As lawmakers debated a bill this month to outlaw cat declawing, I couldn't help thinking sometimes the best intended legislation can have disappointing consequences.
The legislation pits two well-intentioned groups against one another: animal rights activists and veterinarians. Members of both groups love animals and want what they believe is best for them.
But their worldviews differ.
Animal rights folks are the idealists who see the world as they believe it should be. The veterinarians, on the other hand, are pragmatists who deal with the woes of four-legged critters and their two-legged owners every day.
I'm the son and husband of veterinarians. I've spent my entire life surrounded by their concerns.
Cat declawing has fallen out of favor in the veterinary community. Most veterinarians I know – and I know many – do the procedure rarely. Our cat has her claws and is a happy, well-adjusted member of our family.
During the last 20 years, my wife and I have rescued special needs cats and given them a home. One was a victim of abuse where we believe a past owner deliberately broke its leg.
Another was a kitten born without eyes that was found abandoned at the bottom of a drained swimming pool. Someone wanted the kitten destroyed, but my wife refused, and we gave it a home for 13 years – much to the delight of our three then-young daughters.
We love cats. And, no, we have never declawed any of our own animals because we view it as an unnecessary surgery.
But veterinarians also see difficult situations. They see the elderly client who brings in a cat she dearly loves, but it keeps clawing her thin skin and leaving wounds that won't heal. They see the child who is immunosuppressed, and his parents fear a playful scratch from a kitten could give way to an uncontrolled infection.
It's heartbreaking to think of these felines being taken from their loving homes. And sometimes there is no place for the cat to go. Shelters are often overcrowded and not taking new animals. And even if they do, the cat may spend many months in a cage waiting for a placement.
Worse yet, unwanted animals are often dumped in rural areas to fend for themselves. We feed plenty of abandoned cats on our front porch every night. Faced with these undesirable alternatives, some owners choose to euthanize their pet.
Sometimes declawing is the only alternative to keeping an animal from meeting one of these fates. I wish that weren't the case. But that's the state of the world we live in.
A declaw surgery done well can be safe and the pain well-managed. The long-term consequences can be minimal.
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 measure recently passed the House and now goes to the Senate.
Veterinarians say declawing has largely fallen out of favor but at times it is necessary.
At the prompting of veterinarians, exceptions are carved out of the legislation allowing declawing to protect the feline's health. For example, a cat that keeps digging a rash raw could be declawed.
But no exceptions were made for cat owners who may have medical conditions that could be complicated by scratches.
"Removing a cat's body part because it's convenient for a human doesn't make any sense – especially because it's cruel," said Marc Ayers, Illinois director of the U.S. Humane Society.
Hmmm, I can think of plenty of tomcats who would just as soon not have one particular appendage removed, but the Humane Society does support neutering.
"The big idea that we denied was the human exemption because we see that as a big loophole," Rep. Hernandez told me. "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 later added, "I think a lot of people could say, 'Hey, I'm immune-compromised.' And leave the doors wide open for others."
Yes, it is possible an owner may lie about their own health to get a cat declawed. But if such a person were so unscrupulous, might they not choose to abandon or kill their pet if they can't get it declawed?
"Legislation to make it illegal can be problematic because we need to be able to use it as a last resort to prevent euthanasia," said Dr. Amy Wolf, a Springfield veterinarian. "In situations like that we are helping cats. It's the lesser of two evils."
And there's the rub. Many veterinarians, such as Wolf, who do not perform declawing still oppose the legislation because they know at times it is the best of several bad outcomes.
Elective declawing is fading away on its own. But occasionally, in tough cases, it's the best outcome for the cat.
Trying to legislate medical procedures by legislative fiat doesn't make sense, it should remain in the capable hands of veterinarians.
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.