The following is a transcript of an interview I did with Jennifer Conrad, DVM, on declawing when I hosted Animal Voices radio on March 16, 2004.
While dated — legislation that we discuss has been expanded, and in 2009, The Paw Project led the successful campaigns to legally ban declawing of domestic cats in 7 more California cities in addition to West Hollywood: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Burbank, Santa Monica, Berkeley, Beverly Hills and Culver City — we still cover important and controversial topics about declawing.
And since then, Dr. Conrad made The Paw Project Movie which can be streamed on Netflix.
Dr. Conrad is truly a hero for cats, big and small, and I hope that you take her information to heart if you are considering declawing a cat, or help to spread her message.
This week on Animal Voices, we speak with Jennifer Conrad, DVM, founder and director of The Paw Project, about feline declawing. Dr. Conrad has been the championing force behind the proposed legislation in California that would ban the declawing of native, wild and exotic cat species. We discuss why domesticated cats were removed from the protection of this bill due to extreme opposition from the California Veterinary Medical Association and why veterinarians in North America continue to advocate this procedure. We will also answer a few common questions like: Is laser surgery a safer method of declawing? What are the complications that can arise from this operation? What are the alternatives? Isn’t declawing a cat and giving her a home better than leaving her at a shelter?
In her former role as head veterinarian at a wildlife sanctuary, Dr. Jennifer Conrad founded The Paw Project, which rehabilitates big cats, such as lions, tigers, cougars, and jaguars, maimed by declawing. Currently, Dr. Conrad’s professional responsibilities are divided between non-profit wildlife sanctuaries for unwanted and abused animals in southern California and her own company, Vet to the (Real) Stars, which provides humane veterinary care to animals appearing in television and movies.
Robert Moore – Joining us now is Dr. Jennifer Conrad, the driving force behind the successful declaw ban in West Hollywood and the proposed legislation in California. Thank you so much for joining us.
Jennifer Conrad – Thanks for having me on the show.
RM – Before we get into declawing, could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and the work you’ve been involved with?
JC – I am a wildlife vet and I like to take care of animals that other people are afraid of. I’ve taken care of things like tarantulas, sometimes whales, but I got interested in declawing when I had about 40 patients at once who were all lame to various degrees from declawing. I’m talking about cougars, lions, bobcats. I researched the subject extensively and figured that there was no way to do it, no way that was going to make them not lame eventually and tried to invent a reparative surgery so at least these animals would have some quality of life again.
RM – And that is how you developed The Paw Project, is that right?
JC – That’s right. What happened is I did the first 8 surgeries on my own out of my own budget and it’s very expensive to repair these animals, because they’re so mutilated, it generally takes about 5–6 hours to repair two paws. That means that it costs about 1500 US dollars to repair two feet and after a while it’s very expensive so I started The Paw Project, a non-profit, so that people could help me by donating money and also I could have a non-profit to approach cities and finally Sacramento and California to make it illegal in this state. Actually, I have to tell you that West Hollywood did more to educate people on what declawing is than all the vets have ever done, I think in the US because the media picked it up and they were horrified to find out that veterinarians were actually amputating toes to declaw them.
RM – Yes, let’s talk about that, and we’ll talk more about the declawing bill a little later on. Could you describe, in detail, what exactly is involved in declawing?
JC – Well in declawing a housecat, usually what they do is either take a nail clipper that they use on dogs and cut the bone instead of just the nail, they cut the bone in half on the cat so it’s about truly a 20 second procedure to declaw a cat, and very often, I think 44% of veterinarians don’t bother to give pain medications when they do that. A cat’s paws are very similar to our hand, the anatomy and they’re chopping the last bone, or half of it off without any pain medication.
RM – But they’re put under anaesthesia aren’t they?
JC – They are under anaesthesia at the time but you can imagine that they’re under for maybe 20 minutes but when they wake up what excruciating pain they must be in. And anyone who knows cats knows that cats very often, to hide pain, they are very quiet and they’ll curl up in a ball in the back of their cage, and most people perceive that as, look, they don’t feel anything, they’re just sleeping. But in reality they’re probably in so much pain. In fact, they did a study where they would test cats’ adrenaline to see how much adrenaline they had as indicative of pain and they absolutely have high high adrenaline in this case.
RM – As if we have to test that anyway.
JC – Exactly.
RM – Declawing is actually a misnomer and I think it gives a benign name to a horrible procedure so we don’t think it’s all that bad like beak trimming. And I think it confuses the public to think it’s an ok procedure because it’s just the claw, but of course it’s not just the claw.
JC – It’s not the claw, it’s actually amputation.
RM – So if it was called “toe amputation” I don’t think many people would be having the procedure done.
JC – Exactly, or toe docking. It’s just the most awful thing to do. And anyone who knows a cat knows that when they knead in the morning, some people call it baking bread, there must be something that they enjoy that we can’t even understand because of how they purr. They look to do these things, they look to scratch. It must be something we can’t understand, it doesn’t mean it’s not valuable to them.
RM – And how are a cat’s claws important to his/her well-being?
JC – Certainly for protection. They also give the cat the ability to get away which is another form of protection. But also they’re for balance. There’s possibly something we can never understand because we don’t have anything analogous in our lives of scratching or kneading that makes us so happy.
RM – And I guess we can consider if our toes were amputated, how would we be to walk around after that procedure. But now that the cat has been declawed, or had his toes amputated, rather, what are the medical and non-medical ramifications of this procedure?
JC – Well it’s very interesting because in the American literature, in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, it says that 50% of cats have a surgical complication in the immediate time after declawing. And 20% will have a long-term surgical complication. The other interesting factor is that 33% of cats will have a behavioural change meaning that they no are longer possibly going to use the litterbox or they’re going to become more aggressive and bite more because they’ve lost their primary defence of their claws. So if you statistically do an analysis on this, it means that a declawed cat is more likely to end up being dropped off at the shelter or the pound.
RM – And that is so interesting because I’ve heard so many people say that they’d rather declaw their cat so he can be more manageable in terms of scratching and socialization rather than drop him off at the shelter.
JC – Exactly and that’s the other thing to consider is that anyone who thinks that declawing is going to make a cat a better pet is clearly not tolerant of what a cat is and they are definitely not going to be tolerant when he stops using the litter box.
RM – I have a friend who had her cat declawed when she was just a kitten and now the cat goes to the bathroom in the middle of the bed and on the couch whereas before, she could’ve either prevented the scratching on the couch or simply repair the couch, but now she has to throw out a whole mattress or even a whole couch.
JC – And the problem is that San Francisco did a study, the SPCA and SF did a study and they found that declawed cats are less adoptable to the tune of something like 35% higher than clawed cats because of their behavioural problems so they’re getting euthanized, these declawed cats. First they get maimed, and then they get euthanized. And it’s not really euthanization because it’s not for the cat’s benefit, they’re getting rid of these cats.
RM – Well, I think we’re opening many people’s eyes today.
JC – Yes, I think so.
RM – But some people say that we neuter and spay these animals against their will, how is declawing any different?
JC – Well, neutering and spaying first of all is therapeutic for an animal, it stops certain cancers. It stops the problem that we have with overpopulation of these animals, which is an unfortunate fact but it is the truth. And it also keeps an animal more likely to stay at home and less likely to roam out looking for a mate.
RM – And I think it’s important to say that the spaying and neutering actually saves lives.
JC – It absolutely does.
RM – It is an operation for sure, but it saves lives, whereas declawing is done for our convenience and to no benefit to the cat and often to their detriment. I’m going to preface this next question by reading this ad from the Adobe Pet Hospital in Dublin, California.
“The Superpulse C02 Surgical Laser offers the safest, least painful method of de- clawing a cat available today. While most veterinarians simply cut off the claw and a portion of the bone to which it is attached with a ‘sterilized’ toenail clipper, at the Adobe Pet Hospital we perform a complete surgical Laser Onychectomy. This means that there can never be any painful re-growth of nail tissue because the entire claw and attached, non weight-bearing, bone are surgically removed. Since the laser seals the blood vessels and nerves the cat quickly returns to normal activity, usually within one to three weeks following surgery. The Laser makes this a virtually bloodless operation!”
So what do you think, Jennifer, about this new laser procedure? Is it a safer method of declawing and does it reduce, at least, the medical side effects?
JC – It’s interesting because there are two articles in the literature about the laser because it’s relatively new that discuss declawing and both of them say that declawing with a laser is actually more painful in the immediate. Laser is actually burning the tissue and if they knick the bone that is going to remain, it’s very painful for these animals. The other article says that by two days, you can’t tell the difference of how a cat was declawed whether it was with a laser or a scalpel. Unfortunately, lasers cost about 45 thousand dollars and they give a veterinarian 45 thousand reasons to recommend declawing.
RM – So if this procedure is so terrible, and it is banned in so many places, which I listed at the top of the show, why is it still legal here?
JC – We’re behind the times. And it’s all about education. I think that what we’re going to do by continuing to tell the public what’s going on, the public is not going to ask for it as much, I’m hoping. And then the veterinarians are going to see that it’s not worth their while to do it. Where I live in Santa Monica, California, there’s a veterinarian who absolutely refuses to do it, a cat and dog veterinarian, and he has by far the busiest practice here because people understand that he is a humane veterinarian.
RM – And people want to support that for sure. How much does declawing cost and how long does the procedure take? I think you said 20 seconds?
JC – Well, if they do it with nail clippers then it’s just a matter of cutting the bones
in half, so however fast the veterinarian can do that. If they do it by surgically removing each of the last bones with a scalpel, it takes longer, maybe 20 minutes. So veterinarians are making a lot of money on this procedure. It’s not very much time. I’ve seen some veterinarians with a coupon for 65 for a declaw, but also in SF, say with a laser, it’s 600.
RM – Wow, so that’s a very profitable business for veterinarians. And it’s not very nice to say about vets that they’re doing this cruel procedure just for money, but is there any other reason why they would be doing this?
JC – Well, I think veterinarians truly believe that it keeps the cat in the home. They haven’t even read their own journals that statistically cite that a cat that is declawed is more likely, because of the behaviour problems, to go to the pound. So, yes, it saves the couch, the sides of the couch from scratching, but as your friend noticed, it doesn’t save the mattress and the rest of the furniture because once they start going to the bathroom outside the box, that’s a bigger problem than scratching, that’s for sure.
RM – What are the alternatives to declawing?
JC – There are so many! In fact, the one that I recommend the most is to ask the people who are frustrated with the scratching is to change the cats scratching habits by giving the cat an appropriate place to scratch. And cats that scratch wood often want to scratch on sizel rope which is a tough rope. And cats that scratch furniture or the soft part of the couch very often want to scratch on something similar like the cardboard, the corrugated cardboard is a great scratch facility for the cat. So the first thing I have to say is find the appropriate scratching post. I don’t know a cat that wouldn’t rather scratch on an appropriate scratching post than the couch. It absolutely works. The other possibility is cut the nails regularly. Or put Softpaws which are little vinyl sheaths over the nails to protect the couch while you’re training the cat to scratch somewhere else. These are all very viable ways of protecting the furniture and keeping the claws.
RM – And easy too, I think.
JC – Very easy and very inexpensive.
RM – I cut my cats’ nails every week, when I had cats, and it was really an easy procedure and if you start them off when they’re young, they’re perfectly open to it and they don’t bite me or scratch me. So I think it’s a lot about socialization and training the cat once you get the cat in the home.
JC – Exactly.
RM – So, at what point did this issue become so important to you? And what I’m really interested in is how was the subject was treated during your veterinary train- ing?
JC – Well, when I was in my veterinary training, there were many people declawing cats and I absolutely wouldn’t do it just because I really believe it is wrong. So I wouldn’t do it. I have never in my life declawed a cat. And I’m very glad because I really do think that my job as a veterinarian is to protect my patients and I never want to do anything that’s bad for them. That’s why it’s so important to me that I stop this from happening to these cats because I’m cleaning up the messes. What veterinarians don’t realize is that they have their cat declawed, and there are problems with it, the people who have the cat are not going back to the same veterinarian, they’re going to go to someone else. And it’s very interesting to talk to veterinarians because they’ll always say, I’ve seen many botched declaws but I’ve never botched one. And the question is well, how do you know because people aren’t going to come back to you. So people are botching these without even knowing it. They don’t get the follow-up, the veterinarians don’t get the follow-up, they don’t know what happens. But I can tell you from my perspective on the outside, I see them so often that we have to stop this. It’s too high, the statistics are too high. We’re really doing a disservice to animals.
RM – Indeed. And Sue, you had a story about an aggressive cat and there was no other option?
Sue Teubner – It was actually my cat and we had actually gone through, it was over the course of a year, and we had gone through Guelph and trying all different new medications out for behavioural problems, and my vet at the time, who was an amazing vet who went through everything with me, and I was basically told the cat was a farm cat so there was probably some inbreeding going on there and he said he was probably schizophrenic. Because he would actually physically change, you could see a change come over his eyes, it was unbelievable. And he would turn around and start attacking. He would attack me and attack the dogs. And finally the concern came because he attacked one of the dogs and he scratched right down beside his eye. And my vet had finally said to me — this was quite a few years ago — either your dogs are going to be blinded, or this is the last option because we’ve exhausted everything else. So it was an extreme case and we went in and I cried, my vet cried, because she was not for declawing but she said it was for the sake of other dogs and the other animals in the house.
RM – And so, Jennifer, what would you suggest in that case?
JC – Well, I understand extreme cases. I understand that people say that there are extreme cases. I just think that if we were to take the analogy of if you had a child that was like that, what would the ramifications be of taking the child to the paediatrician and saying I want to declaw the child? I don’t know exactly what the answer is in that situation. Although I do know, perhaps if he was a farm cat, finding an appropriate farm for him to be on might have been another choice. And I understand it’s a very hard choice, it’s a very hard decision. Did the cat get better? Was he less aggressive after declawing?
ST – Well, he was definitely less aggressive but it did lead to other behavioural problems.
JC – It’s a hard choice.
RM – And I think that what’s important with these other countries that I listed is that most of them have banned them but some only do it under extreme circumstances so if that is the norm, then that would at least eliminate the routine nonchalant way of declawing our cats. And I think, Jennifer, that what’s interesting about the advances in West Hollywood is that the term “pet-owner” has been changed to “pet-guardian”, is that right?
JC – Yes.
RM – And I think that changes our perception of the relationship we have to our animal companions. Do you think that implementing that term, guardian, helps us to understand that our pets have rights as individual beings?
JC – I hope so. I think that’s the intent of the change. I hope people begin to think that just by the term, but I think it has to be more than that. I think that people have to begin to realize these animals are unique and people who love them as a family member already understand that. It’s the people who think of them as property that need to understand that that’s not the case.
RM – I think you mentioned in Switzerland they don’t even have to spay or neuter their pets?
JC – Actually it was many of the Scandinavian countries, they don’t have to spay or neuter because they are so strict with their animal breeding and they control their animals and they don’t have their animals running around on the street.
RM – Well, we’re worlds away from that. But in West Hollywood, the ban is on domesticated cats as well, right?
JC – The ban is on any animal, there’s no declawing or tendonectomizing of any animal.
RM – OK, so let’s talk about Bill AB1857. What is that?
JC – That is a bill that I have in the legislature in Sacramento, California to make it illegal to declaw any cat but a housecat. I didn’t want to compromise on the housecat but there was no way it was going to get through because of the powerful lobbying of the veterinarians if I kept housecat in the bill. So it’s for any cat but a housecat and I’m hoping that because of my extensive research on the subject and because of the number of animals that have to have their feet repaired that it will pass and make a statement in this country that a state as big as California now says that you can’t do this, maybe, eventually, it will make a splash for all of north America.
RM – It’s definitely a step in the right direction. It’s just unfortunate that the California Veterinary Medical Association opposed the inclusion of domesticated cats so much that it had to be altered, but, like you said, if we can just acknowledge that it’s bad for these animals, we should acknowledge that it’s bad for other animals as well. But speaking of large and exotic cats, why are they declawed?
JC – Well, very often, people think, oh look at my little baby tiger, how cute, and how special am I that I have a baby tiger and I’m going to declaw it so it’s a manageable pet. What’s funny about that is yesterday I was up in Sacramento lobbying for AB 1857 and I brought with me 20 articles, which is certainly not the extent of them, but 20 articles of people who were maimed or killed by declawed cats. Because it gives people a false sense of security. And certainly anyone who watches a cat kill something knows that the mouth is absolutely involved.
RM – Indeed. About the big cats, I’d like to tell people about your website, www.pawproject.org, and there they can read all about the important work that you do there. And you’re
a moonlighting artist as well.
JC – Well, I am a moonlighting artist. Sometimes when you work with so much sadness, it’s nice to have a release and I really like to paint.
RM – It’s wonderful, if you go to the website, there’s a section called LaLa cards, and it has Jennifer’s original art and all the sale of the art cards go towards the Paw Project, right?
JC – Absolutely and what I like about LaLa cards is that they’re two-fold in helping these cats. First, 100% of the money that I make from the sale of them goes to repairing the cats. And second, on the back there’s a nice message about declawing so the recipient of the card actually learns something too.
RM – That’s wonderful and people can order through that site, I guess?
JC – Absolutely.
RM – Right, so, you’ve done so much with this bill and with getting declawing banned in North America, this is going to make waves throughout North America for sure, but what can the general public do to stop declawing?
JC – Well, I think the first thing is to make sure it’s on the tip of their tongue whenever they hear someone talk about it that they are going to tell them what they are doing that they are amputating the actual last bone in the cat’s paw. And I think another good approach is to call one’s veterinarian and ask, do you declaw, and if they say, yes, then say, well, I really would appreciate it if you stop it because I think you’re a good veterinarian and I don’t like it that you do an inhumane procedure.
Put pressure on your vet. Also, teach the children. The children are so fun, they’re militant and they are adamant about these things and when they learn what it is, they come up with the most insightful ideas about it. In fact, I have a painting by a 13 year old kid right in front of me that says please don’t declaw me, I’m desperate, I need my claws to protect myself. And when they learn that, they might not know as adults how they learned it but I believe that they will remember that.
RM – That is wonderful. And I just want to repeat that that I think it’s so powerful if we just call our local veterinarians and ask them if they declaw and tell them that we’ll stop supporting them if they do. I just think that’s really powerful, that kind of grassroots movement so I wanted to repeat that for everyone. Jennifer, we are out of time. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.
JC – It’s a pleasure.
RM – And good luck with defending Bill AB 1857.
JC – Well, I’ll let you know how it goes.
RM – Please, let’s stay in touch. Thank you. Any last words Sue?
ST – It’s just funny the way she was talking about vets and how they view it and what not because I worked with a lady whose husband was a vet and we had gotten into an argument over declawing one day and she said, we always did it and never had a problem because it actually made for better pets and the cats were more cuddly. And I just looked at her and thought, there’s all this data out there that shows that it doesn’t do that, why are you being so blind to it? And looking back now, I guess it’s because they were making money on it.
RM – And that’s the million dollar question isn’t it?
ST – When you look at everything dealing with animal rights stuff and animal welfare issues, it all comes down to economics and who has the most bucks and the most pull, unfortunately. It would be nice if we could all just live a little more compassionately.
RM – Indeed. Well, I’d like to thank Keri for teching today, we’re going to listen to some ads now. In closing I want to say that I think it’s a shame that we have to point to the negative side effects of declawing to convince people that it should be banned. Regardless of any side effects, we are amputating an animal’s bones for our own convenience. We are amputating an animal’s bones. I know that it says much about North American society that we can so easily do this, much like trimming a houseplant, and that this is a symptom of a much greater problem, but giving cats back their paws can only help us evolve past the notion that they are merely objects and finally put us on the road to stamping out this and other systematic forms of cruelty on our animal companions. You’ve been listening to Animal Voices on CIUT, 89.5 FM, www.ciut.fm. We appreciate your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.