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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon Lawmakers Debate Whether To Ban Declaw Procedures

Oregon could become the first state in the nation to ban the declawing of cats in most circumstances.

But some cat lovers worry the bill moving through the legislature has too many exceptions. They want lawmakers to start over again from scratch.

Democratic Representative Brent Barton is a Harvard-educated attorney who counts creating a stable rainy day fund for Oregon among his legislative priorities. But he thinks he'll forever be known for his quest this year to pass a ban on declawing cats.

"I received more correspondence about this idea than all my other legislative proposals combined,” he said.

Emails and phone calls came in from as far away as Europe. The majority are from people who think Barton's bill doesn't go far enough because it would still allow declawing under limited circumstances.

The implication: Barton compromised because he doesn't care enough about cats. This to a man who keeps a framed photo of his cat, Clarence, on his desk at the Oregon state capitol.

"Clarence is not the brightest little fellow,” Barton admitted. “But what he lacks in intellect he makes up for with sheer cuddliness. It's embarrassing how much I love my cat."

A painful, disfiguring procedure

Karen Henson is a veterinarian at The Cat's Meow Cat Clinic in Oregon City -- the heart of Barton's House district. She is also a cat lover. Her cat, Bella, serves as the unofficial greeter at the clinic.

Henson has declawed cats in the past. But no more.

"I decided I needed to get off the fence and make a decision one way or the other,” she said. “Am I truly helping my patients? And that was where the decision was."

Henson said declawing is a painful, disfiguring procedure.

"See how the paw has a little bit of a funkier look to it?"

Exhibit A is none other than Bella.

"See how this toe is kinked a little bit, and then see the toe pads were nicked off so there's scar tissue here and here,” Henson pointed out.

Bella was already declawed when she took up residence at The Cat's Meow Clinic. Henson said she supports the general idea behind the declaw bill. But she's concerned that the exceptions it includes wouldn't do much to slow the rate of declaw surgeries in Oregon.

A wide-open loophole

As it's currently written the bill would allow vets to declaw cats if it's necessary for the health of the cat. Henson supports that.

"That is a purpose that my medicine is supposed to do,” she said. “But to do something that is not productive to the animal, that's against my oath that I took as a veterinarian."

Henson's referring to a provision in the bill that would allow declawing if it's needed to prevent cat behavior that's harmful to humans. Cat lovers say that's a wide-open loophole since the bill doesn't define how vets are supposed to verify that a human is at risk.

That position is at odds with The Oregon Veterinary Medical Association. The industry group wants the decision on whether to declaw to remain in the hands of vets and pet owners. Its president, Chuck Meyer, told a Senate panel that sometimes declawing is the only thing that keeps a cat from being sent to a shelter and possibly euthanized.

And he said a ban on the practice would separate some children from their beloved pets.

"It's not uncommon for children in slightly abusive and or dysfunctional families to have an extremely tight bond with that animal,” Meyer said.

That comment stunned Sharon Harmon of the Oregon Humane Society.

"I can't think of a worse lesson to teach a child: If you do something normal but just bad for the day, we're going to amputate your fingers? I'm sorry, I am so shocked by what I've heard today,” she said.

In the end, the veterinarians’ association stayed neutral on the bill, which still has to clear both chambers. The measure would also prohibit surgery meant to devocalize dogs. That procedure is apparently so rare that few people objected to an outright ban.