Twenty-two million cats in the U.S. are declawed. Cat owners have this done to prevent scratching and furniture damage, sometimes at their vet’s suggestion, not knowing how truly painful and crippling the procedure really is. Veterinarian Jennifer Conrad, who specializes in exotic animals and big cats in particular, has made it her mission to spread the word about this inhumane surgery via the nonprofit she established, The Paw Project, and the movie she made of the same name. In a conversation with MNN, she explains how it all started.

“I had 40 or more big cats as patients who were suffering from being declawed,” Conrad begins. “Some of these majestic animals were really quite crippled. I thought that I had to do something to help them walk again. I investigated possible methods to help repair the damage declawing does to paws, and came up with a new surgery with the guidance of a veterinary surgeon named Kirk Wendelburg. The first surgeries I paid for. When word got out that the animals could walk again after their paws were better, a lot of requests came in from across the country asking for more cats to be able to get their paws repaired. I couldn't pay for all the cats. That's when I started The Paw Project. To date, the Paw Project has repaired the paws on 76 big cats in over 225 surgeries.”

Conrad realized that domestic felines are damaged just as much from declawing, which is illegal or considered unethical in much of the world but is common in Canada and the U.S., where an estimated 86% of animal hospitals do the procedure. “The surgery is actually more appropriately described as deknuckling. It’s the amputation of the last bone in a cat's toes. It is not just a magical manicure that vets can do. It requires the severing of tendons, nerves, ligaments, and skin in order to remove the bone. It is serious surgery, listed as one of the most painful, routinely performed surgeries in all of veterinary medicine, and yet as many as 30% of vets provide no peri-operative pain medication. This is a surgery that it so predictably painful that it is used as the gold standard of pain in clinical trials and yet pain medicine is considered optional. How anyone can do that to a cat knowing all of this is stunning,” she says.

Veterinarians aren’t always fully informed, she adds. “They might think that it is better to declaw a cat than have the cat scratch furniture and lose its home because the owner can't stand that. But what they don't realize is that the very act of declawing puts the cat at a higher risk for losing its home. Declawed cats are often in a lot of pain when they come home from the surgery. They go the dig in the gravelly sand of the litter box and it hurts their paws. The cat then decides to never use the box again. So now, the owner who was intolerant of the cat scratching has to deal with the cat peeing all over the house. That cat's going to lose its home.”

Another factor is some veterinarians feel that they have to declaw the cat to protect patients with compromised immune systems, such as from HIV/AIDS. “This is not true. Declawed cats have been robbed of their primary defense mechanism, their claws, and therefore resort to biting. Ask any groomer or vet tech which cats bite. The owner is now forced to deal with cat bites instead of the possibility of a scratch. Cat bites are serious injuries, in most cases, far more dangerous than a scratch,” Conrad points out, adding, “The CDC, NIH and USPHS all say that declawing is not advised for the cats of HIV/AIDS patients. I think they know best on human health issues.”

Cat owners, like those interviewed in the film, generally aren’t aware of the damaging ramifications of the surgery. “They’re trying to do what's best for their beloved cat. When their vet recommends it, they might just go along with it. Then, when they find out what it truly entails, many people are heartsick,” Conrad says. There are humane alternatives to declawing, like clipping the cat’s nails and putting Soft Paws nail caps on them, but “some vets think that they're too much work and declawing is easier. Let me assure you, declawing is not kinder and it is fraught with problems. In the long run, it's not easier.”

Conrad (pictured at right with a lion cub), who was already recording her work with the big cats on film, decided to make a documentary about the issue when a ban against declawing was introduced and then passed in West Hollywood, California. “The Paw Project” follows this triumph and the subsequent bans passed in other California cities, despite the California Veterinary Medical Association’s opposition. As a novice filmmaker, “The biggest challenge for me was overcoming my shyness and allowing my story to be told. I don't really like the limelight. This film opens me up to a lot of criticism. What made me push through this was the cats. I felt I owed it to them.”

To date, eight U.S. cities have banned declawing, “and many states are mulling over legislation. I think 2014 will be exciting. I hope to make North America join the rest of the world in forbidding this cruel practice,” says Conrad, who’s gratified that the film has had an impact. “Many vets have contacted us to say that they're stopping declawing. Many people who thought declawing was the right thing to do have now decided never to declaw again. This is a campaign of education and the more we spread the word that declawing is cruel and unnecessary, the more cats we protect.”

Besides upcoming screenings listed on the Paw Project’s Website, the film is available On Demand via iTunes, Amazon, Dish and U-Verse.

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Declawing cats can be an inhumane procedure that leaves many cats in intense pain, and sometimes crippled.