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New York just became the first state to ban cat declawing

Animal advocates call it a win — but others argue it’ll make things worse for cats.

A month-old Amur leopard cat
A month-old Amur leopard cat named Zabava. 
Yuri Smityuk/TASS via Getty Images
Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

Animal advocates are celebrating a big win in New York. The state has become the first in the US to ban cat declawing, a painful procedure that involves removing bones — not just nails — from a cat’s paws.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an anti-declawing bill into law Monday, calling the practice “archaic,” “inhumane,” and “unnecessary.” Effective immediately, pet owners who have their cats declawed could face a fine of up to $1,000.

“This is a real triumph for cats and the people who love them,” said New York state Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, who’s been championing the bill since 2015. “This has catapulted New York to a leadership position when it comes to cruelty against felines.”

She also said the ban has important implications not just for cats but for animal welfare more broadly: “Having this bill become law indicates that New York is changing the way we view animals and our relationship with them.”

Cat declawing is already illegal in a good swath of Canada and Europe. In the US, a few cities — Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver — have already banned the practice. At the state level, Massachusetts may soon follow New York’s lead; a similar anti-declawing bill is under consideration there.

Several (adorably named) organizations, like the Paw Project and Alley Cat Allies, had joined Rosenthal in pushing for a ban on declawing, arguing it’s a cruel surgery akin to an amputation — not the sort of thing a person should get to inflict just because they want to, say, protect their couch from getting all scratched up.

But not everyone agrees that the ban is, as Rosenthal said, “a real triumph for cats.” For months, there’s been an ongoing debate about whether a ban might inadvertently cause some cats to suffer more.

One prominent voice making that case is the New York State Veterinary Medical Society, which fought the ban tooth and, um, nail. Here’s its argument:

Many doctors direct that their patients have their cats declawed when they are immuno-compromised, diabetic, hemophiliac, on immune suppressing medication, and for various other medical reasons. ... These cat owners should not need to face relinquishment or euthanasia of their pet because the option to declaw cats is unavailable.

Cats that would lose their home if not declawed face a higher risk of euthanasia than if their owner were able to care for them. They also exchange a life of comfort and care to potentially spend years in conditions that may be far from ideal for long-term living.

In other words, the Veterinary Medical Society thinks that a ban on declawing could potentially increase the harm to some cats, causing them to be abandoned or put to sleep unnecessarily. Surely, the argument goes, it’s better to have toe bones removed than to be euthanized.

This is basically a debate about harm reduction: If we want to reduce the net suffering of cats as much as possible, is it more effective to ban declawing or to leave it up to the discretion of veterinarians?

New York’s law, to be clear, does allow for exceptions to the ban, but only when “necessary for a therapeutic purpose” — that is, “to address the physical medical condition of the cat” like an infection that could compromise the cat’s health. The health of the humans living with the cat is not listed as a valid reason for declawing.

Looking to the future, Rosenthal wants to change our tendency to view animals as if they’re our property, according to the New York Times. She’s not alone in that goal. Some advocates want to get us humans to include animals in our moral circle, the imaginary boundary we draw around those we consider worthy of ethical consideration. Their hope is that if we come to see animals this way, we’ll grant them legally enshrined rights similar to the ones we enjoy.

New York’s ban on cat declawing — and the debate on harm to cats it has inspired — may be a small step in that direction.

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