When Conrad began looking into the scientific literature on the impacts of declawing, she found it to be surprisingly thin. There was hardly anything in the way of a long-range study tracking the welfare of declawed cats. "On a procedure that's done on 25 percent or more of American cats, there are fewer than 30 articles about the surgery," she says. "I later came to think that people don't want to know the truth about it."

Proponents of declawing claim that what research has been done supports the practice — and they cite the supposed absence of studies reporting negative effects as another point in their favor. For example, the AVMA policy on declawing states, rather cagily, that "there is no scientific evidence that declawing leads to behavioral abnormalities when the behavior of declawed cats is compared with that of cats in control groups."

Hofve, the holistic vet who's working with Lavizzo on a statewide ban, views that statement as misleading on several levels. A short-term comparison with a control group is a lot less useful, she argues, than a detailed, long-range analysis of an individual cat's behavior before and after surgery. And one 2001 peer-reviewed study, the only one involving a five-year followup period, found that 33 percent of the cats in the study group developed serious behavior problems after being declawed. Another study found that "inappropriate elimination" is twice as likely in declawed cats as in those that hadn't had the surgery; apparently, using the litter box can further irritate sore paws. (Biting, a separate but often related behavior problem, tends to increase in declawed cats because of the loss of their primary means of defense.)

Dr. Jennifer Conrad explains the difficulty of reconstructive surgery in a scene from The Paw Project.
Photo courtesy of THE PAW PROJECT MOVIE
Dr. Jennifer Conrad explains the difficulty of reconstructive surgery in a scene from The Paw Project.

"There's plenty of data," Hofve insists. "But the vet associations don't want anyone telling them what to do. Who's going to fund a long-term study of something they don't want to find out?"

Hofve points to other studies and surveys that challenge the American veterinary establishment's position on declawing. The AVMA policy indicates that the surgery should only be considered as a kind of last resort, but the available research suggests that 70 percent or more of declawings are done before the cat is a year old — hardly a sign that the owners have exhausted all other approaches to the scratching problem. (Promotional videos used in Conrad's documentary capture vets urging clients to have the procedure done on kittens.) And surveys reveal that the vast majority of pet owners who are considering declawing will change their minds when given facts about the nature of the surgery, the potential complications and nonsurgical alternatives.

Those results, Hofve says, indicate her colleagues are doing a piss-poor job of educating their clients about basic expectations and obligations involved in having a cat as a pet. "Veterinarians aren't telling people that when you get a cat, you're supposed to get a scratching post," she says. "As of 2012, 48 percent of cat owners still didn't know that. We've also failed to educate people about what declawing really is."

During her first five years in practice, Hofve did her share of declaws. Then, like Lavizzo, she stopped. "I was never any good at it because I hated it so much," she says.

Even after she gave up performing the procedure, she continued to see cats that had been declawed elsewhere and were suffering complications — in some cases, many years after the surgery. She saw a ten-year-old cat that had been declawed as a kitten and was experiencing painful nail regrowth from bone fragments that had been left behind, similar to the nuggets removed from under Drifter's skin in Conrad's surgery. If one in three cats that are declawed are manifesting obvious behavior problems, such as biting and shitting outside the box, Hofve believes the percentage of those experiencing complications of one kind or another is much, much higher; we just don't know about them because of the highly stoic nature of the species. No one knows, for example, to what extent cats may experience the kind of "phantom limb" pain associated with human amputations.

There's a good reason, Lavizzo adds, that nobody is declawing dogs: "When we see pain in dogs, we react to it. Cats are different; they don't show pain like dogs do. They go off and hide, and we just think they're being independent. We don't have the same kind of reaction to a cat's pain because we don't really know what's going on with the cat."

James Gaynor, a Colorado Springs veterinarian who specializes in pain management, has done extensive research on the chronic pain symptoms exhibited by some declawed cats. He says that veterinarians need to make sure owners understand that declawing isn't simply nail trimming, but a "ten-toe amputation."

"It's a simple but major orthopedic procedure," he says. "I am not against declawing whatsoever. I believe that if the anesthesia and pain management are handled correctly, it's no different from any other surgery that we perform."

Gaynor advocates an aggressive treatment approach, involving numerous drugs administered over several days, to greatly reduce the risk that a cat will experience chronic pain from the surgery. With the development of more cat-specific painkillers, he believes that most vets are doing a better job of postoperative care — though some still balk at the additional time and expense involved in the protocol he advocates. He recalls visiting a "big practice" back east where the vets "did almost nothing for pain management. They were basically torturing the cat. This shouldn't be some cut-rate procedure."

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