DENVER -- The battle over declawing cats is growing in Colorado.
Animal rights activists say it’s cruel and barbaric. They’re leading a new movement to ban the procedure, making it illegal in our state. But some cat owners say that’s going too far.
Popcorn is a 15-year-old mild-mannered cat even when he’s annoyed by the family.
“He doesn't like Bella. But Bella wants his attention, only his attention,” says Maylou of Popcorn.
She says he’s a far different feline from the one she brought home when he was five weeks old.
'I noticed my son was just bleeding … He told me the cat attacked me,” says Maylou.
Popcorn scratched her then 9-year-old son Josh, so severely he needed about a dozen stitches.
“I told them I did not want the cat at all, that I want to get rid of him, that I don't want him close to my kids anymore,” she says.
But she says the Humane Society wouldn't let her relinquish or euthanize Popcorn.
A veterinarian offered her an alternative.
“He advised me that usually they don't recommend it, but if I want to keep him that that would be the only choice for me,” she says.
So Popcorn underwent a common procedure now considered controversial: onychectomy or cat declawing.
“Nobody would think of taking the teeth out of a puppy because it chews slippers. But we readily declaw a kitten because it's scratching the couch,” says Jennifer Conrad, film maker of the documentary, "The Pet Project."
The veterinarian and advocate now heads up a movement to ban the surgery in Colorado.
A few weeks ago in Denver, she debuted her documentary, which shows some of her big cat clients crippled by the procedure.
The movie documents her successful battle to have the elective surgery banned in several California cities.
“It's not pulling the nail out. It is cutting this whole bone off. And you can imagine how excruciatingly painful that is,” says Conrad.
She says it's the equivalent of amputating a person's fingers at the top knuckle.
Conrad says it can lead to even more problems, including biting and refusing to use the litter box, which can doom a cat to a shelter or death.
“If somebody is intolerant of a cat scratching a couch, then they're really intolerant of the behavior problems that a cat begins to have from being declawed,” says Conrad.
Nobody could get near this cat. He would brush the cage and attack,” says a worker about a declawed cat at Max Fund, a no-kill shelter in Denver.
Out of about 300 cats, a dozen are declawed, some with behavioral problems.
“We've noticed it in a lot of declawed cats. That they have tendency to smack or bite. I don't say all of them,” says the worker.
As a result, the shelter won’t allow anyone to adopt a cat that plans to declaw it.
“Those of us who love and work with cats, we struggle with it every day,” says Rebecca Ruch-Gallie of Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
The procedure is taught as an elective to students.
“We teach it because if we don't teach it the right way it can have catastrophic outcomes. It can be very debilitating for the cat. It can be very painful for the cat. We can get regrowth of claws, if it's not done properly. So we want to make sure if our students are performing the procedure, they do it properly,” she says.
Ruch-Gallie says the surgery is usually a benefit to the owner—for their health—if they're elderly, diabetic or have compromised immune systems.
She says she's unsure about banning the surgery.
“I would like us to really be careful about laws we pass that impact the overall welfare of cats in long-term. Because we don't have sufficient data, we don't know what the ramifications would be if this legislation is passed,” she says.
And the verdict is still out when it comes to the American Veterinary Medical Association which states: “There is no scientific evidence that declawing leads to behavior abnormalities when the behavior of declawed cats is compared with that of cats in control groups.”
The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association has no position on declawing.
Some vets say there are less painful alternatives to declawing, like scratching posts.
You can trim their nails weekly.
There are also soft plastic caps, you glue to a cat's sharp claws. And you can try these clear, double-sided sticky strips you place on furniture.
There are many alternatives.
Conrad wants cat owners to be aware of these choices. But more importantly, she wants them to know declawing is cruel and banned in most parts of the world.
“I think it's grievous we still do this and the rest of the world doesn't, she says.
But for Popcorn and his owner, declawing worked.
"I love the cat so much. Sometimes I don't even remember what I did to him,” says Maylou.
And she can't imagine having made the wrong decision 14 years ago.
“Otherwise, I wouldn't have him here,” she says.
Conrad estimates one in four cats is declawed in the United States.
But every veterinarian we talked to say they rarely perform the procedure.
CSU has done just three so far since July and eight all of last year.