Illinois veterinarians are fighting tooth and nail against a measure to outlaw cat declawing.
House Bill 1533, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Hernandez, D-Aurora, aims to outlaw the surgical removal of any cat's claws, with few exceptions. The Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association contends the bill puts cats – and their owners– at risk.
But the Humane Society of the United States counters that declawing is a harsh practice that disfigures animals and can leave them in permanent pain.
"It's cruel to do this to a cat. It's the equivalent of amputating your finger at the last knuckle. It's not just like they're removing your fingernail. It's removing the entire knuckle," said Marc Ayers, Illinois State Director for the Humane Society.
Veterinarians say declawing has largely fallen out of favor but at times it is necessary.
"We are rarely doing them," said Dr. Joanne Carlson, president of the Illinois State Veterinary Association. "We really only do them when we absolutely have to. It could be an elderly client who is getting scratched or somebody with immune problems. I've had a situation where a child had a severe immune disorder and the cat was bought for this child as a therapy cat. and we really could not take the chance of the child getting a scratch and having an infection."
Ayers said exceptions are carved out of the legislation allowing declawing to protect the feline's health.
"If there are tumors or cancers, say in the tendons of the paw, or maybe there's a rash or a skin disorder or an allergy where the cat is scratching itself and then cutting itself open with its claws as a result of that scratching, (the legislation would) leave that decision on declawing up to the licensed veterinarian."
But proposals to make exceptions based on the owner's health have not made the cut.
"Removing a cat's body part because it's convenient for a human doesn't make any sense – especially because it's cruel," Ayers said.
Carlson disagreed, saying declawing is not a particularly painful procedure – especially when new medications and surgical lasers are used.
"It's a simple surgical procedure," she said. "If done properly, there are no limitations on the cat. So there really is no downside except for the fact that it is a surgery and we do have to take care. ... What it comes down to is we really do not want to see politicians telling veterinarians how to practice veterinary medicine."
Amy Wolf, a Springfield veterinarian, takes a more nuanced view.
"As more research comes out on arthritis in cats and other possible (consequences) of declawing, like behavioral changes due to chronic pain, then that's where declawing has fallen out of favor," she said.
Wolf said there is some evidence declawing can create new, undesirable behaviors.
"There's a lot of stuff that's out there about it possibly leading to inappropriate urination because it may be uncomfortable to scratch the litter with arthritis in the paw or in the toes," she said.
Wolf said she performed declaws early in her career, but it is not a service she now offers in her practice. Still, she opposes the legislation, because she believes declawing can save a cat's life.
"Legislation to make it illegal can be problematic because we need to be able to use it as a last resort to prevent euthanasia," she said. "In situations like that, we are helping cats. It's the lesser of two evils."
Rep. Hernandez, a cat owner herself, said, "A cat has its claws for a reason, and altering their paw just because someone doesn't want to deal with it is not a good reason."
She is against creating the owner-related medical exceptions being called for by the state veterinary association.
"The big idea that we denied was the human exemption, because we see that as a big loophole," Rep. Hernandez said. "Pretty much what they're trying to do is give people who are immune-compromised or have blood disorders or dementia a medical exemption to be able to declaw their cats. But by doing that, how are we going to prove that this person has a medical exception?"
She said having owners present such evidence would violate their privacy.
"I think a lot of people could say, 'Hey, I'm immune-compromised.' And leave the doors wide open for others," Hernandez said.
Declawing has already been outlawed in two other states, New York and Maryland.
The measure has passed out of committee in Illinois but has yet to be voted on by either legislative chamber.
"It's one of those issues that is really gaining traction throughout the whole country, especially in Illinois with our diverse set of animal-welfare-minded lawmakers," Ayers said. "So, I'm really optimistic about this bill passing in the House and Senate."
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.