Why the declawing of big cats needs to stop now

When I heard the news last week that a big cat show in Nevada had been cited for animal welfare violations, I cringed.

Dirk Arthur's Wild Magic show—operating out of two Harrah’s casinos—was reprimanded by the USDA in December for violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) including: declawing two juvenile tigers and one young lion (an issue that the inspector had discussed with the owner previously as being unacceptable); keeping a snow leopard in a rusty cage with potential for injury, and chaining a bobcat in a manner that jeopardized the animal’s safety.

The USDA also found that the animals’ cages were too small to allow the animals to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement as well as insufficient fencing to properly ensure animal containment.

The good news is that most of these violations can be rectified immediately. (And Harrah’s has said publicly that they told Dirk Arthur to “address and correct them,” and claim he has been “actively and diligently” doing so.)

The bad news is one violation cannot.

A lion or tiger can never grow back its claws after a declawing.

This once common practice, now hotly contested, doesn’t just clip the nail close so it doesn’t continue to regenerate. It amputates the feline’s digit at the last knuckle. Since 2003, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has opposed declawing for non-medical reasons in wild and exotic felines, and even strengthened their position in 2012 from “opposes” to “condemns”.

Following this lead, the USDA Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) declared in 2006 that this practice, unless prescribed by an attending veterinarian for necessary treatment, is unacceptable, and those licensees who continue to routinely preform these procedures could be cited with the potential for enforcement action. 

Many housecats have been declawed in an attempt to stave off the risk of ruining furniture, and in the case of big cats, to protect trainers and owners in the case of an accidental or playful swat making dangerous contact. (Trainers, of course, know that this is a false sense of security as the cat could still easily cause serious damage with their teeth, as they do to kill prey in the wild.)

Research shows that newly declawed cats shift their body weight backward onto the large central pad of the front feet and off the toes. This often produces an altered gait, causing stress on the leg joints and spine, and results in painful arthritis.

This hit home for me.

I have just returned from a trip transferring a tigress named Sheba from her campground cage in Arkansas to a more comfortable life at In-Sync’s sanctuary in Wylie, Texas. While she has adjusted well in her new environment, it pains me to watch her hobble around her new enclosure. I am hopeful that a new enclosure with much softer terrain will mitigate this arthritis; yet I know the declawing has done its damage.

Countless big cats in sanctuaries across the country suffer from the same ailments associated with declawing. Many come in with botched operations that manifest in infections and ingrown claws or bear evidence of callous procedures involving nothing more than nail clippers to deliver crude amputations.

With declawing, the damage is essentially irreversible. Trying to strip an animal from its natural defenses or attributes to make them fit a mold we’ve created is far worse than “unacceptable,” it’s disgraceful.

Educate yourself on the issue; the California-based Paw Project has some good information on its web site. And if you choose to patronize a venue that exhibits big cats, especially in performances, please consider what the animal may have endured for such entertainment


For more information about IFAW's campaign to protect big cats in the U.S., visit our campaign page.

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Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy