Over the last several years, we have been communicating with our hospitals about a new policy we are establishing on performing declaw procedures on cats. Our goal has been to increase our efforts on educating our hospital teams and clients about the negative effects of declawing in cats. This effort has culminated in our plan to stop elective declawing in VCA hospitals effective February 2020. I am writing to explain our positioning for this new policy. At the core, is our firm belief that we must always do the right thing for our patients and we can no longer support declaw procedures in cats unless there is a medical reason to perform the procedure. Examples include neoplasia (tumor), infection, and trauma.
In our 33-year history since the inception of VCA we have rarely mandated anything related to medical practice. Our goal has always been to practice high quality medicine and we have invested heavily in educational programs, hospital facilities and equipment to help ensure that our doctors and hospital support teams are able to practice at a high level. We have always kept the bar high and we have striven to support our hospitals to enable their success. Areas where we have set strong policies include following current practices in analgesia and anesthesia, pre-anesthetic lab screening recommended for all patients, and patient safety guidelines implemented at all hospitals. The basis for all of these policies has been to do what is in our patients’ best interest. Patient safety and welfare always come first.
We have prided ourselves that VCA doctors and hospitals observe best practices. Our doctors have been given the freedom on how they practice medicine, as long as what is being done falls into a range of accepted standards of care. We no longer feel that elective declawing of cats is a best practice and we must be cognizant of the negative effects declawing can have on cats.
Ethical concerns about elective declawing center around the high short-term complication rate and the possibility for long-term complications and behavioral changes. In 2018, an article in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery (Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats; Martell-Moran NK, Solano M, and Townsend HG, J Feline Med Surg 2018, 20: 1-9) presented the impact of declawing upon subsequent development of back pain and unwanted behaviors. Findings concluded that declawing cats increases the risk for back pain and behaviors including biting, house soiling (both periuria and perichezia), and barbering. The use of optimal surgical technique does not eliminate the risk of adverse behavior subsequent to declawing . Considering this growing body of evidence, it is now time that we discontinue these procedures in our hospitals.
Declawing is a procedure that has long been prohibited as an elective procedure in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and many European countries. Recently New York State signed into law a ban on declawing of cats. In 2009, several cities in Los Angeles County (Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and Culver City) banned declawing. Many of us who work in the Los Angeles area have not been allowed to perform declaw procedures for the last 10 years. Denver and St. Louis have also banned declawing, and currently legislation is pending in New Jersey, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Illinois, Florida, Colorado, and Austin, Texas. Declawing is also now banned in 4 provinces in Canada, and our VCA Canada hospitals stopped declawing cats in 2018. Our Canadian VCA colleagues report they have received an overwhelmingly positive response from their hospital staff and from the general public since they announced they would no longer perform declaws on cats.
THE DECLAW CONVERSATION:
Many clients don’t actually know what declawing entails. By explaining to them that declawing is the amputation of a cat’s toe bones, many will automatically seek the humane, nonsurgical alternatives. If a client persists in requesting that the cat be declawed, there are many things that can be recommended in order to satisfy the client’s concerns without declawing the cat (see options listed at the end).
Studies have shown that if an owner is intolerant of a cat scratching the couch, it is likely that same owner would be intolerant of the cat not using the litter box or beginning to bite harder and with increased frequency. Why do cats stop using the litter box and begin to bite? When a cat comes home from having the declaw surgery, that cat might go to use the litter box and find the experience very painful to its recently amputated toe nubs, and then might subsequently decide never to use the box again. That same cat might also begin to bite because it feels that is the only way it can protect itself. Most owners won’t insist on declawing their cat if they understand that declawing is linked to other, far worse, behavior problems than the scratching ever was.
It is a common misconception among veterinary professionals that scratching behavior is one of the most common reasons for relinquishment of cats to shelters. Our experience and that of shelter operators has taught us differently. Other problems, house soiling and aggression, are listed as the top two behavioral reasons cats lose their homes. Scratching behavior is far down the list, right next to reasons like the cat requires too much attention, and scratching is rarely a reason given for relinquishment.
The Centers for Disease Control, the WHO, the National Institutes of Health, the US Public Health Service, and the Canadian Medical Association all agree that declawing cats belonging to owners who are immunocompromised is “not advised.” AAHA and AAFP agree. We do not believe that declawing a cat to protect human health is a valid reason, and in fact, it could quite possibly give people a false sense of security and put these people in jeopardy of being bitten, which is usually far more threatening to the health of a human than a scratch would be. If the declawed cat were to stop using the litter box and leave excrement in other parts of the house, that, too, is dangerous for immunocompromised people. We believe common sense methods of protecting oneself from cat scratches are enough. Declawing is not the solution.
A Common Concern Among Veterinarians
During our many conversations with our veterinarians over the last several years, a common concern is that if a client insists on having their cat declawed and we decline to perform the surgery, the client might still go elsewhere and a less-than-optimal procedure might be performed at that facility. First, even optimally performed declaw surgeries may still lead to a cat exhibiting negative behaviors later in life. Further, at some point we just need to help lead the change that needs to occur in our profession, helping us move away from performing unnecessary elective procedures. Effective communication with our clients is essential and we know we can successfully redirect most of our clients to other alternatives. We have an opportunity now to be an effective leader in the movement in the United States to join other countries and stop the practice of declawing cats. Let’s make it happen!
THERE ARE MANY HUMANE ALTERNATIVES TO CAT DECLAWING THAT WE ARE HAPPY TO DISCUSS AT VCA.
1. Routine nail trims.
2. Vinyl nail sheaths such as Soft Paws.
3. We can counsel owners about proper and appropriate scratching surfaces. For example, have they offered the cat scratching posts? Are the scratching posts sturdy? Are the scratching posts made of a material that the cat wants to scratch? Are the scratching posts in a prominent area in the household? After all, scratching is a natural feline behavior and the cat is marking territory by scratching. Cats prefer to do that in a high traffic area. Many cats like scratching on corrugated cardboard scratching pads. They are inexpensive and take very little space.
4. Double-sided tape or other barriers can be placed on the corners of sofas in order to deter scratching there.
5. Feliscratch by Feliway (a liquid pheromone that mimics the natural pheromones and marks left by scratching).
6. Petsafe makes a motion detector called SSSCAT that sprays when the cat approaches.
7. Royal Canin Calm diet (contains ingredients that have been shown to reduce anxiety and other behavioral issues in feline companions).
8. Cat behaviorists are available for consultation. Many of them will do an online or phone consultation.
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