Malibu vet fights against declawing of cats

Malibu native Jennifer Conrad, who works as a veterinarian to exotic animals in the entertainment industry, recently completed the documentary “The Paw Project.”

To declaw or not to declaw. It is a question many cat owners have asked at one point or another. Dr. Jennifer Conrad, a Malibu native who works as a veterinarian to exotic animals in the entertainment industry, says the answer is simple: Don’t do it.

Conrad’s recently completed documentary film, “The Paw Project,” details her years of effort to legislate bans on cat declawing, a practice Conrad and other advocates con- sider cruel and unnecessary. The film, named after the nonprofit advocacy group she founded, will air Saturday at 8 p.m. with a free screening at the Malibu Jewish Center Complex.

Known as an onychetomy, declawing is a procedure that involves the removal of a cat’s claws through the amputation of its third phalanges (the last bone of the toe), according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The surgery can be performed using sterilized nail trimmers, scalpel blades or surgical lasers.

“The bone is cut down to the first joint of each toe,” Conrad said. “Whether the vet uses a laser or a scalpel, it’s still an amputation, and as a result, the cat can experience arthritis, pain, inflammation and infections.”

Conrad, speaking by phone interview, said she first got involved with the cat declawing issue when she began working with exotic animals and encountered 40 big cats in a sanctuary. They were all “suffering in various degrees from declawing procedures,” Conrad said.

Conrad performed surgery to help the cats, many of whom had been hobbled by the procedure, to restore their range of motion. 

“It’s painful because their paws get swollen and infected, and the nail fragments left behind try to regrow. I decided to try to do something for them,” she said. “I reattached the tendons and gave them the ability to flex and extend their paws again. It’s hard, it’s microsurgery. It takes me five hours to repair one paw.”

Within days of performing surgery on a 550-lb. tiger named Drifter who had difficulty walking, Conrad says the tiger was “walking and playing. I couldn’t believe the change in him.”

As word of Conrad’s surgical repair got out, “People began calling from across the country and thousands of big cats needed their paws repaired,” she said.

With the national interest, Conrad started the nonprofit Paw Project to bring advocacy for the millions of house cats who also undergo declawing.

While scratching is normal cat behavior, some owners have the operation done to protect furniture or other household items. Declawing is also used, according to the AVMA, as a method of protecting people with immunodeficiencies or bleeding disorders who may suffer complications from cat scratches, while keeping the cat in the home.

The Humane Society of the United States, however, argues that risk from scratches for these people “is less than those from bites, cat litter, or fleas carried by their cats.”

Easy alternatives, such as regularly trimming claws, providing scratching posts around the home, putting special tape on furniture to deter unwanted scratching and soft plastic caps (which are glued to a cat’s nails, like shoes), are less invasive methods to curb unwanted scratching, opponents say.

Conrad and others also argue there is a financial incentive for vets to declaw cats, without necessarily informing owners of the drawbacks to the practice.

“Some vets recommend declawing for every cat that comes in the door,” Conrad said. “A vet can do a declaw in 15 minutes.”

An Internet search showed total expenses for cat declawing range from about $350 to $750.

Professional groups like the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) strongly oppose any ban on cat declawing, and actually sued the city of West Hollywood when it outlawed the practice 10 years ago. CVMA then succeeded in getting state legislation passed to prevent other municipalities from following West Hollywood’s lead. The few that already had such laws, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Monica, were grandfathered.

The Malibu City Council considered bans on the practice of declawing in the City of Malibu in 2003 and 2009, voting against them both times. The 2009 measure was defeated 3-2, with former councilmember Sharon Barovsky stating that while she opposed the practice, she believed it would be condemning cats to death because a scratching cat that could not be declawed could end up in an animal shelter. In 2003, a majority voted against the item due to the argument that not many other cities had adopted an ordinance and that the ban would be ineffective.

A free screening of “The Paw Project” will be held on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. at the Malibu Screening Room, located at 24855 Pacific Coast Highway in the Malibu Jewish Center complex. RSVP for guaranteed seating to Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and an informal reception with Dr. Conrad will be held afterward.