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From Animal Issues, Volume 29, Number 4, Winter 1998

Behavior Modification or Destructive Surgery?

By Tina Perry

Cats have retractile nails, also known as "claws." Unlike most mammals who walk on the soles of their paws or feet, cats are digitigrade, which means that they walk on their toes. A cat's claws are used for balance, for exercising, and for stretching the muscles in the legs, back, and paws. Scratching is also used to mark a cat's territory.

Some cats use their claws to scratch items that we humans may feel are inappropriate. This type of natural scratching behavior is often considered to be "destructive behavior." As a result, many people feel that the removal of a cat's claws to prevent inappropriate scratching, is an acceptable practice. It is not. A cat's claw is the anatomic equal of the last bone or digit of the human finger or toe. Therefore, declawing is the equivalent to amputating the first digit of a person's finger or toe.

Think about the declawing experience from a cat's perspective. She is removed from her safe, familiar surroundings and taken to a veterinarian's office where she is poked with needles. When she awakens from the general anesthesia she has been given for the surgery, her feet are throbbing from pain. Then for the next two to three weeks her paws will be so tender that her ability to walk, climb, and jump will be drastically impaired. She may also associate the pain she endures while scratching in her litter box to the litter box itself, and begin to use the box inconsistently out of fear of discomfort. She will never be able to scratch a post or use her claws to grasp a toy again.

A cat that has been declawed is completely defenseless against other animals. Declawed cats must never be allowed outdoors where they are vulnerable to attack by dogs and cats.

Veterinarian Kimberly Harrison refuses to perform declaw procedures. She states that"behavioral problems frequently haunt declawed cats. By far the commonest thing we see is cats not using the litter box. When cats have stress beyond what they can take it often shows up as a litter box problem and declawing makes them stress intolerant, in general, for the rest of their lives." Dr. Harrison gets 3 to 12 calls a day about litter box problems in cats and, after ruling out medical problems, 90% of the cats with litter box aversion are declawed cats.

Many cats also suffer from complications after declawing surgery. A 1994 study by the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine found that of 163 cats who endured declaw surgery, 50% had one or more complications immediately after surgery. Of the 121 cats whose progress was followed after surgery, 20% had continued complications, such as infection, bone protrusion into the pad of the paw, and prolonged intermittent lameness and abnormal stance (standing posture).

Declawing is illegal in the United Kingdom and many other countries. So why do American vets continue to perform such a barbaric procedure? Dr. Harrison feels that vets in the U.S. continue to perform this surgery because it is not in the vet's "financial best interests to discourage declawing." Dr. Harrison states that "declawing is easy money" for veterinarians and it takes less time to perform the surgery than to discuss alternatives to the procedure with clients.

You may be asking yourself, "But what if the cat's guardian has tried everything else and declawing is the only option for keeping a cat that has 'destructive scratching habits'?" Most cats can eventually be taught to scratch only in appropriate places. Plus, alternatives to declawing are available.

Keep in mind that declawing a cat will only solve one specific behavior problem and may well be the catalyst for other problems -- such as soiling outside the litter box orbiting -- behaviors that may well result in their being surrendered to a shelter anyway.

Declawing greatly infringes upon a cat's ability to partake in a variety of natural behaviors that can impact the cat's mental and physical well-being. As the Association for Veterinarians for Animals Rights summed up in a recent statement: "It would seem more ethical and humane to accept that claws and scratching are inherent feline attributes, and to adjust one's life accordingly if a cat is desired as a companion. If this [scratching] is unacceptable, then perhaps a different companion would be in order."

Behavior Modification and Alternatives to Declawing

  • As a diversion, attach bubble wrap, tin foil, slippery wax paper, or double-sided sticky tape to the object your kitty scratches.
  • Smear citrus-scented liquid or commercial cat repellant on the item your cat likes to scratch.
  • Provide a scratching post or other appropriate scratching surfaces in every room of your house. Carpet-covered posts, wicker baskets or hampers, sisal-covered posts, or even scratching boxes made of cardboard make good scratching surfaces.
  • Vertical scratching posts should be sturdy and high enough for your cat to stretch out when scratching.
  • Place the scratching post near the inappropriate item your cat prefers to scratch.
  • When your cat scratches an item that is off-limits, gently carry her to the nearest scratching post and remind her to scratch it by making scratching motions with her claws.
  • Praise your cat when she scratches where she should and interrupt her when she scratches elsewhere. A squirt from a squirt bottle of water may provide negative reinforcement when she scratches in the wrong place. Or make a noise, such as clapping your hands, or using a shake can or jar filled with a few pebbles or coins.
  • If your cat isn't interested in the scratching surfaces you provide him, sprinkle or spray the surfaces with catnip to entice his interest. Do this on a weekly basis to keep kitty interested.
  • Ask your veterinarian to show you how to correctly clip your cat's claws/nails. A cat's front claws should be clipped every week or two. Trimming the back claws is rarely necessary.
  • Getting your cat accustomed to having his or her paws handled is a must prior to initiating nail trimming. Start preparing your kitten or cat for nail trimming sessions by lightly stroking her paws and gently separating her toes so that the claw is visible. Do this on a regular basis until she is comfortable enough with the process to allow you to trim her claws. Trim just enough to make the claws blunt, but not so short that you cut into the quick.

reprinted with permission of the Animal Protection Institute
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