California city's ban on declawing struck down

Published on January 01, 2006
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Veterinary medicine in California recently scored a major victory when a state court struck down a city ordinance banning the surgical procedure of animal declawing.

Veterinarians in West Hollywood had been prohibited from performing onychectomies on domestic cats since April 2003 when the city council outlawed the surgery as inhumane.

The California VMA sued West Hollywood, however, asserting the city had infringed on veterinarians' state-granted rights to practice within the scope of their licenses. The Los Angeles Superior Court agreed and ruled against the West Hollywood prohibition on Nov. 30.

"(The judge's) ruling sends a clear message to West Hollywood and all other California cities that local municipalities cannot pass ordinances that ignore the authority of California's state licensing and regulatory oversight boards," said CVMA president, Dr. Eric Weigand.

West Hollywood, a progressive city where pet owners are pet guardians, made headlines when it became the first U.S. city to outlaw cat declawing within city limits. Earlier, council members had condemned onychectomies and directed the city attorney to investigate the legality of prohibiting veterinarians from performing the procedures (see JAVMA, June 1, 2003).

The ordinance was criticized by the CVMA as well as the Cat Fanciers' Association, which, while opposed to declawing, considered the decision a private matter between the veterinarian and cat owner.

The CVMA filed a lawsuit against West Hollywood in Los Angeles Superior Court, challenging the city's ban in March 2005. The association contended the ordinance was in direct conflict with and preempted by the California Veterinary Practice Act and the Business and Professions Code, which invalidates the West Hollywood measure.

"It is unfortunate that the CVMA is forced to pursue this issue through legal action," said then CVMA president Dr. Jon Klingborg. "But clearly the West Hollywood City Council stands in direct opposition to the rights of veterinarians to practice medicine in the best interest of their patients and clients."

The practice of veterinary medicine is highly regulated in California, the CVMA asserted, and the Veterinary Medicine Practice Act specifically regulates what veterinarians may or may not do within the scope of practicing veterinary medicine. Moreover, the California legislature has delegated to the California Veterinary Medical Board the authority to carry out and enforce the provisions of the Veterinary Medicine Practice Act.

The CVMA also argued the importance of having a single set of rules regulating the practice of veterinary medicine in California. If each one of the 478 California cities had its own set of rules, it would be confusing for pet owners and difficult for veterinarians to provide care for pets, the CVMA explained. Ultimately, this could create a chaotic situation.

The CVMA was not alone in its criticism of the ordinance. The California Department of Consumer Affairs, which regulates the state's veterinarians, issued an opinion in 2004 that emphasized local governments are prohibited from enacting legislation in an area already regulated by a state agency.

"Decisions regarding the practice of veterinary medicine should be left to veterinarians, who have the best interests of the patient and animal owners in mind," Dr. Weigand said. "The court's decision ensures that pets in West Hollywood and throughout California will receive the best care available, as consistently regulated by California law."

AVMA Position Statement
on Declawing of Domestic Cats

Declawing of domestic cats should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively or when its clawing presents a zoonotic risk for its owner(s).

The AVMA believes it is the obligation of veterinarians to provide cat owners with complete education with regard to feline onychectomy. The following points are the foundation for full understanding and disclosure regarding declawing:

  • Scratching is a normal feline behavior, is a means for cats to mark their territory both visually and with scent, and is used for claw conditioning ("husk" removal) and stretching activity.
  • Owners must provide suitable implements for normal scratching behavior. Examples are scratching posts, cardboard boxes, lumber or logs, and carpet or fabric remnants affixed to stationary objects. Implements should be tall or long enough to allow full stretching, and be firmly anchored to provide necessary resistance to scratching. Cats should be positively reinforced in the use of these implements.
  • Appropriate claw care (consisting of trimming the claws every 1 to 2 weeks) should be provided to prevent injury or damage to household items.
  • Surgical declawing is not a medically necessary procedure for the cat in most cases. While rare in occurrence, there are inherent risks and complications with any surgical procedure including, but not limited to, anesthetic complications, hemorrhage, infection, and pain. If onychectomy is performed, appropriate use of safe and effective anesthetic agents and the use of safe peri-operative analgesics for an appropriate length of time are imperative. The surgical alternative of tendonectomy is not recommended.
  • Declawed cats should be housed indoors.
  • Scientific data do indicate that cats that have destructive clawing behavior are more likely to be euthanatized, or more readily relinquished, released, or abandoned, thereby contributing to the homeless cat population. Where scratching behavior is an issue as to whether or not a particular cat can remain as an acceptable household pet in a particular home, surgical onychectomy may be considered.
  • There is no scientific evidence that declawing leads to behavioral abnormalities when the behavior of declawed cats is compared with that of cats in control groups.