LOS ANGELES — Cats scratch and dogs bark. Is declawing or debarking the answer? Nearly 60 percent of American pet owners, including 55 percent of cat owners, say it is okay to have a cat declawed, but only 8 percent approve of having a dog's vocal cords removed, according to an Associated Press-Petside.com poll. Experts say both surgeries are painful and alter the way the animals walk or talk.
Declawing a cat "is amputation. If you look at your fingers, declawing would be like amputating the last section of each finger. If you were declawed, you would have 10 little short fingers. It's amputation times 10," said veterinarian Louise Murray, vice president of the Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City. The hospital is part of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Most vets won't do all four feet, because that is considered extremely inhumane and unsafe for the cat, she said.
Mary Sullivan, 84, of Chicago said she had a cat declawed once because he kept slipping on slick floors in her apartment. "Shortly afterward he died. He was in agony the whole time. It broke my heart that I had it done. I'd never do that again," she said.
When she got Roger from Tails of Hope about seven years ago, a condition of the adoption was no declawing. She said they showed her how to cover her furniture, but Roger, who's 14 now, doesn't care about furniture.
Jennifer Soloway, 60, a retired judge in Sacramento, Calif., had her cats, Willie, who just died at 14, and Nemo, who is 15, both declawed when they were young.
"My little daughter had scratches all over her. Everyone in the family had scratches. They destroyed our wallpaper. It was the only solution we could come up with," Soloway said.
"The recovery process was very short. They never showed any sign of pain."
Murray said it's hard to assess pain in cats. After surgery, they are "walking around on stumps with stitches" and if they dig around in their litter, they can be in a lot of pain.
Scratching is natural for cats, but they usually can be trained to scratch posts or horizontal pads rather than furnishings.
The ASPCA opposes declawing, debarking, defanging, ear cropping and tail docking — any elective surgery done to conform to breed standard or eliminate undesirable behavior — except in extreme circumstances. For example, the health of a cat owner may be at risk if the owner has an immune system disorder or illness that leaves them susceptible to serious infection if scratched.
Vocal cord removal
Ninety percent of pet owners oppose removing a dog's vocal cords. Forty-seven percent would favor a law making the procedure illegal, while 44 percent would oppose a law.
In July, Massachusetts became the first state to ban elective devocalization for cats or dogs. Violations are punishable under the state's animal cruelty laws. Virginia lawmakers are considering a similar measure.
Veteran dog trainer and behaviorist Jonathan Klein of Culver City, Calif., would support a state ban on debarking because even though 90 percent opposition sounds like a lot, it still means that for every 900,000 dog owners who oppose it, there are 100,000 who would not, he said.
Of dog owners who took part in the poll, only 1 percent reported having the procedure done.
"Devocalization needs to stop, but we have to approach it through education," said Klein, who has trained nearly 7,500 dogs in the past 23 years.
Debarking is a quick fix, but a good trainer can achieve the same result by working with a dog to find the cause, he said. "Dogs bark for so many reasons that are beneficial to us," Klein said. Without the ability to bark, dogs can no longer communicate with humans or other animals.