Brown says.
While declaw has declined, progress hasn’t been speedy enough for the non-profit Paw Project. The group’s mission is to educate the public about the painful, crippling effects of declaw, promote animal welfare by abolishing it, and rehabilitating declawed cats.
Declaw is downright illegal in some countries, and the Paw Project advocates banning it in the U.S. Their efforts have succeeded to create bans in a few communities.
Brown argues that it’s always difficult to legislate morality.
The AVMA statement points to situations where declawing may be necessary to keep cats with their families and prevent euthanasia. Cats with intact claws can inadvertently cause injury or disease in elderly people with thin skin, diabetics, and people who are immune-compromised, according to some physicians. If declaw were banned by law, many cats living with compromised people would land in shelters. Also, forcibly taking cats away from their owners (on doctor’s orders, for example) would devastate many owners. In some cases, particularly among seniors, a cat can be their best friend and only companion.
Increasingly, veterinarians are offering behavior-training alternatives to clients seeking to declaw. When clients insist on the procedure, many veterinarians now say “no.” Of course, there’s always someone down the street who might do the job.
Brown says education is key so clients don’t request the procedure.
All cats need to scratch; even declawed cats go through the motions. Cats communicate by scratching, depositing pheromones that send all sorts of messages. Cats don’t scratch to sharpen their nails (that’s a misconception) but to remove worn-out nail sheaths. Cats seems to express joy or excitement by scratching.
The problem for most cat owners isn’t so much that cats scratch, but where. By providing desirable places for cats to scratch (vertical and horizontal scratchers) and making furniture undesirable, cats can be trained or retrained.
“It’s just not true that once a cat begins to scratch somewhere that you can’t retrain (the pet),” Brown says.
One method use to teach cats where to scratch is to clicker train using a small, inexpensive box that makes a click sound to encourage appropriate behavior. Food and praise are used as rewards. Dangling a toy against a scratching post encourages a cat to bat the post, in the process depositing its individual scent. Generally all you need are a few scratches, and the cat then consider that place “my place to scratch.”
While the AVMA stops short of saying declaw should never be done, its new position indicates that it should remain an option of last resort for veterinarians and pet owners.
Download a free handout, “Think Twice Before You Declaw,” written by myself; certified cat behavior consultant Beth Adelman, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug and Dr. Ilona Rodan, past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners,
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