[Editorial] Time to stop declawing, ear-cropping, & tail-docking
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2009:
Declawing cats and ear-cropping and tail-docking dogs have in
common that they are frequently performed surgical mutilations,
lucrative for veterinarians who are willing to do them, which convey
no benefit whatever to the animals.
The exception is when cats and dogs fall into the hands of
humans who may mistreat them further if the animals fail to conform
to the humans’ sense of aesthetics.
Then, in theory, the cat whose paws have been cut at the
bone equivalent to the first knuckle of the human hand will be less
likely to be dumped at a shelter for scratching furniture. The dog
whose ears are disfigured and whose tail no longer visibly wags a
greeting will somehow become a more desirable pet.
Indeed, some people will not keep cats who scratch
furniture, and no amount of alternative scratching opportunities or
behavioral intervention will reform certain cats, though others
never scratch furniture at all. Some people insist that a dog of
their favored breed is not really of that breed, despite any amount
of genetic evidence, if the dog has not been reconfigured to have
ears and tails resembling the breed standard.
But pervasive as the belief remains among humane workers that
clawing furniture contributes significantly to cat surrenders at
shelters, there has never been much data supporting it. More than a
decade ago the National Council on Pet Population Study funded
University of Tennessee researcher John New to coordinate the largest
study ever undertaken of reasons for cat and dog surrenders to animal
shelters. Scratching furniture did not factor in even 1% of cat
surrenders, except as a possible reason for some landlords not
However, inappropriate elimination was among the top 10
reasons why cats were left at shelters. Declawing is a
long-recognized factor in cats refusing to use litter boxes, since
digging in litter can irritate a declawed cat’s stumps. No reason
associated with canine appearance or breed standards was cited at all
as a reason for dog surrenders. Biting, often associated with
humans misreading dogs’ intentions, was among the top 10.
The original idea behind tail-docking was to keep fighting
dogs from signaling intent to avoid a fight. The first practitioners
of tail-docking appear to have been Elizabethan-era dogfighters,
who also introduced ear-cropping to avoid having their dogs lose
fights due to ear bleeding. Cropping and docking spread from
fighting dogs to other breeds through emulation of the “dog fancy,”
which now means exhibitors of show dogs, but as recently as the
early 20th century was a term used by The New York Times and other
major newspapers almost exclusively in reference to betting on
Ironically, dogfighters largely abandoned ear-cropping and
tail-docking by the mid-20th century, to avoid being conspicuous,
after dogfighting was outlawed in most of the U.S.
Dogfighters preparing cats and kittens for use as live bait
in training dogs meanwhile became the first practitioners of
onychectomy, as the most common declawing operation is formally
called. Veterinarians later refined, commercialized, and
popularized the procedure.
Helen Keller, though deaf and blind, recognized the cruelty
inherent in ear-cropping and tail-docking more than 100 years ago,
and backed legislative efforts to ban both procedures. Almost
certainly she would have opposed declawing too, had she known about
it. As it was not common among pet keepers of her time,
anti-declawing activism did not begin for another three generations.
Anti-ear-cropping and tail-docking bills won legislative
approval in various states as early as 1913, only to be vetoed by
governors under pressure from the “dog fancy.”
Pennsylvania finally enacted an anti-ear-cropping bill that
received gubernatorial approval in 1933. The Western Pennsylvania
Humane Society won the first conviction under the new law just two
months later. The law was later repealed due to veterinary
opposition, but the repeal may have been most profitably exploited
by puppy millers who did their own knife work. Representatives of
the humane community on August 28, 2009 applauded as Pennsylvania
Governor Ed Rendell signed into effect a new law which allows only
licensed veterinarians to perform ear-cropping, and allows puppy
millers to dock the tails of puppies only within five days of birth
and then only under veterinary supervision.
Though this represents substantial improvement from the
status quo of the past half century, it is still well short of
regaining the reach of the law passed in 1933.
But the attitudes of the majority of small animal
veterinarians have changed. Even though there is still big money in
ear-cropping and tail-docking, vets have been distancing themselves
from both procedures for nearly 20 years.
The first big break from tradition came when British Royal
College of Veterinary Surgeons in November 1992 asked Parliament to
ban tail-docking; Parliament complied in 2007. In November 2008 the
American Veterinary Medical Association executive board adopted a
resolution stating that the AVMA “opposes ear cropping and tail
docking of dogs,” when done for cosmetic reasons. The AVMA asked
breed fanciers “to remove mention of the procedures from their
standards.” The American Animal Hospital Association and the
Canadian Veterinary Association had already adopted similar
resolutions, as had the AVMA House of Delegates in 1999.
Governor Rendell endorsed the new Pennsylvania bill two weeks
after Banfield pet hospital vice president for medical quality
advancement Karen Faunt announced that the 730 Banfield locations and
2,000 Banfield veterinarians will no longer crop ears, dock tails,
or debark dogs. Debarking, another common surgical mutilation,
reduces the ability of dogs to signal intent, and is believed to
increase the risk that dogs may bite.
“After thoughtful consideration and reviewing medical
research, we have determined it is in the best interest of the pets
we treat, as well as the overall practice, to discontinue
performing these unnecessary cosmetic procedures,” Faunt told
Elizabeth Weise of USA Today.
Banfield recommends against declawing, but continues to
perform declaw surgery if a cat keeper insists that it must be done.
Opposition to declawing–at least at the national
level–began in the U.S. when Friends of Animals founder Alice
Herrington in the early years of the organization introduced a policy
of refusing to honor coupons for discounted sterilization if
declawing was done at the same time. FoA president Priscilla Feral
in the November 1993 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE defended the policy
against a pro-declawing vet. Individual animal advocates who wrote
in response to the debate favored Feral; shelter representatives
favored the vet.
About 25 nations have reportedly banned declawing since then,
including the United Kingdom, but the most of the humane community
continues to accept declawing, albeit with misgivings, in hopes
that it might reduce the volume of cats coming into shelters.
The most prominent legislative response to declawing in the
entire U.S. remains an anti-declawing ordinance adopted by West
Hollywood, California, in 2003. Former California state assembly
member Paul Koretz of West Hollywood introduced a bill to ban
declawing statewide, but it was amended to cover only exotic and
wild cat species before winning passage in 2004. The San Francisco
Board of Supervisors passed a non-binding anti-declawing resolution
in 2003, and filed a brief in support of West Hollywood after the
California Veterinary Association sought to overturn the West
Hollywood ordinance in court.
The California State Court of Appeals ruled in June 2007 that
cities have the right under current California state law to ban
declawing. Opponents of declawing anticipated that the verdict would
encourage other cities to pass anti-declawing ordinances. Such an
ordinance was passed in Norfolk, Virginia, two months before the
California appellate ruling. In July 2007 the U.S. House of
Representatives directed the federal Department of Housing and Urban
Development Department to quit telling applicants for subsidized
housing that they had to have their cats declawed. As the Humane
Society of the U.S. pointed out at the time, “HUD rules require no
such thing, but some agency authorities took it upon themselves.”
Weak response & what comes of it
Momentum against declawing appeared to be building. But in
California, instead of pursuing anti-declawing ordinances, most of
the humane community stood aside while the CVMA and other
organizations of health care professionals pushed to passage a bill
called the “Licensing Freedom Act.” This bill, according to the
official summary, “Makes it unlawful for a city, county, or city
and county to prohibit a licensed healing arts professional from
engaging in any act or performing any procedure that falls within the
licensee’s professionally recognized scope of practice.”
Somewhat surprisingly the “Licensing Freedom Act” appears to
have eluded the attention of abortion opponents. Indeed, though
written to apply to every “healing art” with practitioners licensed
by the California Department of Consumer Affairs, the act appears to
have been regarded by just about everyone–if noticed at all–as
nothing more than a bill to ensure that veterinarians are allowed to
continue declawing, ear-cropping, and tail-docking.
The “Licensing Freedom Act” does not repeal the West
Hollywood ordinance, nor will it repeal any other anti-declawing
ordinance that wins passage before the end of 2009, but it does
preclude the passage of any similar ordinances anywhere else in
There is obviously a case to be made for statewide uniformity
in health care regulation. Yet there is also a case to be made for
allowing communities to exercise their collective conscience in
banning cruelty, when state laws fail to address the matter at hand,
and for testing legislative approaches at the local level before
introducing them at the state or even federal level, if a federal
jurisdiction is involved.
The San Francisco Animal Welfare Commission is now trying to
pass an anti-declawing ordinance before the window of opportunity
closes at the end of this year. “In this pet-crazy town, it sounds
like a no-brainer,” observed San Francisco Chronicle staff writer
Marisa Lagos on September 6, 2009. “But the ban is opposed by the
San Francisco SPCA.”
“The SF/SPCA is opposed to declawing,” president Jan
McHugh-Smith told Lagos, “but we are concerned about the option
being taken away. The guardian could potentially give up the pet,
and the pet could end up in a shelter and be euthanized.”
Apart from the lack of empirical evidence that this happens
with any but anecdotal frequency, this is the same argument that
several of the leading dog charities in Britain used for not
supporting the Hunting Act in 2004: dogs might be surrendered to
shelters and killed if not allowed to be used in blood sports.
The hidden issue may be donor relations. Some high donors to
British dog charities ride to hounds. Some high donors to U.S.
humane societies may declaw cats.
The consequence of not taking a strong stance against
cruelty, lest it put some animals at risk of abandonment, is by now
clearly evident in Britain. Introduced to prohibit pack hunting,
the Hunting Act was weakened with exemptions, has been poorly
enforced, and is now threatened with repeal by lawmakers who see
little political risk in undoing it.
In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger promptly
signed the 2004 bill that prohibited declawing wild and exotic cats.
Schwarzenegger has had a good record on other animal issues. But in
July 2009, within days of signing the “Licensing Freedom Act,”
Schwarzenegger repeatedly ridiculed a bill by California Senate
majority leader Dean Florez to ban cutting off cows’ tails.
Schwarzenegger even posted a video about it to YouTube.
Practiced by some farmers to keep cows from flipping flecks
of manure around milking parlors, “docking cows’ tails is already
outlawed in many parts of Europe,” explained Lindsay Barnett of the
Los Angeles Times, “including the U.K. and the Netherlands, and is
opposed by the AVMA. It is already illegal in California to dock
horses’ tails. The new bill would tack on the words ‘and cattle’ to
language of the existing law.”
Despite Schwarzenegger’s ridicule, the bill against docking
cows’ tails won overwhelming approval from both houses of the
California legislature, and is awaiting his signature–or veto.
If endorsed, the new law will be a valuable precedent against
mutilating animals in ways which, unlike sterilization surgery,
convey no direct benefit to them.