- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

LOS ANGELES | Cats scratch and dogs bark. Is declawing or debarking the answer?

Nearly 60 percent of American pet owners, including 55 percent of cat owners, say it is OK to have a cat declawed, but only 8 percent approve of having a dog’s vocal cords removed, according to an Associated Press-Petside.com poll.

Professionals say both surgeries are painful and alter the way the animals walk or talk.

Declawing a cat “is amputation. If you look at your fingers, declawing would be like amputating the last section of each finger. If you were declawed, you would have 10 little short fingers. It’s amputation times 10,” said veterinarian Louise Murray, vice president of the Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City. The hospital is part of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Most veterinarians won’t do all four feet, because that is considered extremely inhumane and unsafe for the cat, she said.

Mary Sullivan, 84, of Chicago, said she had a cat declawed once because he kept slipping on slick floors in her apartment. “Shortly afterward, he died. He was in agony the whole time. It broke my heart that I had it done. I’d never do that again,” she said.

When she got Roger from Tails of Hope about seven years ago, a condition of the adoption was a ban on declawing.

She said the people at Tails of Hope showed her how to cover her furniture in case of a problem, but Roger, who is 14 now, doesn’t care about furniture.

“It’s not cruel to declaw your cats,” said Jennifer Soloway, 60, a retired judge in Sacramento. Her cats, including Willie, who just died at 14, and Nemo, who is 15, were declawed when they were young.

“They do not know they’ve been declawed. They made the same kneading movements. The recovery process was very short. They never showed any sign of pain,” she said.

Declawing was necessary, she said. “My little daughter had scratches all over her. Everyone in the family had scratches. They destroyed our wallpaper. It was the only solution we could come up with,” Mrs. Soloway said.

Dr. Murray said it’s hard to assess pain in cats. After surgery, they are “walking around on stumps with stitches” and if they dig around in their litter, they can be in a lot of pain.

The ASPCA opposes declawing, debarking, defanging, ear cropping and tail docking — any elective surgery to conform to breed standard or eliminate undesirable behavior — except in extreme circumstances. For example, the health of a cat owner may be at risk if the owner has an immune system disorder or illness that causes susceptibility to serious infection if scratched.

Ninety percent of pet owners oppose removing a dog’s vocal cords. Forty-seven percent would favor a law making the procedure illegal, while 44 percent would oppose a law.

In July, Massachusetts became the first state to ban elective “devocalization” surgeries for cats or dogs. Violations are punishable under the state’s animal cruelty laws. Virginia lawmakers are considering a similar measure.

Of dog owners who took part in the poll, only 1 percent reported having the procedure performed on their pet. There was no difference between dog owners and others who were asked whether it was OK — 89 percent who own dogs said no.

Veteran dog trainer and behaviorist Jonathan Klein of Culver City, Calif., would support a state ban on debarking because even though 90 percent sounds like a lot, it still means that for every 900,000 dog owners who oppose it, there are 100,000 who would not, he said.

“Devocalization needs to stop, but we have to approach it through education,” said Mr. Klein, who has trained nearly 7,500 dogs over the past 23 years.

Debarking is a quick fix, but a good trainer can achieve the same result by working with a dog to find the cause instead of just looking at symptoms, he said.

“Dogs bark for so many reasons that are beneficial to us,” Mr. Klein said. Without the ability to bark, dogs can no longer communicate with humans or other animals.

Many veterinarians refuse to perform debarking surgery.

Sharon Klawender, 70, of Kingston, Mich., does not object to declawing or debarking.

Her two female cats, Treebark, going on 18, and Kisha, 4, are declawed in the front because “we have a lot of wood in our house, so when we moved we didn’t want them clawing up the woodwork.”

Neither cat has had a problem, Ms. Klawender said. Her older cat still goes outside and “she can still catch birds, so it hasn’t stopped her as far as protection or prowling. She can still hunt.”

As for her decision to have the cats declawed, “I’m happy with it. It didn’t affect the cats at all.”

Her dog, Grace, an English Lab mix, is 2 and barks very little. She has not had Grace’s vocal cords removed, but “our neighbor has 40 dogs and quite a few of them are devocalized because of barking and howling,” she said.

Ms. Klawender would oppose laws against debarking or declawing because she thinks those decisions should be left up to the owners.

Mrs. Soloway echoed that sentiment: “There’s got to be a limit on how much government interferes.”

Thirty-two percent of the cat owners polled said they have had their pets declawed. More than a third — 36 percent — of all pet owners said declawing was “not OK,” and 18 percent say they would favor a law making the procedure illegal. Sixty percent would oppose a law.

Cat owners are more apt than others to favor a law banning the declawing of cats — 24 percent favor such a law, 16 percent strongly.

The AP-Petside.com Poll was conducted Oct. 13-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,000 pet owners nationwide. Results for all pet owners have a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points.