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Assemblyman Nava introduces bill to forbid California landlords from requiring animal declawing, debarking

April 15, 2010 | 11:33 pm

Claw Last year, California legislation that put regulation of cat declawing, or onychectomy, into the state's hands sparked heated debate and prompted Los Angeles and six other cities to pass local bans on the practice before the law went into effect this year. Now the issue of declawing is back on the legislative docket, and contention may be brewing again.

Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara) has introduced a bill that would make it illegal for California landlords who allow animals to require renters to declaw or debark their pets as a condition of occupancy. Under the legislation, landlords could not give preferential treatment to tenants with declawed or debarked animals or advertise in a way designed to discourage applicants with animals that have not been declawed or devocalized.

The California Apartment Assn., which represents more than 50,000 rental property owners, managers and industry professionals, supports the bill's approach, which is consistent with the Sacramento-based association's policies, according to Debra Carlton, senior vice president. Carlton said her group does not call for declawing or debarking in the rental contract forms it produces for landlords. The association instead recommends that property owners rely on pet deposits and hold residents responsible for the actions of their pets.

But the California Veterinary Medical Assn., which initially planned to support the legislation because it involves landlords and not veterinarians, has decided to oppose it because of language contained in Section 1 of the bill.

Said the veterinary group's president, Mark Nunez: "Section 1 we believe has inflammatory unscientific language that certainly is not based in fact. It talks about scientific studies showing that declawed cats have a tendency to bite more, which is simply not proven. It says that declawed cats are more likely to lose their homes because of unintended behavioral problems that are often exhibited in animals that have been declawed, which is also simply not true."

Nunez said the group would be willing to revisit its position if this section were removed from the bill. He added that the association is not pro-declawing but believes that the decision of whether to perform the procedure should be between the cat owner and the veterinarian.

Declawing is a surgical procedure in which a laser, scalpel or clippers is used to remove the claw and last bone of the cat's toes. It typically may be done on the front paws to prevent scratching of humans, other animals, furniture or carpets, or for medical reasons. In addition to nontherapeutic declawing, the bill also covers nontherapeutic tendonectomy and phalangectomy, which also involve an animal's claws. Debarking, or devocalizing, involves surgically cutting an animal’s vocal cords to reduce barking or other vocalizations.

"I had always thought that declawing was barbaric and shouldn't be done," Nava said in describing his reasons for introducing the legislation. "And the more I learned of it, the more apparent it became that this was a procedure being done for the convenience of people without any real thought to the consequences to the animal."

Nava had originally considered introducing a bill that would ban the practice of declawing in the state. But after meeting with groups interested in the issue -- including the Santa Monica-based Paw Project, the California Veterinary Medical Assn., other animal protection groups and a representative from the West Hollywood City Council -- he decided on this narrower measure.

"It was pretty clear that a statewide ban was going to engender a great deal of opposition and would jeopardize any progress in getting people to understand why I didn't favor the practice," Nava said.

AB 2743 would impose a civil penalty of not more than $2,500 to be paid to any individual affected by a violation of the law.

Nava, a candidate for state attorney general, is a member of the Legislature's new Animal Protection Caucus and an author of past animal-protection legislation, including a 2009 law that increases the penalties for spectators at dog fighting exhibitions.

How frequently do landlords require declawing or debarking? His office isn’t sure, but Nava says it may be more common than we think. Nava said that most people, when confronted with the choice of losing their housing or declawing their cat, would declaw their cat, even though "it just breaks their heart."

Carlton says the apartment association gets a lot of tenant calls, but she’s never heard a tenant complaint on the issue. Veterinarian Jennifer Conrad, director of the Paw Project, the animal advocacy group that is sponsoring the bill, says she gets an e-mail about once a month from someone asking for advice on dealing with a landlord who requires declawing. She offered examples of Craigslist rental ads specifying that only declawed cats would be allowed in units. She’s not sure how many landlords require dogs to be debarked.

In 2003, West Hollywood became the first California city to ban declawing. That ordinance was challenged by the California Veterinary Medical Assn. but upheld by the courts. Last summer, the California Legislature passed a law, sponsored by the California Veterinary Medical Assn., giving the state authority over medical scope-of-practice issues and preventing cities and counties from passing ordinances banning medical procedures.

Before the law went into effect Jan. 1, seven cities -- Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Burbank, San Francisco and Berkeley -- passed ordinances banning declawing within their borders. Malibu adopted a resolution reaffirming its opposition to the practice, and Marin County passed a resolution calling for a statewide ban.

Devocalization has been banned except for therapeutic purposes in New Jersey and may not be done in Ohio on dogs considered vicious. The Massachusetts Legislature recently passed a bill that would make devocalizing a dog or a cat without medical cause a crime; the bill awaits signature on the governor’s desk.

AB 2743 will be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, possibly in the next few weeks.

-- Anne Colby

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Photo credit: Catharine Hamm / Los Angeles Times 

  
 
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