Declawing: A Physical Therapist Assistant’s Perspective

Thanks so much to by Ruth Y. for letting us post her great article about the long-term physical effects of declawing! (Originally posted at Pictures-of-Cats.org).


There are many good reasons to be against declawing, but the most persuasive are perhaps those which deal with the changes in a cat’s functional mobility and the potential for arthritis later in life. I suppose these are the reasons that speak to me because I work as a physical therapist assistant.

I recently entered this field, in part because I enjoyed a course in anatomy and physiology which I had taken as an undergrad. Studying to work in physical therapy made the connections between form and function clear for me.

I have found that form and function go together– things are always made a certain way for a reason. Changes from the original design are not beneficial. A good example is my flat feet. Without proper support in my shoes my feet, knees and lower back will start to hurt. If you change one part of the kinematic (movement) chain, other parts change too. Physical therapists spend a lot of time analyzing how people walk (gait) because changes from normal gait are always more energy consuming and often contribute to muscle pain and stiffness and eventually cause degenerative joint changes.

Cats walk on their toes. When a cat is declawed his toes are amputated. You’ve just changed how the cat walks. If the rule holds true that any changes from normal gait are more energy consuming, contribute to muscle pain/stiffness and cause degenerative changes in the joints, then how can we defend declawing as being o.k. for the cat?

When you remove the cat’s toes, you change the whole kinematic chain for that limb. If this is never good for people, how can it be good for cats? The answer is of course, that it isn’t good for the cat. Declawing isn’t done to benefit the cat.

If declawing truly were only an onychectomy, perhaps it would be defensible. (onych=nail, ectomy=surgical removal) But declawing actually takes the distal phalanx (last joint) of the cat’s toes. How would losing the last joint of your toes change how you walk or stand? We can theorize on the exact effects, but there would be changes to your gait and stance. If you amputate the last joint of a cat’s toes, it will change how he walks and stands. Something is gone that was part of the original design.

Arthritis is caused over time by faulty joint mechanics. Any extra motion in a joint causes wear and tear to joint cartilage. Over time the body tries to repair this damage, but it can’t add more cartilage.

However, Wolf’s law of bone states that bone will become stronger according to the stresses placed upon it. When the lack of cartilage causes bone on bone forces the body responds by laying down more bone, causing an uneven joint surface and pain. When you take the cat’s toes you unavoidably change how he walks.

This change travels up the whole kinematic chain– if you change something at the cat’s foot you’ve changed it at the cat’s elbow and at his shoulder and at his spine. You have introduced abnormal joint motions as the cat adapts to walking without his toes. This will lead to arthritis over time, by the process described above.

Cats also use their claws to help them exercise the muscles of their shoulders and upper back. They will hook their claws into something and pull against this resistance. This provides an isometric contraction of the cat’s muscles. When he can no longer hook his claws and pull, he loses out on this form of exercise.

Arthritis can also be caused or exacerbated by weak or underused muscles. I was having knee pain awhile ago and learned that the cause was weakness in the muscles which externally rotate my hips. Weak muscles in my hips allowed extraneous joint movements in my knees when walking up stairs or running. What happens to the cat when the muscles of his upper back and shoulders become weak from lack of exercise? We can expect changes in joint motions when he walks, runs and jumps. Couple this muscle weakness with changes from a normal gait pattern due to missing toes and you have a perfect recipe for joint pain and eventually osteoarthritis.

Many people are against declawing because it is a very painful surgery. If that were the only negative aspect of this procedure, it would be defensible. Many surgeries are painful. I sometimes work with people who have had knee or hip replacement surgeries. I’m willing to assume that those surgeries are at least as painful as declawing surgeries, if not more so. The difference is that most of the time, the person with a joint replacement sees an improvement in his or her mobility.

Declawing is a very painful surgery that leads to decreased mobility. Although many people will say a cat is “walking normally” a short time after surgery, we know that without his toes this is not the case. Caretakers of declawed cats say, “We’ve never seen any signs of arthritis.” But how would they know? Cats are very stoic– they hide pain well. I sometimes work with patients who try to hide their pain. I ask questions like, “Can you rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?” Even then some people will refuse to admit they have pain, though I can see it in their antalgic (painful) gait patterns. If it can be hard to assess pain in my own species, how much more difficult is it to determine how much pain a cat feels? I took whole courses on human gait. How many vets (or caretakers) are experts in the gait patterns of cats? Can they really tell whether the cat is walking normally or not, or having pain when he walks or not?

When we talk about functional mobility for cats we must include climbing. Without his claws the cat can’t climb the way a cat was meant to climb. My cat goes out (with harness and leash) and he loves to climb trees. I don’t let him get very high up, but it’s great exercise for him and he enjoys it. It’s part of what makes him a cat. This is a subjective point, I know, but I can tell he really enjoys using his claws. Though not everyone wants to take his or her cat outside, you can buy or build an indoor scratching post and/or climbing apparatus and enjoy watching your cat use his beautiful claws. When allowed a proper outlet, the cat’s desire to climb and scratch can be fulfilled in an appropriate way that is fun for the cat and entertaining for the owner!

I have heard people say that their declawed cat “doesn’t even know he doesn’t have claws.” In a sense this is true. There is a part of the cat’s brain mapped out for motor and sensory input to and from the distal phalanx. Just as a human following an amputation has phantom pain or a sensation that the missing limb is still there, cats will feel like their claws are still there. When you amputate the distal phalanx it takes a long time for the brain to realize it is no longer there. The cat can experience parasthesias (weird sensations) from the missing toes.

The cat will probably experience another type of pain in his paws as well. When declawing is done the tendons to muscles are cut. When a tendon to a muscle is severed that muscle shortens. Imagine having a very, very tight calf muscle that you could never stretch out. The cat has got to be experiencing this kind of muscle pain to a very high degree. A vet recently told me that this does not matter because the muscles atrophy over time. My question to him is this: “Over how much time?” When my cat stretches, he stretches his paws also by abducting (separating) the distal phalanges and protracting (sticking out) his claws. A declawed cat can’t perform these motions, but the muscles that were provided to do so are still there, sans tendons. He can’t stretch those muscles. That sounds like torture to me.

For a cat his front claws act as his fingers. I have seen my own cat pick up small objects with his claws. I tossed him a kitty treat and he actually picked it up with his paw and brought it to his mouth. I notice how he can pick up a small toy and manipulate it in ways that a declawed cat would be unable to do. A cat’s claws are the foundation for much of his functional mobility, incorporating both gross and fine motor tasks.

Any time a human undergoes an amputation it is a last resort to save a life, a traumatic event which is in all cases life changing. Declawing a cat involves ten amputations and is in all cases life changing for the cats. We cannot condone this procedure simply because some cats are able to cope without any outward signs of distress. Many can’t cope and end up being much more aggressive, defensive or fearful.

If you decide to declaw your cat you are gambling on the fact that your cat will cope well with procedure, will display no long term personality changes, and will have no post operative complications. If it were a choice to amputate or lose a life, obviously we amputate. But what is the choice involved with declawing? Amputate or lose some furniture?

It is possible that many people pick a cat for a pet thinking that it will require less work than a dog. Cats are seen as independent creatures, not needing much attention. In reality, a cat is just as much work as any other pet. Pet caretakers need to train their cats and provide adequate exercise and stimulation. This may require some research, thought and imagination to determine the best way to allow the cat to be a cat, without allowing it to destroy one’s belongings. Declawing can seem like a quick, easy alternative to training the cat. I hope that my thoughts on the long term consequences of declawing will cause cat caretakers to reconsider before declawing their cats.

Lastly, caretakers of declawed cats are missing out on part of what makes a cat so special. Enjoy his beautiful claws– he does!

Ruth Y.


Please see our article, Relief for Declawed Cats, for information on ways to help cats who are already declawed.

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