Declawing cats an unethical practice, says Truro vet

‘We all have the same nervous system and we all have a very sensitive perception of pain'

Harry Sullivan
Published on August 7, 2014

TRURO - Veterinarian Dr. Gwen Mowbray-Cashen has decided enough is enough when it comes to declawing cats.

After struggling for years with her conscience on the matter, Mowbray-Cashen said the time has come to put her beliefs into practice and rather than simply trying to talk owners out of having the controversial procedure done to their cats, she is taking stronger measures by banning it entirely at the Truro Veterinary Hospital.

"We feel that it's unethical and irresponsible to go on declawing cats," she said. "So rather than being so passive in my approach, we need to speak louder ... and say to the public, this is something we don't do and we aren't going to do anymore, to lend a louder voice to the cause, rather than be as passive about it as we have been. "

When she graduated from vet school in 1985, declawing cats was a basic and standard procedure that was done to "make them good house pets," Mowbray-Cashen said.

"When I was a vet student we were told that animals feel pain but it's not to the same degree as people and if we managed pain too much we might over sedate the animals and we wouldn't know if they were stable in other ways," she said. "So, best to go light on pain management."

Over the nearly three decades since then, however, science has provided more information on how animals perceive pain and those findings are creating a changing mindset for people who care about the welfare of animals, she said.

"And, in fact, humans are animals and we are no different," Mowbray-Cashen said. " We all have the same nervous system and we all have a very sensitive perception of pain."

In order for a declaw to be effective, she said, the end of each toe must actually be amputated or the claw will grow back, usually under the skin which can then lead to infection.

And as with humans who have had a limb or digit amputated, it now has also been documented that animals too experience phantom limb phenomena - or neurological pain.

"We've got a risk of neuropathic pain, not times one amputation, but times 10," she said, for cats that have been entirely declawed.

But cats can't outright express when they are feeling pain so they end up "suffering in silence."

Unacceptable scratching by cats usually occurs because a cat has anxiety issues related to their territory and they feel they need to mark more effectively, Mowbray-Cashen said. For example, an indoor cat may see another one outdoors, but because they can't get to it, they begin to scratch around windows and doors.

"Scratching is a natural behaviour for cats. It's as natural as us wanting to stretch after having a good sleep. It's part of how a cat exercises their toes, it's part of how a cat stretches, it's part of how a cat marks their territory," she said.

"Instead of directing our attention to the nail, I suggest we direct our attention towards the real problem, the source of anxiety. And even better, as kittens, let's train them to scratch on things they are allowed to scratch, so they can express their natural behaviour in an acceptable way within the home."

While some veterinarians may still agree to undertake the procedure, Mowbray-Cashen said when she decided to go public with her stance on the issue she notified some other vet locations of her intentions. And their "thumbs up" response was encouraging, she said.

"In the Truro area the veterinarians are pretty much in agreement that it is a sound approach to take, Mowbray-Cashen said.

For those owners who have already had their cats declawed, the position taken at her clinic is not intended to make them feel guilty, she suggested, but is merely a decision to try to do the correct thing going forward.

"In hindsight I'm thinking that's such a very, very, very small percentage of the animals that we see in the bulk of the practice, that, why am I enabling such a small percentage when it feels ethically uncomfortable for me? So I thought, no, I need to align my ethics with my practice."

Twitter: @tdnharry