Maryland recently became the second state to enact legislation that prohibits the declawing of cats. The first to do so was New York, in 2019, and a handful of municipalities have done the same over the last several years. That declawing (the amputation of the last bone of each toe) is cruel, ineffectual and counterproductive is clear. As an animal welfare issue, however, declawing is an interesting case study that involves changing social attitudes toward cats, reflections on the regulation of veterinary medicine and the evolution of a companion animal public policy agenda in the states.
While many legislators used to shy away from introducing legislation related to cats, times have changed. In 2022, bills to end declawing were introduced in one-quarter of our state legislatures. That’s as it should be, but the bid to end declawing has triggered opposition from a few quarters. In Missouri, for example, at a recent committee hearing in the legislature, pet breeders, people who raise cattle, and others expressed support for a bill designed to prevent declawing bans, like the one passed by the St. Louis County Board of Aldermen that went into effect last year.
The Missouri measure is dead, but some of the testimony took the “slippery slope” approach to politics. This classic logical fallacy insists that society should reject a certain action simply because someone insists—without evidence—that it will begin a chain reaction, resulting in an undesirable end. This convoluted reasoning has been playing out in Missouri just like most other states. We’ve seen far-fetched claims that prohibiting declawing could lead to the end of dog breeding, the dissolution of animal agriculture and the “destruction of the American way of life.”
As we’ve seen in many states where legislatures or committees seek to overturn animal protection-related decisions of duly elected local bodies, opponents use the accusation of “overreach” as a justification for their own overreaching conduct. In the legislative context, especially, this approach smacks of political influence, evasion and insincerity. Among other defects, it fails to acknowledge that society can distinguish between the morality or prudence of one proposal or another. The debate over declawing, for example, is not a debate about whether and how to treat avian flu, nor is it a debate about agricultural practices, pet stores or puppy mills. Yet these are arguments opponents present.
Moreover, the campaign to end declawing is not an attempt to tell veterinarians what to do, to impinge on their rights as practitioners or to regulate their professional conduct. It is a call to veterinarians, one already embraced by many of them in the United States and across the world, to abandon a non-therapeutic procedure—once commonly performed—that is now recognized as inherently cruel by a large portion of the general public.
Within the American Veterinary Medical Association, for a long time, the debate on declawing cats pitted those who disapproved of the practice against those who contended that a non-declawed cat is more likely to be abandoned to a shelter by an owner with no tolerance for scratching/marking behaviors. However, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Feline Practitioners, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and The Paw Project have opposed declawing while noting the absence of proof for this claim. The British Columbia SPCA recently collaborated with external researchers to conduct one of the only studies on the subject and found no evidence that declawing protects cats from relinquishment, abandonment or euthanasia.
Those who defend declawing are also losing the argument that it is common in many places. The truth is that in many countries it is not common at all, because those nations have banned it. Across continental Europe, for example, the procedure is forbidden by the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. It is also illegal or discouraged in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Israel.
Over the last half-century, cats have become the most popular pets in the United States, loved, celebrated and pampered by tens of millions of Americans. It is natural that those who love cats would want to see stronger protection for them in our laws, especially at the state and local levels. It's also reasonable that we adopt public policy approaches to spare cats from having to undergo a non-therapeutic procedure that causes pain and carries with it substantial and enduring negative consequences. As cherished companions, they deserve the strongest consideration in our laws. We’ll do our best to see that they get it.