Declawing: A Rational Look

May 17, 2013
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By Jean Hofve, DVM

There are few feline issues as controversial as declawing. There is a great deal of myth and misinformation out there about it. If you are considering having this surgery performed on your cat, or if a veterinarian has suggested it, please read this article first to learn more about this major surgical procedure. Isn’t it worth a few minutes of your time to make sure that you make a rational and informed decision?

Declawing is not a simple or routine surgery. It should never be done as a “preventative,” especially in kittens. 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 smartest, 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 serious physical and behavioral complications, both short- and long-term.

Why do people declaw their cats?

  • To protect furniture or other property (95%)
  • They don’t know that a cat needs a scratching post
  • They don’t want to try to train the cat
  • They tried one or two things to train the cat but it didn’t work
  • Their other cat is declawed and they want to “level the playing field”
  • 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, as many people discover too late, declawing may cause far worse problems than it solves—research suggests that more than 30% of cats develop more serious behavior problems, such as biting and urinating outside the litterbox—after surgery. There are many better ways to treat behavior problems other than radical and irreversible surgery.

Veterinarians say that offering declaw surgery “keeps cats in their homes.” This is simply not true. Shelter workers can attest that declawed cats who do develop behavior problems often lose those very homes. Individuals and organizations that trap and neuter feral cats know that a great many of those “feral” felines are actually homeless declawed cats that have been banished to the outdoors, abandoned, or simply dumped. According to one shelter: “Through the years, we have seen many declawed cats surrendered to our shelter for behaviour issues that can be related to being declawed. Over the past two years, 75% of the declawed cats that were surrendered to us had behavioural problems. In that same time frame, only 4% of clawed cats were surrendered to us for the same behavioural reasons.” (Cats Anonymous, Orton, ON)

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 it remains the primary test of the effectiveness of pain medications. Physical 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 and tightened to prevent excessive  bleeding. Using a scalpel, the surgeon grips the tip of the claw wittourniquet declawh a small clamp, and uses scalpel to carve around the third phalanx, cutting through the skin and severing tendons, nerves, and blood vessels. In another technique using a guillotine blade (Resco), a sterilized veterinary nail clipper is used to cut the tissues photos can be seen at lisaviolet.com). A scalpel should be (but is not always) used to remove the last piece of bone. If this is not done, the claw can regrow, although it will be deformed. The wound is typically closed with sutures or surgical glue, but some vets rely on bandages to control the bleeding. Tight bandages restrict the normal response of the tissue to swell, causing intense pressure and pain. LASER surgery is similar to the scalpel technique, although the LASER cauterizes the blood vessels by burning them as they are cut. It is a difficult technique to master, and complications can still arise. The photo at right shows the burns from a LASER surgery.

In cats, the claws grow directly from the bone. If even the tiniest piece of the bone is left in the socket, it can become infected and/or regrow, both of which are very painful.

Here’s a video of a Himalayan kitten being declawed. (NOTE: Unsurprisingly, this video has been removed from this veterinarian’s website.) This surgeon is quick and competent; and has obviously done hundreds if not thousands of declaws. It only takes him 4 minutes and 36 seconds to cut and rip ten individual claws, bone and all, from the kitten’s paws, glue the wounds shut, and bandage the feet.

Are claws so 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?

Surgical complications: Not everyone is having a good day, not every surgeon is careful and competent, and not every surgery goes well. Poor technique, a mistake in positioning, problems with tourniquets (including irreversible nerve damage), and inexperience are just a few of the things that can go wrong during declawing amputations.

Post-surgical complications: Abscesses and claw regrowth can occur a few weeks to many years after surgery. Chronic or intermittent lameness may develop. 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. However, because these cats require constant maintenance and frequent nail clipping to prevent injury, most are eventually declawed anyway). Biting and urinating outside the litterbox are the most common behavior problems reported, occurring in over 30% of cats.

The photo on the right shows complications from declawing a 6-week old kitten. Because she kept bleeding after surgery, bandages were applied; they were too tight. Subsequently, the skin on her lower legs and feet as well as paw pads became necrotic (dead) and sloughed off.

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 compare similar procedures in people. Virtually 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 at least 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; their nervous systems are identical to ours. Cats are stoic creatures, and typically conceal pain or illness until it becomes overwhelming. With chronic pain, they simply learn to cope with it. Their behavior may appear “normal,” but a lack of overt signs of pain does not mean that they are pain-free.

This declawed Abyssinian cat (left) shows 4 distinct signs of pain: (1) half-closed eyes, (2) pulled-back whiskers, (3) holding the right front foot up, and (4) placing the left front foot over the edge of the counter so there’s as little weight on his painful toes as possible.

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 remain fully contracted for the life of the cat. In cats who were declawed many years ago, the toe joints are often so arthritic that they cannot be moved, even under deep anesthesia. The faChanges in anatomy after declawingct 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 is equally well–and more realistically–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 lead to damage and arthritic changes in multiple joints. One large 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, perhaps 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, and the statistics prove it. 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 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 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.

Neglect, Abandonment, Relinquishment, and Abuse: Declawing that results in biting or inappropriate elimination outside the litterbox may result in the cat being permanently locked in the basement, dumped at a shelter, or simply abandoned. Many cats are exiled to a life outdoors because of abandoned cat these unwanted behaviors. There, they also risk injury or death by dogs, cars, wild predators, disease, poison, and other hazards of outdoor life; even more so than clawed cats who retain their primary defenses. People who work with feral cat Trap-Neuter-Release programs often find declawed cats in their traps–cats who should never have been outside at all. These cats once had homes, but were abandoned in an alley or field–almost certainly due to behavior problems resulting from declaw surgery. The claim by veterinarians that “declawing keeps cats in their homes” clearly isn’t true for these declawed cats who lost their homes and were abandoned to an uncertain fate. There is no way to know how many cats are dumped this way, but based on experiences in Denver, a typical urban environment, the number is likely in the many thousands.

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 litterbox avoidance can soon get the cat relinquished to a shelter. Such behaviors make these cats unadoptable, and after a few frightening days alone in a cage, most will be euthanized.  For exiled cats, it is unfortunately common for outdoor cats to be stolen and used as defenseless live bait to be torn apart by fighting dogs being “blood-trained,” or sold to laboratories or biological suppliers. It’s an ugly reality that a tame, friendly, declawed cat makes an ideal experimental subject.

What about LASER declawing–isn’t that better?

Laser declawing causes the same long-term consequences as any other method.

Why do so many veterinarians suggest declawing cats?

Many veterinarians in the U.S. and Canada 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. All the top veterinary behaviorists agree that declawing should not even be considered until all other options, including training and deterrents, have been sincerely tried and failed. Veterinarians who, for example, declaw young kittens are violating this AVMA policy. Several telephone surveys have found that every single veterinary clinic contacted was willing to declaw a cat without providing–or even offering–behavior counseling or alternatives to the surgery. They did not ask whether training or alternatives had been tried. They didn’t even ask if the cat had a scratching post. These clinics are in direct violation of AVMA policy.

Who says declawing is a bad idea?

Declawing is illegal or considered extremely inhumane in dozens of countries around the world, including most “civilized” nations. It is against the Conventions of the European Union. In  countries where declawing is legal, such as New Zealand, Thailand, and South Africa, it is just “not done.” Declawing is common only in the United States and Canada.

Since animal shelters and humane societies are prime dumping grounds for cats with behavior problems, shelter workers and volunteers 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, and the Animal Welfare League (the Midwest’s largest humane  society, located in Chicago). 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 declawiAnother declaw complicationng as “without benefit to the cat” and involving “post operative discomfort or pain, and potential future behavioral or physical effects.”

In 2006, the USDA–normally an extremely conservative federal agency–amended the Animal Welfare Act to prohibit declawing of exotic carnivores, saying that it “can cause considerable pain and discomfort to the animal and may result in chronic health problems.” In 2007, after much legal wrangling, the California Supreme Court upheld a ban on declawing enacted by the city of West Hollywood, CA, in 2003.

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; nor do they realize that in many cases, they have to train the cat to use it. Because scratching is such a deeply ingrained instinct in cats, if there is no appropriate spot, they will be forced to substitute furniture or other objects.

To decide on a strategy, watch where your kitten or cat likes to scratch. Does she go for a long belly-stretch on the carpet, or does she prefer vertical surfaces like the arm of the sofa or the back of a chair? Try to imitate her favorite spots with acceptable scratching options.

Ai 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 is more popular with cats than the carpeted surfaces of many posts. The post must be very sturdy and stable; if it wobbles, your cat is unlikely to use it. Rubbing the surface with catnip, or using a catnip concentrate 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, dangling 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. Many cats prefer to scratch on rugs or other horizontal surfaces; 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.
See our articles on “Cats and Claws–Living Happily Ever After” and “Declawing Alternatives” for more details and ideas.

Make the unacceptable object undesirable:

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

Another simple (and perhaps 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.

Purrfect Paw is a clear plastic protector for the corners of furniture without the stickiness of other products. A similar product is “Sofa Savers.” Call for information at 972-790-6658.

Padding for the Paws:

For aggressive or unremitting scratching, replaceable soft plastic caps for the claws called “Soft  Paws” are a good solution. These caps are glued onto the nail; they’ll come off by themselves after a few weeks and need replacing. They come in fun colors (as well as clear) and really do the trick. While you’ll probably want your vet or groomer to apply them the first time, it’s not that hard to replace them at home [instructions].

It’s best to never play or roughhouse with your kitten or cat using your bare hands (or even covered-up hands!). You definitely don’t want her to get the idea that biting or scratching human skin or body parts is okay. And while it’s fun to watch the kitten attack your wiggling toes under a blanket, when he’s 15 pounds with razor-sharp, inch-long fangs, it’s not nearly as amusing. Serious aggression problems require assistance from your veterinarian, or your friendly behavior consultants at Little Big Cat!

Of course, conscientious nail-trimming [click here for instructions] will keep the claws blunt and minimize the damage that kitty can do to fabrics, furniture, and fingers.
Last but not least . . . .

We know that there are a few individuals who will always declaw their cats. Their own personal 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. (Whether they should have a cat at all is a debate for another time!)

If you have a declawed cat, it is not too late to undo at least some of the damage. Spirit Essences offers “Declaw Remedy” to help heal both the physical and psychological truama that occur with declaw surgery.

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 (and if you’ve read this far, we’re pretty sure you are!), please think carefully about this beautiful little animal who trusts you and relies on you for her very existence. Please make the humane choice – and DO NOT DECLAW!

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6 Responses to Declawing: A Rational Look

  1. Kathleen on January 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    I have had such mixed feelings on this subject but after reading this article, I don’t anymore. There is no way I could put my sweet cat through such trauma and pain. My Vet did not answer my questions satisfactory. I’m so grateful that I read this blog BEFORE I did the terrible “D” word. Thank you for providing the information.

    • jhofve77 on January 12, 2012 at 7:05 pm

      You’re very welcome…and thank YOU for loving your cat enough to ask questions, do the research, and for valuing her above your furniture! I’m thrilled that this article helped save your kitty! :)

  2. Jen Bric on January 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    I adopted my first feline family member in 1996 at the age of 25. I’d grown up with dogs, and had never owned a cat. I missed having a pet, and a cat seemed a good fit for a city girl. The vet I took her to for her 1st check-up/kitten shots asked me if she would be an indoor cat, and when I replied, “Yes,” he told me that when she was under anesthesia while being spayed at 6 months he’d declaw her at that time as well. I hesitated as I had friends with indoor cats who were not declawed. I was confused and THE VET told me that it is “far crueler to constantly punish or berate an animal for doing what comes naturally (scratching furniture) than to declaw them.” While my kitty recovered, the first time she jumped up on to her favorite ledge, she fell over. I was standing there and saw the surprised look on her face, and had this horrible feeling in my gut that this wasn’t just going to be an adjustment. The claws she’s used to balance herself were gone. It’s been 15 years, and she is my rock, my companion, and there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for her. If I had a time machine I’d go back to September 1996 and tell that vet to “shove it.” It’s been my only regret during our time together. She DID become a biter, rolls onto her back to use her back claws as a primary attack response when feeling threatened (not customary with cats) and within a year started to have anxiety issues. When stressed, she pees on anything that I’ve worn/used. It started out to be my bed. When I lived in a shared house and couldn’t keep her from my room while I was away (it was “our” room with her food/water/litterbox, I covered my bed in tarp with a washable cover over it. I’m diligent about not leaving anything I’ve worn on the floor or another piece of furniture. Once someone commented, “What a horrible way to live. Having to cover your bed so your cat doesn’t PEE on it?! That’s ridiculous. Just get rid of the cat.” That wasn’t an option for me. First, I felt responsible for her behavior problems because I truly believe they were caused by the declawing. Secondly, her behavior was inconvenient, not life threatening. I adjusted because when you committ yourself to a pet, at least IMHO, it’s a relationship like any other and you do what it takes to make it work. I would have gotten rid of my bed before my cat. And, while I go out of my way to make sure she has lots of stimulation, comfort, love…what I’ve gotten from her is so much more. Our family has grown, and she’s full of love and tolerance for most other animals and people – though she is a “one person cat” -mine :). She still, after 15 yrs, greets me at the door after work and it’s the best part of my day. I know that I will never declaw another animal again. I’m sorry it took hurting the feline love of my life to learn this lesson. We’re now adjusting to a new diagnosis of CKD, and as we have in the past, we’re taking it one day at a time and I’m doing everything I can to keep her happy, safe and comfortable. PLEASE don’t declaw.

  3. kb on August 5, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    We’ve rescued a declawed male cat in the past ( he’s passed on ). He was a delight and a joy but did show signs of the psychological issues mentioned here. Where most kitties will swipe at you with their pads when they want to let you know they’re not happy with something, this guy would bite and bite HARD. He knew that was his only defense against unwanted things. He also had some issues with the litter from time to time.

    Please don’t declaw, it’s just so much better for the kitty to deal with the claws in other ways. All my past kittys have had claws ( with exception of the above ) and I’ve never had trouble with controlling their use with scratch pads and periodic trimming. A little redirection to the scratch post goes a long way. Let the kitty know the post is OK to tear up. When you see her digging into the furniture or carpet or anything, pick her up and walk her over to the scratch post, extend her claws for her and dig them into the scratch approved surface. Often times, she will immediately go into a deep, anchored stretch against the thing. Do this enough, even with some treats on hand to reward the behaviour and you’ll soon have no worries.

  4. Dorothy Kuns on March 5, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Thank you for this informative article. I was considering having my cat declawed, but now I won’t. I hope your article helps many more cat fanciers.

    • jhofve77 on March 7, 2011 at 6:00 pm

      Hi Dorothy, thank you for your comment, it means a lot to know this info is helping kitties out in the real world! :)

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