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Denver doctors who were classmates are on opposite sides of cat declawing debate

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The nation's top veterinary organization changed its policy on domestic cat declawing during its recent national convention in Denver, making it clear that the controversial procedure is considered an amputation that should only be a last resort.

But a prominent Denver veterinarian who is leading a drive to ban the procedure in Colorado said today the amended policy doesn't go far enough.

"It's one step forward and two steps back," said Dr. Aubrey Lavizzo, who owns the Center for Animal Wellness in Denver. Lavizzo is also the Colorado director of the Paw Project, an organization that argues that declawing is a cruel, debilitating procedure that leads to long-term behavioral problems.

The new policy of the American Veterinary Medical Association (www.avma.org) says that the procedure is a major surgery that should only be performed after alternatives have been sought to prevent destructive clawing.

It says that while declawing is not the first option, there may be situations where declawing may be necessary to keep pets together with their families or to prevent euthanasia.

It also says cats with claws may present an increased risk of injury or disease to those whose skin integrity may be compromised (e.g., the elderly, diabetics) or those who are immunocompromised (e.g., those living with HIV/AIDS)

"The main intent [of the revised policy] is to elevate the seriousness of the procedure in the minds of veterinarians and, hopefully, the public," said Dr. Ted Cohn in an AVMA press release. Cohn, owner of University Hills Aninal Hospital in Denver, assumed the presidency of AVMA this week. "It's imperative that pet owners know that this is not a simple procedure."

The AVMA believes the decision to perform declawing rests with the owner, in consultation with their veterinarian. What is decided is dependent on each situation; however, with multiple alternatives available, declawing should remain an option of last resort for veterinarians and pet owners.

Lavizzo said that while acknowledging the procedure is an amputation, the revised policy fails to make clear that declawing is more than the removal of a claw. "It also takes part of the toe," he said.

More egregious, he said, is the policy section that says the procedure is justified for people who have immune problems.

"No-one says an immuno-compromised person needs to have a cat declawed," Lavizzo said. "It bothers me. It is wrong to make this a public health issue. Why doesn't AVMA say picking up animal feces is the biggest threat? This cat scratch fever issue is not an issue. Less than 1 percent of immuno-compromised people have such problems."

Lavizzo said declawed cats develop behaviioral problems, such as biting and an aversion to using a litter box. "The sad thing is degree of bone inflammation is awful. Every cat declawed shows some degree of pathology - long-term disease, problems that don't show up for years."

He also said animal shelters are unanimously opposed to declawing. Lavizzo got some support on that assertion today from Matt Levien, animal behavior manager at the Dumb Friends League.

"We do not support or encourage declawing," Levien said. "There are many diffent options to prevent scratching in the house." He said his sense is that other shelters have the same aversion to the procedure.

Cohn was not available for comment today. But in an interview with Westword(www.westword.com) this week, he explained why declawing should remain an option in the toolbox of veterinarians.

"Declawing is not my favorite thing to do, but it's still necessary in some cases," Cohn said. "Yes, it is an amputation, but with proper anesthesia and post-surgical care, cats do very well. If we stopped doing them entirely, there would be many more cats running feral or in the shelters."

Ironically, Lavizzo and Cohn are friends who wnt to school together at the Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine. Nevertheless, Lavizzo said he intends to put an initiative on next year's state ballot banning declawing.

"In most cases, it's not medically necessary at all," he told Westword. "It's just cruel."

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