The Paw Project tracks Conrad's quest to persuade officials in nine California cities, from West Hollywood to San Francisco, to support a municipal ban on declawing. The film premiered last week in Denver, and it's scheduled for a St. Louis release later this year. Several Colorado vets and cat-rescue workers are featured in the film, and they're hoping to use the screening as the kickoff for an even more ambitious campaign, a push to pass legislation next year that would create a ban on declawing across Colorado — the first statewide ban anywhere in the country.

"We want to ban it because it is fundamentally cruel," says retired vet Jean Hofve, coauthor of The Complete Guide to Holistic Cat Care. "It's a radical surgery to correct a behavior problem that's not hard to fix by other means. No other civilized country does it except Canada, and even Canada is getting close to banning it."

Perhaps because declawing has become a deeply divisive issue among practitioners, the American Veterinary Medical Association and many state vet organizations have tried to sound studiously neutral on the subject. The AVMA policy on declawing acknowledges that the surgery "is not a medically necessary procedure for the cat in most cases" and urges that it be considered only if less drastic alternatives to correct behavior problems fail — and only after owners are provided "complete education with regard to feline onychectomy." But the vets, techs, shelter workers and activists gearing up to get the surgery banned in Colorado say their own education in what the procedure entails has already come at too high a price.

Dr. Aubrey Lavizzo is one of the veterinarians leading the campaign 
to ban declawing on Colorado.
Phillip Poston
Dr. Aubrey Lavizzo is one of the veterinarians leading the campaign to ban declawing on Colorado.

"We strongly, strongly, strongly counsel against declawing," says Suellen Scott, director of development for the Cat Care Society in Lakewood, Colorado. Like many feline shelters, CCS has had cats that were adopted years earlier returned because of behavior problems after being declawed.

"Personally, I can't wait until it's illegal," Scott says. "That will be a wonderful day."

Thirty years ago, when a new partner in his veterinary practice began declawing cats, Aubrey Lavizzo didn't consider the procedure all that remarkable. The partner had learned the technique at Colorado State University; Lavizzo, who'd studied at Tuskegee University in the 1960s when declawing was a lot less common, soon picked up the basics and began doing a few himself.

The partnership ended after several years. Lavizzo continued to declaw when pet owners asked for it, albeit with growing qualms. "We didn't have good anesthetics," he recalls. "Bleeding and postoperative pain were huge issues. We thought we were doing some good; we talked about how, if we didn't do it, these cats would lose their homes. But I started seeing more and more problems."

He saw post-op abscesses and cats gnawing their own paws. He saw blood-sprayed cages when the bandages weren't tight enough and sloughed-off flesh when they were too tight. Worst of all, he saw cats in severe pain days or weeks after the surgery. He began to doubt the wisdom of performing amputations to correct what was normal feline behavior — especially when there were less gruesome alternatives, from scratching posts to nail caps to weekly trims, available to even the laziest pet owner. After one particularly upsetting case, he decided he would never do another one.

"I finally just asked myself, 'Why am I hurting cats?'" he remembers. "There's no moral way to justify it. It's a violation of the oath we took."

Lavizzo stopped doing declaws in the 1990s, becoming one of the first vets in Colorado to denounce the procedure. "I had some good clients who begged me to do it, and I told them I couldn't, and I wouldn't refer them to anyone else," he says. "There's no right way to do an unnecessary surgery and somehow guarantee that there won't be complications."

Far from hurting his practice, Lavizzo's stance brought in new customers who were pleased that he didn't offer declawing. (Point of disclosure: Although I'm petless at present and was unaware of his declawing policy until recently, cats and dogs in my household were treated by Lavizzo for years.) He believes his position also attracted a stronger pool of job applicants, including assistants and technicians who prefer to work in a place that doesn't declaw. In 2011 the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association named him Veterinarian of the Year. He's now the state director of Conrad's nonprofit, the Paw Project, and is leading the campaign to ban declawing in Colorado.

In surveys, pet owners tend to express a high degree of satisfaction with the immediate results of declawing. Lavizzo acknowledges that some cats seem to recover from the surgery comparatively well — at least in the short term. But he has also seen a mounting pile of distressing posts on veterinarian discussion boards about declawing problems: practitioners seeking guidance when confronted with a wide array of complications, reports of nail regrowth occurring years after the surgery, confusion and conflicting advice about the best way to perform the operation and manage the pain, and so on.

"Some cats do fine," he says. "But who has the right to decide it's OK for some but not others? We don't know which cats will have complications. To me, one is too much."

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