FARGO - At least two veterinary clinics in the Fargo-Moorhead area have decided to scratch feline declawing as one of their services.

The Animal Health Clinic, 1441 S. University Drive, was the first to publicly announce that they were putting a permanent pause on the service. In a May 24 post on Facebook, the veterinary clinic said, “We’re giving cats a voice” by deciding to end the amputations.

Valley Veterinary Hospital, 3210 Main Ave., followed several weeks later with a July 9 Facebook post declaring that it, too, will let kitties be kitties.

Tammy Ness, a veterinarian at Animal Health Clinic, said the debate over continuing the practice has been going on for a while.

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“This is the right thing to do for our feline patients,” Ness said.

“We have been kind of on the fence about declawing for awhile, and we have had discussions in the past about it, and if it’s ethical to do this procedure. We even had one vet here that refused to do them; she wouldn’t do them at all,” Ness said recently.

“And we took the stance, up until now, that when people wanted it, we’d really have that serious discussion with them about what it is and the serious potential complications of it and offer alternatives and encourage alternatives,” she said. “We have found in the last two, three years, that the number (of declawings) we have done has significantly dropped. People are just more aware about it now, and willing to do the alternative type things, like training to a scratching post, working behavior training, realizing this is a normal behavior for cats, and doing nail caps.”

Tammy Ness, a longtime veterinarian at Animal Health Clinic in south Fargo, said Friday, July 2, 2021, that no longer offering declawing is "the right thing to do for our feline patients." (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)
Tammy Ness, a longtime veterinarian at Animal Health Clinic in south Fargo, said Friday, July 2, 2021, that no longer offering declawing is "the right thing to do for our feline patients." (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

Ness said declawing is something the clinic reserved for extreme cases.

“There have been some cats that have been hell on wheels to the owners. When you have a little old couple come in with their legs full of scratches, you think you can probably do the procedure because it’s not a good situation,” Ness said. “It’s been reserved really for cases like that. (But) even for those cases, you still felt, I felt, kind of sick doing them.”

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Declawing means amputating the last bone on the pads of each paw. It’s mostly done with the front paws, but some people have all four paws declawed, she said. Several Fargo-Moorhead veterinary clinics said they try to restrict the procedure to kittens six months and younger.

It’s painful, Ness said. To reduce the pain, the clinic used lasers to cut and to reduce pain and swelling. They also prescribed pain medication.

“It’s like removing the tip of our finger, that bone and and all,” Ness said. “It’s an orthopedic surgery. It’s the amputation of a digit.”

Usually, cats heal in a few weeks, but a few are sore for months, and some have long-term visible changes in their mobility, she said.

Ness said dropping declawing as a service follows the guidelines of Fear Free, an initiative aimed at promoting animal well-being and reducing fear, anxiety and stress for companion animals.

There are many Fear Free certified professionals in the Fargo-Moorhead area and around the country. However, Animal Health Clinic is the only fully certified Fear Free practice in North Dakota, Fear Free confirmed.

In its announcement that it would no longer offer declawing, Valley Veterinary Hospital said it strives to give pets the best care and to “advocate for their well-being.”

“Due to that, our belief in Fear Free veterinary visits and our accreditation with the American Animal Hospital Association, we have decided to align with their recommendations and cease feline declawing immediately,” the business's Facebook message said. “We thank you for trusting us with your pet's care and we thank you for allowing us to be their voice!”

The Forum sought further comment from Valley Veterinary but received no reply.

Cat’s Cradle Shelter in downtown Fargo stands against the procedure.

“We have a NO declaw clause in our adoption contract,” Gail Adams-Ventzke, co-founder and executive director said Friday, July 16.

“We are adamantly against declawing due to the massive pain and behavior problems we have seen in declawed cats,” Adams-Ventzke said. That can include urinating outside of their boxes or becoming more aggressive.

Kittens awaiting adoption Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Cats Cradle Shelter in downtown Fargo. The shelter requires new owners to promise not to declaw their adopted cats. (Helmut Schmidt/The Forum)
Kittens awaiting adoption Friday, July 16, 2021, at the Cats Cradle Shelter in downtown Fargo. The shelter requires new owners to promise not to declaw their adopted cats. (Helmut Schmidt/The Forum)

Adams-Ventzke said one cat taken in by the shelter had to be taken to a specialist in the Twin Cities for surgery because her paws were so badly damaged by the original procedure.

At Homeward Animal Shelter in north Fargo, those seeking a kitty companion are asked if they plan to declaw.

"We want to have that conversation; we want to know ahead of time if that's their plan," Operations Director Heather Clyde said Tuesday, July 20.

Those who want a declawed cat are encouraged to either adopt a cat that has already been declawed or to adopt a kitten. Clyde said Homeward doesn't want to see kittens older than six months declawed. Younger cats have fewer complications, she said, while older cats can have behavioral or health issues because of the procedure, making it a cruelty.

"We talk a lot of people out of it because of all the horror stories," Clyde said.

Ness said there is a much stronger emphasis on a pet’s emotional health and well-being with the Fear Free veterinary philosophy.

“In the past, you get done what you have to get done and move on, and that’s not great. As part of being Fear Free, the Fear Free people made a really strong statement saying practices need to stop declawing or you lose your certification. I guess that was all the little nudge we needed to completely go that route,” Ness said. “They gave practices until the end of the year to phase it out. But we’re done. We kind of figured we would not wait until the end of the year.”

Ness said Animal Health Clinic never recommended declawing for outdoor or indoor/outdoor cats, because it would remove some of a cat’s options for escaping threats or defending itself.

Some people, she said, just felt declawing was just what was done, along with spaying or neutering. Once educated about the potential problems, most people opted not to pursue declawing, she said.

For others, it was the destruction of furniture and carpet or scratching up their children that led to the decision to declaw.

Ness said cats can be trained to use scratching posts. It helps to keep their nails trimmed, and nails can be capped, she said. Some animals have anxiety, which can be addressed, she said.

“People need to realize that it's a natural behavior. It feels good. It’s a scent thing, a marking thing, so other animals know they’ve been there. So, it’s a natural behavior, you’re not going to stop it. You just need to redirect it to the right place,” Ness said.

The American Veterinary Medical Association discourages onychectomy or declawing of cats as an elective procedure and supports non-surgical alternatives.

The American Animal Hospital Association and American Association of Feline Practitioners also strongly oppose declawing of domestic cats.