The Cruelest Cut: How Cat Declawing Became the Next Battleground for Animal Rights

Critics say the common cat surgery is painful and can lead to other problems.

Over the years Jennifer Conrad has come to see her fight as one against greed and stupidity, a nasty pocket of the stuff festering deep in the heart of her own profession. When her crusade began, though, Conrad wasn't thinking that way. She was focused on one patient, Drifter, a three-year-old, 550-pound tiger who was in agony and pissed off about it.

Growing up in a family of physicians in Malibu, Conrad was always passionate about animal welfare. She'd gone to veterinary school with the idea of helping endangered species and had traveled to six continents, working with exotic animals and often trading her services for room and board. Around Hollywood, where she was known as "the Vet to the Real Stars," her patients included many famous film performers, including the tiger featured in The Hangover.

But Conrad treated less-celebrated felines, too — big cats that had worked in circuses or in Vegas-style magic acts until they became too old or sick and were farmed out to carnivore sanctuaries. Many of them had been declawed in their youth in an effort to make them easier to handle on stage. The surgical procedure, known as an onychectomy, involves amputation of the final segment of toe bone as well as the attached claw and can have numerous long-term complications, including chronic pain, bleeding, lameness, arthritis, aggressiveness and nail regrowth.

More than a toenail: The equivalent of declawing in humans would be cutting off a finger at the last knuckle mark.
More than a toenail: The equivalent of declawing in humans would be cutting off a finger at the last knuckle mark.
Dr. Aubrey Lavizzo says he began doubting the wisdom of amputations after some bad outcomes.
Philip Posten
Dr. Aubrey Lavizzo says he began doubting the wisdom of amputations after some bad outcomes.

Several of the tigers and lions Conrad saw had been practically crippled by the anatomical changes wrought by the surgery. Some walked on their wrists or elbows or hardly moved at all because putting weight on their toes was too painful. One of the worst was Drifter, a Siberian mix with a pronounced limp. He was so debilitated that Conrad decided to organize a surgical team to reattach tendons in Drifter's paws that had been severed by the declawing.

In the course of the innovative five-hour operation, the team also removed hefty nuggets of nail fragments, several centimeters in length, that had been growing under the skin, causing pain and distorting Drifter's gait. The results were dramatic.

"After surgery he was standing up like a normal cat and walking like a normal cat," Conrad recalls. "He never fell back down onto his wrists. Then we knew we were on to something."

Beginning with Drifter's operation in 1999, Conrad began documenting on film her efforts to rehabilitate declawed exotics. She paid for the first eight surgeries out of her own pocket. She figured that the "before" images might help persuade authorities to ban the declawing of wild animals and that the "after" pictures could prompt their handlers to seek relief for those already afflicted. She was right on both counts. In 2004, thanks largely to her efforts, California banned the declawing of wild cats; two years later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture enacted a nationwide ban on declawing for virtually all large carnivores.

Conrad has now performed around 225 tendon-repair surgeries on 76 lions, tigers, panthers and other declawed exotics. But her film project has morphed into something else: an emotional, provocative yet scientifically grounded documentary, The Paw Project, about her decade-long battle to stop the declawing of the common American house cat.

Most pet-friendly nations already outlaw onychectomy. The United Kingdom's Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons deems the procedure "not acceptable" under most circumstances, and laws in most European countries explicitly prohibit it. In Israel, declawing a cat can result in a fine of 75,000 shekels — more than $20,000. Authorities in Brazil, Japan, Turkey and Australia also frown on the practice.

Yet in the United States, declawing is still a common — and lucrative — part of the veterinary business. A surgery that's now considered too barbaric for wild animals is widely marketed through coupons and special spay-neuter "package deals" to cat lovers of all stripes. Studies indicate that 22 million cats, about one-fourth of the country's total domesticated feline population, have been declawed. On average, vets charge between $400 and $800 for the surgery, which takes less than ten minutes per paw and can be done with a scalpel, laser or guillotine-type trimmer.

In more than 90 percent of the cases, pet owners request the surgery on a cat's front paws (and sometimes all four) because of concerns about Fluffy scratching the furniture. Veterinarians justify the procedure by describing it as an effective solution to a behavior problem that might otherwise lead to the animal being abandoned or surrendered to a shelter. But Conrad and other 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.

A spot check of eight vet clinics around the Houston area last week showed all of them willing to perform the surgery, although a few said they will do only the two front paws. One clinic's receptionist explained that if all four are done, "They can't go outside." The operation is not inexpensive here; prices quoted ranged from $150 for just the two front claws to $1,000 for all four. Some vet offices promised no pain at all; at others, the receptionists readily stated that the kitten or cat would be in some pain and experience some swelling after the procedure, even with pain medications. At only one place did the person on the phone recommend that we try covering the cat's claws with Soft Paws, sold at PetSmart or Petco, before jumping into the surgery.

1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
30 comments
gloria77503
gloria77503

I'm trying to find a vet in Harris County that does NOT declaw.  That is where I'd like to spend my money.  

txmarine0001
txmarine0001

anyone that follows the  pseudo-science of  Richard J. Herrnstein's philosophies does not deserve to have a computer nor do they deserve to critique anything until they come out of the ass backward way they think. In essence herrnstein was racially profiling people and absolutely refused to have his work peer reviewed until it was published.  stating that African-Americans low test score are due to heritage and breeding. as well as stating that environment has no play at all what so ever in Intelligent decision making. perhaps you should figure out whom the real ass clown is spewing a racially biased social scientist.

roguebotanist
roguebotanist

And while you're at it, stop the cutting off of dog tails and cropping their ears.  How vain can you be to mutilate an animal and showcase it around?

Michael FunkyButt Peck
Michael FunkyButt Peck

Elderly are starving, 14 year old girls are being pimped out in this town, and we are dedicated to cats. We deserve each other

txmarine0001
txmarine0001

I LOVE CATS. ESPECIALLY PICKING THEM OUT OF THE RADIATOR.


Anastasia Molodtsova
Anastasia Molodtsova

I feel so guilty, that I allowed my relative to declaw my kitty. I made a research the next day and was crying and crying. Thanks God, she feels good now, no pain, aggressivity or defects. But in general I think it's interfering with nature.

Judith Cruz Villarreal
Judith Cruz Villarreal

my cat is declawed but I found her that way. i took her in over 10yrs ago. she hates when strangers touch her paws.

Jessica Byerly
Jessica Byerly

I will NEVER make my cat defenseless and in pain...there are products to keep cats from scratching furniture...buy a water bottle and a scratching post people...

Marco LopeZ
Marco LopeZ

This is a cruel thing to do. Its like cutting your fingers off at the first joint. How about taking your cat to the vet to trim their nails. It cost 15 bucks plus you won't be a asshole.

Sheila Flores-Crabb
Sheila Flores-Crabb

And this is why as MUCH as I'd like not to have torn up stuff I still can't do this to my cats. :(

Houstess
Houstess

It's amazing to me how many animal rights activists go way over the top on stupid issues like this, targeting a humane and painless (yes I said painless) way to provide a good home to a loving family for yet another cat that someone did not spay.  By the way, spaying is surgery, and just as not painful as declawing.  These same folks, many of them, stand with Wendy to advocate the dismembering of a fetus over the gestational age of 20 weeks in utero (extenuating circumstances not limiting the thought process).  Not saying this is the author's stance, but largely, the animal "rights" activists also advocate late term abortion.  To say I just don't follow the logic is an understatement.  SMH

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

Have a problem with your cats claws? Clip them, with a flat tip they can't exact any damage on anything or anyone, just be sure you know what you're doing so you don't clip the bloodline/quick. This declawing crap is cruel and unnecessary.

slumpville
slumpville

I had a cat that would scratch herself raw. Just to give you an idea of how horrible it was, our walls were splattered with blood all over the house. We tried all sorts of medications and changes to try to help her. Nothing worked well enough to stop her from hurting herself. We declawed her. It greatly improved her quality of life. She did not seem to have any problems. I can't imagine declawing to save my furniture but I have never had cats thats ruin furniture. My current cat was not allowed unsupervised with the couch until we were sure we had taught her that this was not an okay place to scratch.

Kaf1958
Kaf1958

Well, this article was about cats, not 14 yr old girls.

Kaf1958
Kaf1958

The topic is cat declawing, not human abortion.

roguebotanist
roguebotanist

@Houstess Another post for another time unless you want these post to center on the 1950's because you've never left that decade.

Jefs_Old_Boss
Jefs_Old_Boss

@gossamersixteen In fact as many cats get older it's necessary to prevent ingrown claws which are also painful for little cat feets.

hudgal1
hudgal1

@slumpville  Your cat was probably experiencing allergies. I used to have a cat who scratched her self raw like that too. I ended up taking her for a monthly allergy shot. After doing a little research, I have discovered that most pet allergies are attributed to the food they're eating, with corn being the biggest culprit. Switching your pet's food to a grain-free food is the easiest and first thing you should try.

hudgal1
hudgal1

@slumpville Your cat was probably experiencing allergies. I used to have a cat who scratched her self raw like that too. I ended up taking her for a monthly allergy shot. After doing a little research, I have discovered that most pet allergies are attributed to the food they're eating, with corn being the biggest culprit. Switching your pet's food to a grain-free food is the easiest and first thing you should try.

txmarine0001
txmarine0001

@roguebotanist @txmarine0001 so you use a dead social scientist to try and humiliate me when i was making a joke especially a dead social scientist that has literally TOMES of peer reviews that are all criticisms btw i happen to have an established IQ of 120. foolish of you to assume that I do not have an education. I JUST HATE CATS.

slumpville
slumpville

@hudgal1 I agree. We tried the shots and food changes as recommended by our vet, but they did not fix the problem. That is why I said "we tried all sorts of medications and changes". 

txmarine0001
txmarine0001

@roguebotanist  what exactly is incoherent and rambling about my statement? perhaps i should come see you as you have been obviously smoking some of your own botany.

 
Houston Concert Tickets
Loading...