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A Rational Look at Declawing from Jean Hofve, DVM

There are many myths, misunderstandings, and strong opinions about declawing of cats. If you are considering having this surgery performed on your cat, or if a veterinarian has suggested it, please take a few minutes to learn more about this major surgical procedure before you make a decision.

Declawing is not a routine surgery and should never be done as a “preventative.” Despite their reputation for independence, cats can readily be trained to leave the sofa, curtains, or carpet untouched. Using surgery to prevent or correct a behavioral problem is expedient, but it is definitely not the wisest, kindest, most cost-effective, or best solution for you and your cat. Your veterinarian has an obligation to educate you as to the nature of the procedure, the risks of anesthesia and surgery, and the potential for complications, both short- and long-term.

Why do people declaw their cats?

·        To protect furniture or other property

·        They don’t want to try to train the cat

·         Their other cat is declawed

·         To stop the cat from scratching them

·         Their friend’s or family’s cat is declawed

·         They have always had declawed cats

·         Their veterinarian recommends it

·          Because they just do not know any better

Many people report that they are happier with their cats after declawing, because it makes the cats “better pets.” Unfortunately, just as many people have discovered – too late – that declawing frequently leads to far worse problems than it solves. There is no way to know ahead of time into which category your cat might fall! There are other, better ways to solve behavior problems than radical and irreversible surgery.

What is declawing?

Declawing, which is rightly described as “de-toeing” when the same procedure is done to chickens, is the amputation of each front toe at the first joint (hind foot declaws are not commonly done but would be equivalent). This is necessary because, unlike a fingernail, the claw actually grows from the first toe bone. The procedure is so excruciatingly painful that it was once used as a technique of torture, and even today is the primary test of the effectiveness of pain medications. Recovery takes a few weeks, but even after the surgical wounds have healed, there are other long-term physical and psychological effects.

For the surgery itself, the cat is put under general anesthesia and the toes are prepared with antiseptic soap. A tourniquet is placed on the cat’s leg just below the elbow and tightened to prevent excessive bleeding. In the scalpel technique, the surgeon grips the tip of the claw with a small clamp, and uses scalpel to carve around the third phalanx, cutting through the skin and severing tendons, nerves, and blood vessels. In the guillotine blade technique, a sterilized veterinary nail clipper is used to cut the tissues. A scalpel may be used to remove the last piece of P3 [photos]. The wound is then closed with sutures or surgical glue. Tight bandages may be applied that restrict the normal response of the tissue to swell, causing intense pressure and more pain. LASER surgery is similar to the scalpel technique, although the LASER cauterizes the blood vessels as they are cut, so there is less bleeding.

Are claws that important to a cat’s well-being?

Claws perform a number of vital functions for the cat. By scratching various surfaces, cats create a visual and scent identification mark for their territory. Claws provide psychological comfort through kneading, help the cat climb to safety or a secure vantage point, and help the cat fully stretch his back and legs. A declawed cat never again experiences the head-to-toe satisfaction of a full body stretch!

What are the potential complications of declawing?

Post-surgical complications:  Lameness, abscesses and claw regrowth can occur days or weeks or many years after surgery. In one study that followed cats for only 5 months after surgery, nearly 1/3 of cats developed complications from both declaw and tendonectomy surgeries (digital tendonectomy is a procedure whereby the tendons that extend the toes are cut; it’s sometimes promoted as an “alternative” to declawing).

Pain:  It is impossible to know how much chronic pain and suffering declawing causes, because cats are unable to express these in human terms. However, we can get an idea by looking at similar procedures in people. Nearly all human amputees report “phantom” sensations from the amputated part, ranging from merely strange to extremely painful (about 40% of such sensations are categorized as painful). Because declawing involves ten separate amputations, it is virtually certain that all declawed cats experience phantom pain in one or more toes. In humans, these sensations continue for life, even when the amputation took place in early childhood; there is no physiological reason that this would not be true for cats. Cats are stoic and typically conceal pain or illness until it becomes overwhelming. With chronic pain, it may be that they simply learn to live and cope with it. Their behavior may appear “normal,” but a lack of overt signs of pain does not mean that they are pain-free.

Joint Stiffness:  In declawed (and tendonectomized) cats, the tendons that control the toe joints retract after surgery, and these joints become essentially “frozen.” The toes can no longer be extended, but remain fully contracted for the life of the cat. In cats that have been declawed for many years, these joints often cannot be moved, even under deep anesthesia. The fact that most cats continue to make scratching motions after they are declawed is often said to “prove” that they do not  “miss” their claws. However, this behavior could be equally well – or better – explained as desperate but ineffective efforts to stretch those stiff toes, legs, shoulders and backs.

Arthritis:  Research has shown that, in the immediate post-operative period, newly declawed cats shift their body weight backward onto the large central pads of the feet, and off the sore toes. This effect was significant even when strong pain medication was given, and remained apparent for the duration of the study (up to 40 hours after the surgery). If this altered gait persists over time, it would cause stress on the leg joints and spine, and could lead to damage and arthritic changes in multiple joints. A recent study showed that arthritis of the elbow is very common in older cats. When contacted, the researchers admitted that they did not ask or record whether the cats were declawed, evidently preferring the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy so as not to anger those many veterinarians who make a lot of money from declawing.

Litterbox Problems:  Experts say that declawed cats have more litterbox problems than clawed cats. Not many people would choose urine-soaked carpeting (or floorboards, sofa cushions, walls, bedding, or mattresses) over a few scratch marks, but this is a distressingly common outcome. In one survey, 95% of calls about declawed cats related to litterbox problems, while only 46% of clawed cats had such problems – and most of those were older cats, many of them with physical ailments that accounted for the behavior. Some households with declawed cats have spent thousands of dollars replacing drywall, carpets, and subfloors to repair urine damage.

Biting:  Some experts believe that naturally aggressive cats who are declawed are likely to become biters. Many declawed cats do seem to “notice” that their claws are missing, and turn to biting as a primary means of defense – not a good choice for a cat in a home with children or immunocompromised individuals.

Change in Personality:  This is a common complaint – “my cat has never been the same.” A friendly, delightful kitten may become a morose, fearful, or reclusive cat, never to recover its natural joy, grace, and love of exploration. 

Death:  There is always a small but real risk of death from any general anesthesia, as well as from bleeding or other surgical complications. Declawing that results in biting or inappropriate elimination outside the litterbox may result in the cat being locked in the basement, dumped at a shelter, or simply abandoned. If taken to shelters, such behaviors make them unadoptable, and they will be destroyed. Many cats are exiled to a life outdoors because of these unwanted behaviors, even though declawed cats should never be allowed outside unsupervised – their ability to defend themselves, and to escape danger by climbing, is seriously impaired. They also risk injury or death by dogs, cars, wild predators, disease, poison, and other hazards of outdoor life. It is unfortunately common for outdoor cats to be stolen and used as live bait to be torn apart by fighting dogs, or sold to laboratories or biological suppliers.

Is LASER declawing okay?

Laser declawing causes less bleeding and swelling than other surgical techniques. This reduces pain and complications in the first few days after surgery, but the long-term consequences of the procedure remain the same.

Why do so many veterinarians suggest declawing cats?

Many veterinarians in the U.S. have become accustomed to performing the declawing procedure without thinking about – or even recognizing – the common complications. Some even recommend declawing kittens at the same time they are spayed or neutered, whether or not they have developed destructive scratching habits. However, this goes against the express written policy of the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the advice of top veterinary behaviorists who agree that declawing should not even be considered until all other options, such as training or deterrents, have been sincerely tried and failed.

Who says declawing is a bad idea? 

Declawing is illegal or considered extremely inhumane in 25 countries around the world, including most “civilized” nations: England, Scotland, Wales, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Brazil, Israel, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Yugoslavia.

Since animal shelters and humane societies are prime dumping grounds for cats with behavior problems, personnel there should have a realistic and practical view about whether declawing keeps cats in their homes, or creates worse difficulties. A survey of major shelters and humane societies around the U.S. found many who are firmly against declawing, and some will not even adopt a cat to a person who intends to declaw. Against declawing are the ASPCA, Humane Society of the United States, Massachusetts SPCA, Denver Dumb Friends League, San Francisco SPCA, SPCA of Texas, F.L.O.C.K. (For Love of Cats and Kittens, Las Vegas, NV), and the Animal Welfare League (Chicago, IL, the Midwest’s largest humane society). The SPCA of Los Angeles puts it in no uncertain terms: “We do NOT support, nor condone, the act of declawing cats. It is cruel, unnecessary, and inhumane.” The Cat Fancier’s Association, the world’s largest pedigreed cat registry, opposes declawing as “without benefit to the cat” and involving “post operative discomfort or pain, and potential future behavioral or physical effects.”

How can I stop unwanted scratching behavior without declawing?

Provide an appropriate place to scratch: 

Cats of any age can be trained not to scratch furniture or other objects – including people – although it is easier if the cat is trained as a kitten. Amazingly, many people do not even know that they should provide a scratching post for their cats. Because scratching is a deeply ingrained instinct in cats, if there is no appropriate spot, they will be forced to substitute furniture or other objects.

A vertical scratching post should be at least 28-36” high to allow the cat to stretch to his full height. Many cats prefer natural soft wood, such as a section of bark-covered log or a cedar or redwood plank, or posts covered with sisal rope, which many cats prefer to the carpeted surfaces of many posts. The post must be very sturdy and stable; if it wobbles, your cat won’t use it. Rubbing the surface with catnip, or using a catnip spray, may enhance the attractiveness of the post. For the more adventurous types, there are cat trees in dozens of sizes and colors, with features such as hidey-holes, lounging platforms, hanging toys, and other creative amenities. Like to do it yourself? There are plans for easy-to-make posts on the Internet or in many cat books. Don’t be too quick to discard a shabby, well-worn post – that’s when it’s the most attractive to your cat!

No space for a cat tree? There are many other options available, such as clear sticky strips to apply to the furniture, and other deterrents, as well as a multitude of smaller cat-attractive scratching posts, mats, and other distractions that will protect your possessions. Some cats like to scratch on a horizontal surface; inexpensive cardboard scratchers are popular with these cats. Be sure to replace these periodically so they provide adequate resistance to the claws.

With scratching posts, as in real estate, think “location, location, location.” Start with the post near kitty’s favorite scratching object, and gradually (by inches) move it to its final destination.

Make the unacceptable object undesirable:

This may be as simple as throwing a thick towel, fleece, or blanket over the arm of the sofa. What kitty likes about woven upholstery is its resistance – this is what allows him to stretch. If he hooks his claws into material that immediately pulls off and falls on his head, he’ll lose interest in no time.

Another simple (and more esthetically pleasing) plan is to use double-sided tape, such as “Sticky Paws." This product has a special adhesive that does not damage the furniture, but feels disgusting to the cat’s sensitive paw pads. It may need to be replaced every month or so as dust and hair accumulate on the tape’s surface, but for many cats one or two applications is enough to dissuade them permanently.   

Padding for the Paws:

For aggressive or unremitting scratching, replaceable soft plastic caps for the claws called “Soft Paws” are a good solution. Remember, never play or roughhouse with your kitten or cat using your bare hands. You don’t want her to get the idea that biting or scratching human skin is okay. And while it’s fun to watch the kitten attack your wiggling toes under a blanket, when he’s 15 pounds with inch-long fangs, it’s not nearly as amusing. Serious aggression problems require assistance from your veterinarian or professional behavior consultant.

Of course, conscientious nail-trimming [instructions] will keep the claws blunt and minimize the damage that kitty can do to fabrics, furniture, and fingers. 

Last but not least . . . .

There are a few individuals who will always declaw their cats. Their own convenience and the safety of their belongings is their top priority, and whether or not it causes suffering to the cat is not a significant concern. Fortunately, most people truly love their feline companions and want to do what’s best for all concerned. If you are one of these wonderful people, please think carefully about this beautiful little animal who trusts you and relies on you for her very existence. Please make the humane choice – DO NOT DECLAW! 

© 2002 Jean Hofve, DVM. All rights reserved. 
Reposted with permission from Jean Hofve, DVM Little Big Cat Behavior Consulting

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