New York Bans Cat Declawing

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Some pet owners see declawing as a solution to keeping cats from destroying furniture, but there are other ways to solve this problem. hannadarzy/Shutterstock

New York is the first state in the U.S. to ban cat declawing. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill Monday that bans the controversial practice.

"By banning this archaic practice, we will ensure that animals are no longer subjected to these inhumane and unnecessary procedures," Cuomo said in a statement.

The bill, which was passed by lawmakers in June, will take effect immediately. It will subject veterinarians to a $1,000 fine for performing the procedure, unless it's for medical reasons, such as infection or injury.

"Cat declawing is a horrific, yet often practiced surgery that leads to a lifetime of pain and discomfort for thousands of cats," Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan, who sponsored the bill, told NPR.

The New York State Veterinary Medical Society opposed the bill, arguing that declawing should be allowed in some situations. For example, there are elderly owners or people with weakened immune systems who risk serious injury from a scratch and they say many people give up their cats to shelters because of damage to furniture or people in the home, they say.

People who have their cats declawed most often do it to protect furniture and keep the pet from scratching family members. However, many animal rights organizations oppose the practice, saying it's painful and creates health risks, including bleeding and potential for infection. Some groups liken the surgery to cutting off the first knuckle of every finger.

Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, called the New York bill's passage "a watershed moment" in a statement to NPR.

"We hope other states will follow suit by prohibiting this unnecessary convenience surgery," Block said.

Denver leads the way

In 2017, Denver became the first U.S. city outside California to ban the practice of declawing cats. The Denver City Council unanimously approved an ordinance in mid-November that allows the procedure only when medically necessary, according to the The Denver Post.

An hour-long public hearing the week before the vote brought out many emotional appeals, with most pleading against declawing.

"Having run anesthesia on declaw procedures, I can tell you it is an awkward and disheartening feeling to keep something alive while it is mutilated in front of you," said Kirsten Butler, a veterinary technician in Denver, according to the Post.

But the bill faced opposition from some cat owners, as well as the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, which said the decision to declaw should be between owners and vets.

Declawing: An ongoing debate

cat scratching elderly man
People often have their cats declawed to keep them from scratching family members or furniture. Budimir Jevtic/Shutterstock

Declawing bans have made headlines throughout the country as more cities and states have introduced legislation banning the practice.

A legislative committee in New Jersey approved a bill in November 2016 that would add onychetomy — that's the medical term for the procedure — to a list of animal cruelty offenses, reports The bill passed the state assembly in January, and passed a Senate committee in June, but to become law, it must pass a vote in the New Jersey Senate.

People who request the procedure or veterinarians who perform them could face a fine of up to $1,000 or six months in jail. Violators would also face a civil penalty ranging from $500 to $2,000, according to the bill (PDF).

The bill also bans flexor tendonectomy, a procedure in which the cat keeps its claws, but the tendons to the toes are severed. An exception to the law would allow declawing for medical reasons.

"Declawing is a barbaric practice that more often than not is done for the sake of convenience rather than necessity," said bill sponsor Assemblyman Troy Singleton (who was elected to the New Jersey state Senate in November, 2017) in a statement after the hearing. "Many countries worldwide acknowledge the inhumane nature of declawing, which causes extreme pain to cats. It's time for New Jersey to join them."

There are also pending declawing bills in Rhode Island and West Virginia. They would all ban the procedure except when deemed medically necessary.

Are these bills the right answer?

Members of the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association issued a statement opposing the proposed declawing ban, saying they believed it would lead to the increased euthanasia of unwanted cats.

"We're the professionals who care for cats and care for the people who love their cats," said NJVMA member, veterinarian Dr. Mike Yurkus. "We're not pro declawing, but we are anti-euthanasia. We want to see cats in loving households and not euthanized or relinquished to shelters where they are 72 percent more likely to be euthanized. We simply ask that you leave the declawing decision to doctors in consultation with their clients."

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has an official position on declawing:

The ASPCA is strongly opposed to declawing cats for the convenience of their owners or to prevent damage to household property. The only circumstances in which the procedure should be considered are those in which all behavioral and environmental alternatives have been fully explored, have proven to be ineffective, and the cat is at grave risk of euthanasia.

But the ASPCA is not in favor of anti-declawing legislation:

Legislation to make declawing illegal, while well-intentioned, can be problematic, because, in rare cases, the procedure may be justifiable as a last resort to prevent euthanasia. There is also no meaningful way to enforce a law that includes this exception.

Instead, the group believes it's the responsibility of veterinarians to inform their clients about nonsurgical methods to deal with clawing-related issues and explain the pain and complications that can accompany declawing surgery, even if performed as a last resort to prevent euthanizing a cat with problem behaviors.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) suggests that vets should declaw cats only when less severe options such as behavioral modification don't work or if scratching could pose a risk to family members with poor immune systems. About 70 percent of vets in the U.S. and Canada perform the procedure.

"The AVMA policy opposes declawing except where it serves to keep a cat in its home," AVMA spokesperson Michael San Filippo told CBS News. "An estimated 70 percent of cats relinquished to animal shelters are euthanized, so the likelihood of a homeless cat finding a new home is poor."

So far, there are no states that completely ban declawing. Other than Denver, according to the Paw Project, declawing is banned in eight California cities: West Hollywood, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Burbank, Santa Monica, Berkeley, Beverly Hills and Culver City.