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A difficult matter: Claws come out as New York mulls cat law

The New York legislature is opening itself up to a catfight as it considers a bill to ban declawing, a controversial cat surgery that some vets oppose and others insist can save at least nine lives.

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A cat named Rubio walks in front of the podium during a news conference on Tuesday, in Albany, N.Y. New York would be the first state to ban the declawing under a legislative proposal that has divided veterinarians.

Mike Groll/AP

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Cat lovers are raising their hackles for a fight, as New York lawmakers weigh making their state the first to ban the controversial practice of declawing.

The procedure may be unfamiliar to many, but for cat fanciers the topic is a sensitive one. The surgery requires a veterinarian to cut through the upper layers of a cat's skin, tendons, and bones to amputate the foremost segment of the front toes, and while some vets say it is safe if done well, others worry it needlessly deforms the feline paws. 

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Proponents of the bill, including veterinarians, lobbied at the New York State Capitol on Tuesday, bringing a sociable spokescat named Mario to meow his case. The 11-year-old Abyssinian kept his claws in, but the group cited a study that 25 percent of cats are declawed.

"It's a disfiguring, inhumane, and misguided procedure," Eileen Jefferson, an Ulster County veterinarian who refuses to declaw, told the Associated Press. 

Vets who oppose the bill say bringing the claws out at the Capitol raises the issue of state control in a private medical decision. Some who do perform declawing procedures upon request worry that banning it at the state level will prompt families to take more extreme measures

"Declawing serves as a potential method to keep a much loved feline companion in a household versus relinquishing the family pet to a shelter where it may be euthanized," wrote the New York State Veterinary Medical Society in opposition to the bill. "Medical decisions should be left to the sound discretion of fully trained, licensed and state supervised professionals operating within appropriate standards of practice."

The Oregon legislature debated a measure last year to ban declawing with a few exceptions for the health of the cat or its people, but the measure failed after vets convinced lawmakers the surgery was harmless if done correctly, reported Jacy Marmaduke for The Oregonian. Many of the state's passionate opponents of declawing even opposed the bill, saying the exceptions it permitted amounted to state approval of declawing as a behavior management tool.

"As is, the bill amounts to an implied statement that devocalizing and declawing are generally accepted ways to deal with a dog who barks too much or a cat who scratches too much," Brian Posewitz, a member of animal lobby group Humane Oregon said at the time. "We don't think the Oregon Legislature should make that statement."

Taken aback by the bitter controversy, the legislature decided to let sleeping cats lie. The bill's sponsor, a feline fancier who displays two photos of his "well-loved cat," Clarence, in his state office, was surprised by the debate's turnabout.  

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"The fact that this has been misconstrued as an anti-cat bill is bitterly ironic," Rep. Brent Barton (D) told The Oregonian.

The declawing debate is now reviving in New York, although the bill is not currently scheduled for a vote. Declawing advocates say declawing can cause health and behavioral problems for the cat and take away its best line of defense, but other vets want to keep the state out of the cat-fight and save the surgery for a well-considered last resort.

England, Australia, Brazil, and numerous European countries have banned the declawing surgery, as have five cities in California, according to the California-based rescue nonprofit, the Cat Support Network. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.