Cats Gain Right to Keep and Bare Claws in W. Hollywood

Times Staff Writer

Attention, all cats! Interested in making a move? Look no further than West Hollywood, an official animal-cruelty-free zone.

No pet owners allowed -- only pet guardians. There’s a no-eviction policy if you live with a disabled person or senior citizen in a rent-stabilized apartment. And, as of Wednesday, declawing will be outlawed in West Hollywood veterinary clinics, making the two-square-mile city the first in the country to pass such a ban, according to legislators and animal-rights activists.

“A cat without claws? It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Gaelle DeVillefort, a city resident who said she wouldn’t think of declawing her 5-year-old feline. “It’s part of the identity of the cat.”


Legislating pet welfare -- with the exception of the declawing ban, the laws are intended for all companion animals -- is part of West Hollywood’s identity. The decree that owners be known as guardians was symbolic, “to show that pets are more than chattel,” according to Councilman John Duran, who introduced the new law. “This declaw legislation was the first tooth in supporting that.”

The ordinance covers all animals, but it’s West Hollywood’s pet cat population that will be most affected.

Next year the council may take on ear cropping and tail docking, cosmetic procedures performed on dogs that are considered medically unnecessary by the American Veterinary Medical Assn.

While many cat owners and veterinarians embrace the idea -- more precisely, the ideal -- that cats should keep their claws, some think the decision to declaw should be left to the cat’s doctor, not to the City Council.

“It feels like Big Brother,” said Mark Hiebert , a veterinarian at the TLC Pet Medical Center in West Hollywood, who said he hadn’t known the council planned its April 7 vote on the legislation. “We would have loved to have worked with the City Council” toward a more nuanced law, he said.

“I’m in favor of reducing declaws through education,” Hiebert said, “not an outright ban.”

Duran and an aide, Hernan Molina, said the council had made all the proper postings of related meetings, and Molina said he had called veterinarians at two local clinics (he did not call TLC). One expressed no strong feelings about the bill, Molina said, and the other didn’t return the call.

None of the veterinarians who spoke for or against the bill before the council was from a West Hollywood clinic. “Every time we do something, we are not going to go and call everybody,” Molina said. “It’s everybody’s responsibility to find out what’s going on.”

The law, which does not ban declawed cats from living in the city, prohibits West Hollywood’s three veterinary clinics from performing the procedure, called onychectomy, which amputates the last joint of each of the cat’s front toes (hind claws usually are left intact). There is an exemption when the operation is necessary for a cat’s health.


Called Mutilation

Increasingly in recent years, declawing has been decried by animal activists and many pet owners as a painful mutilation. “I think for people who love cats,” it’s “pretty distasteful,” said an exotic animal veterinarian, Jennifer Conrad, who lives in Santa Monica and opposes the procedure.

Her work in repairing the paws of declawed big cats -- leopards, a lion and a tiger have been among her patients -- was the impetus for the West Hollywood bill.

“She came to my council office wanting to educate us about the issue of cat declawing,” Duran said. “When I first heard about it, I kind of shrugged my shoulders. With so many problems in the world, I didn’t want to deal with cat declawing. But then when I found out what it entailed, I was horrified.”

Cats scratch to condition their claws, scent-mark, stretch or defend themselves. But not every owner agrees that cats should remain armed. Picking up her 15-year-old declawed Persian cat, Victoria, at Laurel Pet Hospital, Melissa Lugo said she was debating whether to declaw her new kitten.

“I notice she’s clawing at the couch,” said Lugo, who lives in Sherman Oaks. “I have children. That’s another reason I might do it -- so they don’t get scratched. I think people should have the choice to do what they want.”

Of course, cat owners can always cross the West Hollywood border and find other veterinary facilities to declaw their pets -- although a statewide ban on declawing has been proposed in the Legislature this year. Democratic Assemblyman Paul Koretz, who represents West Hollywood and was once its mayor, introduced the state bill.


Vinyl Sheaths Suggested

Veterinarians from all three of West Hollywood’s animal clinics say they discourage clients from declawing, suggesting they try trimming the claws, coaxing the cat into using a scratching post or buying vinyl nail sheaths that can be glued onto the cat’s claws.

“Not one of my doctors likes doing it,” said Franklin McMillan, the medical director of the VCA Miller-Robertson Animal Hospital. “We think it’s unpleasant, and we would like it not to be needed.” McMillan doesn’t object to laws that regulate his work “if they’re in the interest of the animals.”

But veterinarians also say declawing can be the lesser of two evils -- amputating a cat’s toes at the end joint so it can stay in an owner’s home versus banishment to a shelter, where many animals end up euthanized because of overcrowding. Sometimes, McMillan said, declawing is “the only prayer that cat has.”

On a recent weekday at West Hollywood’s clinics, veterinarians busily shuttled between Persians, pugs and the occasional cockatiel. In the small waiting room at the TLC Pet Medical Center, the television was tuned to Animal Planet.

Hiebert, like all the city’s veterinarians, said his clinic performs few declawings. “I think we did 30 cats total last year,” he said. “We see thousands of cats.”

TLC has a laser device dedicated to the procedure, and “we now have this piece of equipment worth $12,000 to $15,000 we can’t use,” said Hiebert. “But that’s another issue.”

The procedure accounts for a small fraction of the clinic’s business -- “approximately a half of 1% of our gross income” -- Hiebert said.

Todd Calsyn of the Laurel Pet Hospital concurred, saying his clinic does two declawings a month, at most.

One thing the bill does not make allowances for is owners whose health might be endangered by cat scratches. Those with HIV or other immune-system afflictions are more vulnerable to cat scratch fever from a cat carrying the bacteria that cause the illness.

Duran, himself HIV positive, says it’s an acceptable risk. And Gary Cohan, a physician who specializes in HIV, agrees, noting the disease -- which can also be transmitted by a bite -- is rare and easily treatable.

“I would be on the lookout,” Cohan said, “but I wouldn’t be overly concerned.”