Cruelty Argument Sways California Courts on Declaw Ban

A lengthy court battle over the regulation of veterinary medicine—specifically declaw procedures—ended Oct. 10, 2007, when the California Supreme Court upheld a declaw ban issued by the city of West Hollywood. The court rejected a request from the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) to review an appellate court decision to uphold the ban.

The case, which dates back to March 2005, sets a legal precedent, which may prompt other municipalities to try to regulate veterinary medicine, said Jeff Smith, DVM, CVMA president. “To say we’re hugely disappointed is an understatement, but legally this is the end game. There are no appeals left. We’re going to have to live with it.”

Veterinary professionals attribute the city’s success to an argument that declaw procedures are cruel. Another feather in the city’s cap is the fact that the Practice Act does not specifically list the declaw procedure in its definition of veterinary medicine.

West Hollywood city officials have mentioned adding tail docking and ear cropping to the ban, and Smith wonders where their regulation efforts will end.

“Maybe they don’t like euthanasia of animals or euthanasia by lethal injection, or certain anesthetics,” Smith said. “And if they can do this with veterinary medicine will it spill into [human] medicine and dentistry? Can they modify things they think are inappropriate [in those fields]? At this point that is our biggest fear.”

From a practical perspective, West Hollywood only has three clinics, which limits the immediate impact on doctors, but because the decision sets legal precedent it could have a domino effect, Smith explained.

“It’s taken the lid off the jar. We worry that this will embolden municipalities to start regulating veterinary medicine because West Hollywood was successful,” he added.

Previous attempts to ban declawing at the state level—through the Practice Act—have failed, Smith said. And while he does not expect other state-level attempts, he thinks some cities—including San Francisco—will attempt local bans.

“Local politics are much more volatile than they are at the state level. You have more people to convince than five members of the city council.”

Although the CVMA will oppose local bans, the board has not decided what resources can be invested. The association hired a private law firm to handle the West Hollywood case because of its significance.

“It was a trial case,” Smith said. “Everyone was looking to see what happened here.”

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