Although declawing is becoming an increasingly divisive issue among vets, basic instruction in the surgery is still taught at all but two of the country's 28 veterinary schools. Tim Hackett, a professor at Colorado State University and interim director of CSU's veterinary teaching hospital, says the university offers the "least traumatic" surgical methods. "We respect that people have ethical concerns about this," he says, "but it's a procedure that is somewhat in demand, and a practitioner should be exposed to the proper surgical technique and medications. I'd hate to have them learning it on the fly."

Randa MacMillan, the current president of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, stopped offering declawing in her own practice many years ago. But she suspects that the procedure is still "moderately common" among her membership and that the campaign to ban it will be a contentious one. She notes that an attempt last year to enact a ban on docking the tails of dairy cows — a surgery that makes things easier for the dairy industry but robs the animal of its only way to ward off flies — failed miserably.

"It's very hard to tell another vet how to practice," MacMillan says. "There are people who still routinely declaw, and these are the same ones who will really scream if somebody tries to tell them how to practice medicine."

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.

Vets who do offer feline onychectomy say the current procedure, if properly done, has little in common with the butchery of big cats depicted in Conrad's film. Sara Mark, owner of the Southwest Veterinary Hospital in Littleton, Colorado, attended a screening of The Paw Project at Lavizzo's office a few weeks ago and left unpersuaded by the claims about long-term complications and behavior problems. "People involved in the rescues see the bad cases," she says. "In thirty years of practice, I have had no cats that regrew portions of nail. I had one that ended up with some neuritis that we were able to remedy."

Southwest Hospital recently came under fire on an antideclawing website for offering free declaws as part of a clinical trial for pain medication. Mark says the clients who participated in the study weren't encouraged by her team to declaw and were required to sign lengthy release forms disclosing the details of the surgery. She, too, stresses alternatives to declawing when clients ask about it: "If you don't want property damage in your house, don't have an animal," she says. But she also believes the surgery is justified in certain cases; she's had three immune-compromised clients seeking organ transplants who were told they'd be taken off the transplant list if they didn't have their cats declawed. And there's the prospect of a sofa-shredding cat losing its home.

"If it comes down to yet another cat that's going to live its life in a shelter or get euthanized," Mark says, "or doing a front declaw to let that cat live — I cannot in good conscience say, 'Yes, being dead is better than losing your claws.'"

But declawed cats end up in shelters, too. They may be more likely to end up there in later years, as arthritis and elimination problems surface, than cats that still have their claws. One study found that declawed cats are nearly twice as likely to be surrendered to shelters as their intact brethren. Because cats with behavior problems are much less likely to be deemed adoptable, their euthanization rate may be higher, too.

Yet the percentage of declawed cats found among shelter populations seems to vary widely. Scott of the Cat Care Society reports that her shelter currently has sixty cats awaiting adoption. Ten are declawed cats. Most of them were returned eight or more years after they were first adopted. Six of them were returned specifically because of failure to use the litter box.

Not all declawed cats have inappropriate elimination issues, of course. Hofve suggests that owners who insist on declawed pets can find suitable ones in shelters. And with better, less costly antiscratching options widely available, from furniture covers to consults with animal behaviorists, Hofve doesn't see any ethical rationale for the surgery.

"Maybe declawing does save some lives," she says. "But for others, it's a death sentence. It shouldn't be a choice between declawing and getting rid of the cat in the first place. It's a choice between declawing and many alternatives."

Conrad has a 2011 letter from Governor John Hickenlooper to a constituent that features a handwritten postscript: "We would never declaw a cat (and my wife Helen has had several)." She hopes other Colorado citizens feel the same way.

"Addressing a behavior problem with surgery in human medicine went out with lobotomy," she says. "This can be addressed with behavior modification, not surgery."

For animal lovers, the United States' practice of declawing cats can be a grim and depressing topic, but Conrad's documentary isn't as bleak as it sounds. "I didn't want to make an animal film where you walk out and you want to kill yourself," she says.

The Paw Project ends on an inspirational note, urging viewers to get involved in banning the surgery, just as Conrad and her supporters successfully got it banned in several California cities. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that the Goliath who shows up in the film to try to squelch Conrad's grassroots rebellion is the California Veterinary Medical Association. After Conrad persuades city officials in West Hollywood to pass the first declawing ban of its kind in North America — Councilman John Duran is described as "mortified" after learning more about the surgery, which he'd had done on his own cat — the CVMA sues in an effort to overturn the ban.

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