Lifestyle

Why Anti-Declawing Activists Torpedoed the ‘America’s Favorite Veterinarian’ Contest

by Mark Hay

October 20, 2015

You wouldn’t expect much controversy from a competition called America’s Favorite Veterinarian. An event cooked up in 2013 by the charitable wing of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the contest seemed like a simple way for satisfied animal owners to nominate vets, whether they serve pets, livestock, or research animals, for honors and a cash prize. For two years, the contest went as planned, remaining an innocuous human-interest story. But this year’s competition got screwy when animal rights activists started promoting a vet known for refusing to declaw cats, using the competition to vehemently decry the practice. As tends to happen on the internet, things went topsy-turvy from there and within the space of a week the conversation went from cheery support of one exceptional vet to a massive screed of hatred flung against his competitors by an internet mob incensed by cat declawing. After two contestants dropped out of the race, the AVMA shut down the competition to contain the vitriol as best they could, awarding every finalist the $500 prize, but selecting no winner.

AVMA officials tried to make “declawgate” an opportunity to discuss cyberbullying. The organization launched an investigation into the most extreme or personal comments, petitioned Facebook to take accountability for the reputation damage that cyberbullies can cause small businesses, and marched out studies about the frequency with which veterinarians experience internet hate. But these steps seem beside the point to the faction of anti-declawing activists who harmlessly endorsed their vet of choice as a way to talk about declawing in a public animal medical forum. Although advocates admit things got out of hand online, some suspect that the AVMA is using the furor to paint their movement as provocative and hateful (despite the fact that most of the major anti-declawing groups actively discouraged hate throughout the contest’s last days) or just suppress the conversation around the declawing issue. And they may be right, because declawing is a minefield of scary allegations and misunderstandings that deserves some serious thought and reform, but is very hard to tackle because of prevailing American attitudes toward our pets.

By now, most Americans are probably wondering what the big deal with declawing is. It’s an incredibly common practice in this country—25 percent of our cats endure it and 55 percent of cat owners approve of it. That may be because we think of it as just strategically removing a cat’s furniture-shredding claws, and nothing else. But declawing is controversial because it’s much more invasive than that: Rather than just removing the nail, declawing removes a part or all of the cat’s first toe bone on each toe using shears, scalpels, or lasers. It is, more often than not, a major surgery and an amputation. The best equivalent would be having your own fingernails removed by slicing off the bone under them or lopping off your fingertips.

Anti-declawing advocates believe that these procedures almost always end in chronic pain and trauma for cats. They share pictures of cats with paws bloodied for weeks, sometimes infected. Some cats, they argue, become lame for life. Other cats experience great pain while basically learning to walk again from scratch. The inability to kick kitty litter after an operation may also keep some animals from using the box, and the loss of their defensive nails may make cats into biters. Some who oppose the practice claim that it makes cats become more withdrawn, leading owners to give pets up to death in the wild where they can no longer fend for themselves, or to shelters where they will remain weak and unloved until they’re eventually euthanized.

Image by Niels Hartvig via Flickr

These claims about pain and suffering are valid and serious, the result of poorly performed operations that use shears to lop off toes, crunch bone, and leave untreated bloody stumps behind—something that shockingly still happens, and often. (Some sources say this is still the most commonly taught and performed method of declawing.) But many vets say that if the operation is performed correctly using a scalpel or laser, preferably on a cat under five months old (that won’t be putting much weight on its paws and won’t grow up too aware of what it’s lost), it can go off with few complications. More expensive precision operations allow doctors to leave paw pads and nerves intact, reduce swelling, bruising, bleeding, and inflammation for a quick recovery, and remove just a sliver of bone right under the nail bed. In these situations, existing research suggests that there’s no real evidence of major behavioral changes, or chronic pain and suffering.

But even in the case of better practices, declawing might very well come with a number of unwanted side effects. Scratching and claw-extended stretching are big parts of cat behavior, and we can’t be entirely sure how the loss of that mode of expression affects them—although many suspect it’s an extremely difficult loss for the animal, emotionally and otherwise. Plus the loss of defensive capabilities strictly limits declawed cats to a life inside the house, moving outside only for short periods of time with human supervision. That’s why organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, despite recognizing the mitigation of risks in some modern surgeries, still oppose declawing in all but a few circumstances, like rare medical emergencies (e.g., infections in the toes or nail beds that have gone so far as to require amputation to save a life).

It’s also why well over two dozen nations, including most of the developed world, ban the surgery save in special cases (like said infection). In Israel, for instance, declawing a cat can get you a year in prison and a roughly $20,000 fine. And some American cities and citizens seem to be following suit: Eight cities in California, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have outlawed the procedure since declawing activists started pushing in earnest for bans around 1999. And two bills to ban declawing statewide were introduced in Hawaii and New York earlier this year—the Hawaiian bill stalled out in committee, while the New York bill is still floating around, waiting for its fate to be decided. Many vets, like the one activists applauded (to accidentally calamitous effect) in the AVMA competition, now refuse to declaw cats as well.

Yet despite growing campaigns against the practice and precedent elsewhere in the world, the AVMA and other veterinary organizations refuse to take a firm stand against the practice. The AVMA does call it a major surgery, requiring vets to provide cat owners with information on the procedure and alternatives to reduce scratching and bad behaviors, holding declawing as a practice of last resort. But even that non-denouncement is a new development, instituted just last summer. Some cynics believe these organizations refuse to denounce the practice because they make too much money lopping off cat toes. But really most vets seem genuinely concerned that American cat owners are so set in their ways and priorities that no matter what they hear or learn, they’ll get their cats declawed—and it might as well be somewhere safe, rather than at some seedy clinic using shears and dirty, bloody bandages. And many vets who reluctantly perform the operation claim that if a cat scratches up the sofa too much, or poses an infection threat to an immunocompromised owner, that owner will discard the cat to an almost inevitable shelter death. A controlled operation, they believe, is always preferable to near-certain abandonment.

Close-up of a cat claw. Image by Howcheng via Wikimedia Commons

This explanation frustrates many declawing activists who rightfully point out that there are many alternatives to declawing that decrease scratching and all the other nail-related terrors that lead many Americans to sour on their kittens. (Also, they point out that the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health do not share veterinarians’ concerns about cat scratches and immunocompromised patients, making those fears seem less than valid.) Simple training with positive and negative reinforcements, channeling scratching into posts and toys, regular nail trimmings, and soft plastic nail caps are all viable options that carry none of the risks of declawing—although they do require some regular investments of time and money.

Activists also believe that calling vets out can lead to successful dissuasion. Case in point: While many of the vets in the AVMA’s recent contest were just riled by their experience, two of the 19 who practiced declawing at the start of the competition vowed to stop the procedure in their clinics as a result of the declawgate drama. So anti-declawing advocates have good reason to demand the absolute dissolution of the practice and confront opponents with that idea openly.

But vets that still perform declawings and the associations that support them do seem to be right about one thing: Minds are hard to change. No matter what you or I think of declawing, American society has seemingly embraced it. Ever blithe to new information that is gross, inconvenient, or against their set beliefs, people will continue to seek out the procedure even if presented with all the arguments against it. And much as animal lovers loathe this, many societies still treat animals like objects for human amusement, doing all sorts of torturous things to them. That’s why we have brutally deformed purebred dogs. That’s why the same assemblywoman in New York who proposed the declawing ban actually had to propose a bill last year banning the piercing or tattooing of pets. And while banning declawing might add a layer of deterrent that hinders some owners, others might just go down to a less scrupulous doctor to get a more dangerous procedure done at a dirt-cheap price. It’s the same logic that prevails when you ban any good or service.

In order to get vets to budge, activists have to convince the American public to stop demanding declawings. Behavioral changes are a tall order for individuals, to say nothing of societies. And although vitriolic hate mail might feel cathartic to people who believe they’re absolutely in the right, it almost never achieves a level of deep-down change in beliefs and actions. It can often even backfire, leading irate people to double down on their right to alter their cats’ lives, sometimes terribly.

Though there are ways to sour a culture on something. We could do anything from requiring that the procedure be renamed in all literature, vet encounters, and medical documents to something more literal—like a “partial toe amputation.” We could institute mild regulations, allowing the practice only after people consult a vet and agree to try alternative solutions, tacking on fines for veterinarian or owner noncompliance. We could start a series of extremely graphic advertisements à la anti-smoking campaigns. We could even take a note out of the human healthcare system’s book and outright pay people to shop around for alternative solutions or the safest procedures. Bombard people with enough imagery, barriers, and firm language, and over the course of a few years declawings just might decrease in demand. Changing hearts and minds over time may seem like a slow, roundabout way of achieving a reduction in the procedure’s prevalence. But given vets’ fears about pet abandonment and their belief that people will seek out dangerous options if not given safer alternatives, getting at the root and changing American attitudes very well might be more productive and less painful than an outright ban. And certainly more productive than hate mail bombing a vet appreciation contest.

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Why Anti-Declawing Activists Torpedoed the ‘America’s Favorite Veterinarian’ Contest