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Just Don’t Do It: An Interview with Dallas’ PRO-CLAW Vet, Dr. Raina Weldon

Dr. Raina Weldon has the distinction of being the only veterinarian in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex on the official Does Not Declaw List of Declaw.com. The owner and sole doctor of The Cat Hospital of Dallas, Dr. Weldon kindly sat down with us to answer a few questions about her decision not to declaw cats, her experience with the surgery and what Cat People absolutely need to know about a decision that will change your cat’s life.

Dr. Weldon, thank you so much for lending your expertise on declawing and feline health. First off – obligatory Cat Connection question – who are the cats you share your life with?

I am owned by 6 cats at home who range in age from one to seventeen years old. They were all rescues, most of whom had injuries or other issues when they came to me and were supposed to be foster cats until they were healthy enough to adopt out. I am a total foster failure and am no longer allowed to foster cats!

The cats are: Piglet, who was caught in a fan belt as a kitten; Pandora, who was feral and would not allow herself to be pet for the first thirteen years of her life; Catpurrccino, who was born with an eyelid defect; Odin, who had to have his eye removed at 4 weeks because of a severe injury; and Ghirard and Elli, two very shy but inseparable semi-feral cats. We also have an office cat named Seven who came to us as a kitten after she had been hit by a car.

Wow! Sounds like quite the menagerie, and it’s a good thing you’re a vet. Would you mind telling us a little about your veterinary training and how you came to own the Cat Hospital of Dallas?

I graduated from Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine in 1997. I was very focused on cats during vet school and wanted to work in a feline-exclusive practice, but those were few and far between, so I spent my first four years in a cat and dog practice in Arizona. The office saw far more dogs than cats, so I decided to resume my search for a job in a feline-only practice. After two cat practices told me that they would not hire me if I refused to declaw, I learned that the Cat Hospital of Dallas was for sale and decided that owning my own practice would allow me to practice feline medicine without violating my personal ethics.

It’s interesting that the entire course of your veterinary career was determined in no small part by declawing. Was your decision not to declaw a part of your training, or did you arrive at this understanding later?

We were not taught declawing in our surgery curriculum at Louisiana State, nor were we taught tail docking or ear cropping in dogs. We were only taught how to perform surgeries that had medical benefits to the patient.

Even before I knew what was involved with the surgery, we never had our cats declawed because it didn’t sound like a nice thing to do. When I was in vet school, I also worked as a vet tech part-time. The first time I saw a cat recovering from a declaw surgery, I vowed that I would never do that to a cat. The cat had been administered a pretty strong pain medication, but it was still vocalizing and frantically biting at its bloody bandaged feet. It was heartbreaking to watch, and I thought, “How can someone do this to a cat that they claim to love?”

You talk about feeling disbelief that someone could willingly do this to a pet, but I think that not many people know what the surgery actually entails. Would you mind describing it to us?

Of course! Declawing, or onychectomy, requires completely amputating the last bone on every toe, because the claw grows from that bone. If you leave a fragment of that bone, the claw will regrow, often in a deformed way that leads to infections and lameness years after the surgery. Most people who had cats declawed in the past had no idea that bones were being amputated because veterinarians did not explain the procedure, and unsurprisingly, clients knew even less about the potential for long-term pain and suffering.

And what of that long-term pain and suffering? You mentioned seeing the immediate effects during your days as a vet tech, but what can happen to these cats years after the amputations?

The most common complication is prolonged pain. I have seen cats who were limping because one paw was more painful than the others for weeks, months and even years after the surgery. I’ve seen a lot of claw regrowth years after the surgery, which can lead to infected wounds. I have seen two cats who lost all of the skin below the elbow after surgery because either the tourniquets or the bandages were too tight and cut off circulation. Both of these cats had to have skin grafts, and one had to have part of his foot amputated because of the infection. Other physical complications can include hemorrhage, infection and nerve damage. Unfortunately, some of the cats with claw regrowth, lameness and draining tracts will require a second surgery to remove bone fragments.

I have also seen behavioral problems, which can be very difficult to treat. Many cats stop using the litterbox after surgery and start eliminating on soft objects like rugs, sofas or beds, which tends to be a lifelong problem and often leads to the abandonment of the cat. Some cats do seem to increase biting behavior after surgery as well. We theorize that they either do it because swatting is no longer effective or because they are in chronic pain. One study I read surveyed owners up to 5 years after declawing and showed that 33% of the cats had developed these behavior problems after surgery. Sadly, a lot of those cats end up back at the shelter or worse yet: outside with reduced defenses.

So why do vets still perform this surgery? With the growing attention paid to the negative effects of declawing, I have seen many vets move from actively advertising for it to only doing it at the insistence of their client. What’s up with that?

Some veterinarians believe that declawing keeps cats in their homes, but there are certainly a lot of declawed cats relinquished to shelters or abandoned outdoors, and I’ve had two left in carriers in front of my clinic. That said, I’ve never had a client say that they were going to give up a cat or have it euthanized because of scratching behavior, but I’ve seen both happen because of inappropriate elimination that developed after declawing. I think there’s also a tendency to not stop doing something that we’ve always done and perceived as OK, but I think we’ve really been underestimating pain in cats and need to take a much closer look.

Unfortunately, as long as people ask for it and are willing to pay for it, many veterinarians will keep doing it until it’s illegal. Technically, now the AVMA and AAFP guidelines state the veterinarians should educate clients about the process, potential complications and alternatives before considering declawing. I also want to note that the CDC does not recommend declawing cats belonging to people with compromised immune systems.

I’ve heard a lot of people insist that because the amputations can be done with lasers as opposed to clippers, it is OK to declaw a cat. You hear a lot about “the right way to declaw.” What do you think of that?

There is no such thing as a pain-free declaw, and it has absolutely no medical benefit. The longest study I’ve seen tracked weight bearing 12 days after surgery, and it did show more weight bearing in the cats who had laser surgery. However, the weight bearing was still significantly reduced compared to the paw that did not have surgery, as only one foot was declawed for the study. I’ve had clients who had their cat laser declawed expecting it to be pain-free comment that the cats still appeared to be in pain. The reality is that you can expect the same potential complications with a laser declaw as with the clipper method. There is no “right way.”

You mentioned underestimating the pain that cats feel. Is that a human issue or part of the cat’s nature?

I think we’re terrible at knowing when a cat is in pain. They don’t whine and cry like dogs and humans do, so we erroneously assume that they must be OK. In declawing, if one paw is worse than the other, they may limp, but if both paws hurt, they can’t limp. We know that when humans have any bones amputated, it is very painful, so there’s no reason to believe that cats are any difference in their pain perception.

But most cats are very stoic about pain and are more likely to withdraw. It’s easier to assume that they must be OK if they’re crouched at the back of their compartment or not very active after surgery, but most cats will just suffer in silence. Cats have very strong instincts to hide injuries and illnesses because in nature, they are both prey and predator. Showing weakness can be dangerous. This is helpful in the wild, but detrimental when living with humans.

It’s understandable that people would prefer their cat not ruin a piece of furniture, but declawing seems like complete overkill. What do you recommend instead?

I try to get cat owners to start acclimating kittens to nail trims early on. Adult cats can usually also learn to tolerate nail trims, but it can take longer. Cats should always have appropriate scratching surfaces, and the areas you don’t want scratched, like the arm of a sofa, can be temporarily covered with plastic or double-sided tape to deter scratching while the cat learns to use the post. Inexpensive nail caps (Soft Paws/Claws, Kitty Caps) can be purchased at some pet stores, vet’s offices and online [Editor’s note: And at the Cat Connection!]. They come in many colors for the fashion conscious kitty, and most owners can apply them at home. I kept Soft Paws on all 6 of my cats when we got new furniture, and I put a different color on each cat, so if I found a nail cap on the floor, I knew which cat needed a replacement. Now they even come in sparkly and holiday colors.

Is there any reason you would suggest a cat be declawed?

Yes, if there’s cancer in a toe or if it’s so severely damaged or infected that there’s a medical reason to amputate – the same reasons a person would a toe amputated. As an aside, my great-grandmother had to have her big toe amputated because of cancer, and it took her months to learn to walk normally again – and cats who are declawed get 10 toes amputated [Editor’s note: For a front paw declaw only. For front and back, the number is 18] and have to walk immediately after to meet basic needs! It’s not a procedure to be taken lightly, nor is it something that should be done for any reason other than the ones I listed.

You are the only official “No Declaw” vet in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex listed on Declaw.com. While there may be others, they are not on the list. Have you acquired new patients as a result?

Yes, I’ve had several clients come to be because I’m listed on the Stop Declaw website. Recently, a cat owner I haven’t seen yet sent me a thank you card for not declawing and said she’d be in when her cats were due for their preventative care.

Well, this has been a real treat, Dr. Weldon. So many vets – whether they declaw or not – are unwilling to discuss this topic because of the controversy that comes with it. The Cat Connection thanks you for your candor and, of course, for not declawing. Is there anything else you’d like people to know?

I would encourage anyone who is considering having their cat declawed to thoroughly educate themselves. PawProject.org, StopDeclaw.com and the American Association of Feline Practitioners website catvets.com all have good information on the actual surgery and the potential complications. I think that fewer people are requesting declawing now because more information is available about the procedure. The fact that several cities in California have outlawed it and New York state is trying has also brought much needed attention to the controversial nature of the surgery.

Ultimately, I would say just don’t do it.

Yes, please, for the sake of your cat: just don’t do it.