National veterinary clinic chain stops declawing cats, calls procedure 'inhumane'

A national chain of veterinary clinics is scratching a long-standing surgical procedure often derided as cruel and inhumane — declawing cats.

VCA Canada's move takes big swipe at controversial practice still allowed in most provinces

Danny Joffe, a medical director at VCA Canada, says veterinarians long believed they could declaw cats without causing them pain, but evidence shows they were wrong. (Reid Southwick)

A national chain of veterinary clinics is scratching a long-standing surgical procedure often derided as cruel and inhumane — declawing cats.

The move by VCA Canada — which runs 93 clinics in B.C, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec — has taken a major swipe at a controversial practice that is still permitted in most provinces.

B.C. and Nova Scotia have imposed bans on declawing, which involves amputating part of each of a cat's digits, typically as a convenience for owners worried about ruined furniture.

After VCA's move, Alberta will take a closer look at a similar ban.

Not only 'wrong,' but 'inhumane'

"Declaws have become quite a common thing and, in fact, people think of them as just a common procedure. And my veterinary generation created that problem," said Danny Joffe, a medical director for VCA Canada who works at a Calgary clinic.

"We got very proficient at doing the procedure, especially as better pain medications and anesthetic protocols came along. We thought we could do it safely and fairly painlessly.

"What we've learned is that, not only is that wrong, it's inhumane."

VCA's vets will still amputate claws when it's medically necessary to do so, such as removing a cancerous tumour, but not to make life easier for pet owners with leather couches.

Declawing linked to unwanted behaviour

Joffe pointed to a study published a year ago by the peer-reviewed Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, which compared the health of declawed cats against the well-being of felines that didn't have the procedure.

It found declawed cats had greater odds of developing back pain, becoming aggressive and refusing to use the litter box. The study's authors said they hadn't determined the reasons for these changes, but speculated they are linked to persistent pain and discomfort cats feel long after the surgery.

Declawing cats has already been banned in the U.K., Europe, Australia and several California cities. (Julian Brown/CBC)

The study suggested many declawed cats end up in animal shelters because they're biting or not using their litter box.

"In view of these findings, the ongoing practice of declawing cats in North America should be further questioned," the study concluded.

'Societal change' underway

B.C. became the latest province to answer the call last week, when the College of Veterinarians of B.C. banned declawing domestic cats, unless it's medically necessary. The regulator called the procedure "ethically problematic and not an appropriate means of dealing with feline behaviour issues."

The Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, another Canadian regulator, said Thursday its council will review its declawing policy in June, with possible recommended rule changes at the group's annual general meeting in February 2019.

Jocelyn Forseille, the registrar's assistant, said the regulator opposes declawing cats unless it's medically necessary, but has left it up to vets to use their judgment.

Still, Forseille said there appears to be a "societal change" behind declining numbers of clinics offering the procedure and rising numbers of animal owners being against it.

VCA Canada's decision is "forward progress," she said. "There are many reasons why we'd want to look at it in Alberta, and that's one of them."

The VCA's Joffe said he feels "very strongly" that other controversial procedures, such as docking dog ears and tails, should also be banned.

"I hope that VCA Canada will make a statement about this in the next while."