Declawing: Another Veterinarian’s Perspective

November 17, 2010
By

By Special Guest: Michael W. Fox, D.Sc., Ph.D., B.Vet.Med., M.R.C.V.S.

Say No! To De-clawing Cats

Many veterinarians routinely de-claw young cats. It’s part of the package when they come in to be spayed/neutered. Many cats suffer as a consequence. The operation entails more than simply removing the claws, (onychectomy) under general anesthesia. It entails removal of the first digit (digitectomy). It’s like you having your toes and fingers removed at the first joint, i.e. a radical phalangectomy.

Cats are very dexterous, and this operation essentially eliminates their dexterity, greatly reducing their behavioral repertoire when it comes to grasping and holding. It also hampers their ability to groom and scratch themselves normally. Their ability and self-confidence when it comes to climbing and general agility are similarly crippled. Their first line of defense—their retractable claws– is eliminated, which could make some cats more anxious and defensive.

De-clawed cats tend to walk abnormally back on their heels rather than on their entire pads because of the chronic pain at the end of their severed fingers and toes. They often develop chronic arthritis and as the front toe pads shrink, chronic bone infections are common.

Many cats find it painful to use the litter box, develop a conditioned aversion to using the box, and become un-housebroken. This is why many de-clawed cats are put up for adoption or are euthanized. They may also bite more, and become defensive when handled because their paws are hurting and infected.

I strongly advise all prospective cat owners, and those people with cats who are contemplating having the entire first digit—not simply the claw—removed surgically from their cats’ paws—never to have this operation performed on their felines.

Cats need their claws to be cats, and the routine surgical amputation of all their first digits is considered unthinkable in the UK and many other countries where people love and respect their cats. They know that properly handled and socialized cats quickly learn not to scratch people, and will learn to enjoy using a scratch post and not destroy upholstered furniture.

According to the Paw Project (www.pawproject.org), de-clawing has become extremely common in the US and Canada in the past three decades. Before that time, it was rarely performed. In most countries, de-clawing is considered unethical and is not performed by veterinarians. De-clawing is illegal in many countries, including Austria, Croatia, Malta, Israel, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey.

I wrote the following letter on this topic to my colleagues; it was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Feb. 15, 2006, pages 503-504.

Dear Sir,

The article by Drs. Curicio, Bidwell, Bohart, and Hauptman (JAVMA, January 1, 2006, pp. 65-680) provides an “Evaluation of signs of postoperative pain and complications after forelimb onychectomy in cats receiving buprenorphine alone or with bupivacaine administered as a four-point regional nerve block.” While the consideration given to pain alleviation in this surgical procedure is necessary and laudable, the ethics of performing this procedure as a routine practice to the extent that almost a quarter of the cat population in the US, (14 million) is declawed, according to these authors, surely need to be examined. This is especially pertinent considering the evidence of the painful nature of this procedure, and associated postoperative complications of chronic pain, infection, and suffering. Surely the justifications for performing forelimb onychectomies trivialize concern for cats’ welfare and psychological well being.

Part of being a cat is to have claws. Out of respect for the nature of cats and their basic behavioral requirements in the confined domestic environment, caring and responsible cat owners effectively train their cats to use scratch-posts, scratch-boards and carpeted “condos” rather than resort to routine declawing, that amounts to a mutilation for convenience.

As a profession, are we not giving a mixed message to the public in advocating companion animal health and welfare on the one hand, and not abandoning such practices that are considered unethical by veterinarians and their clients in many other countries?

Michael W. Fox, D.Sc., Ph.D., B.Vet.Med., M.R.C.V.S.

Performing phalangectomies on cats as a routine preventive measure, just in case they might scratch people or damage furniture, is a service of convenience to cat owners that I consider professionally unethical for veterinarians to offer and perform as a routine procedure on all cats that come through their doors. It is nothing less than a mutilation that takes away from cats an integral part of what makes them cats—a form of physical deprivation with often profound behavioral and psychological ramifications, the risks of which far outweigh the benefits to uninformed cat owners and lovers. Many veterinarians argue that it is a life-saving procedure because otherwise cats who might damage furniture or scratch their owners are often euthanized if they are not de-clawed. I see this as engaging in self-serving emotional blackmail, financial interests not withstanding.


Dr. Michael W. Fox, highly respected veterinarian and bioethicist, world-famous syndicated columnist, and author of author of Cat Body, Cat Mind (and many other fabulous books, including The Healing Touch for Cats: The Proven Massage Program for Cats, and Not Fit for a Dog!: The Truth About Manufactured Dog and Cat Food) has very graciously allowed us to reprint his essay on declawing. You can find Dr. Fox at: www.DrFoxVet.com.


We can’t resist giving you a brief quote from the response to Dr. Fox’s letter by the authors of the study he so rightly criticizes:

“Because the potential pain associated with a properly performed onychectomy is trivial, compared with many procedures, we also believe that a properly performed procedure is appropriate for feline companion animal practice.” Hauptman, et al. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2006 Feb 15;228(4):504.

This arrogant attitude and callous disregard for animal welfare typifies the denial common to veterinarians who still perform declaws (unfortunately, still the majority). Declawing has long been acknowledged as one of the most painful procedures done to animals (others in the same class being limb amputation and invasive bone surgery), as proven by the multitude of studies that use declawing as the standard for the testing of pain medications.

If you want to know what science really proves about declawing, including the incidence of medical complications, likelihood of behavior problems, and many other aspects, please see our article on Declawing and Science. You’ll be surprised, if not shocked, by the many contradictions of veterinary policy by our own professional studies.

8 Responses to Declawing: Another Veterinarian’s Perspective

  1. Anna on December 28, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    I would like to know what alternatives there are to declawing. How can you teach a cat to not damage furniture etc.?

    • jhofve77 on December 29, 2011 at 11:30 am

      Our article, Cats and Claws: Living Happily Ever After, describes this in detail.

      There are more than a dozen alternatives to declawing, described in our article on Declawing Alternatives.

      All reasons for non-medical declawing have non-surgical alternatives. There are many humane choices will still protect both human and feline health, as well as sofas and Persian rugs:

      Scratching posts, mats, corrugated cardboard, logs, softwood boards, sisal rope
      Training (yes, cats CAN be trained!)
      Regular claw-trimming
      Rotary sanders (Peticure, Dremel)
      Nail caps (SoftPaws, Soft Claws)
      Emery scratching boards (Emerycat)
      Double-sided sticky tape (Sticky Paws)
      Non-stick furniture protectors (Corner Savers, Fresh Kitty Furniture Protectors)
      Pet repellent sprays
      Access restriction (upside-down vinyl rug runner)
      Remote aversive devices (ScatMat, Ssscat)
      Phermones (Feliway)
      Furniture covers (blankets, towels—anything loose will not be appealing to your cat!)
      Those who absolutely insist that no cat of theirs will have claws, can adopt an already-declawed cat (there are many of them in shelters and rescues).

      With a little effort, patience, and time, one or more of these alternatives will work for any cat; making it unnecessary and inhumane to use a radical, irreversible surgery to solve a behavior problem.

  2. Sarah on March 28, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Thank you so much for giving me more reference sites I can show to clients & adopters when I am explaining the devastating act of declawing a cat. I am currently a professional pet groomer with my own shop & I also grooms cats, but I was previously a vet tech & it used to break my heart to see the cats go through this awful, disgusting proceedure! I foster cats ocassionally & when I have a potential adopter, they are told upfront that they must sign a contract stating they will not have the cat declawed & I offer free nail trimmings for several months & also offer to teach them how to do it themselves at home. I also spend a lot of time giving them hints, tips & advice about teaching/training their cats to ALWAYS use an appropriate scratching post instead of furniture, rugs or carpeting.
    Most people are horrified when I describe & explain EXACTLY what declawing IS! I’m still amazed by how many people blithely have it done without true knowledge of WHAT is being done to their cat. So many people tell me that they thought it was simply “pulling” the nail out of the toe & my response is “that’s still cruel, but no, it’s MUCH worse that that! It’s toe AMPUTATION!”.

    I have rescues but I also have a pure bred Maine Coon & part of the reason I chose the breeder I did, was because she had a prominently displayed note about declawing on her website. It was part of the breeder contract I signed also, that declawing is against her beliefs, is cruel, inhumane & she will not allow it on ANY of her cats. She flat out says if you want to declaw your Maine Coon, go to another breeder!

    I will continue doing my very best to educate people who cross my path & in my corner of the world about the seriousness of declawing & why it’s so very unnecessary & inhumane! I plan to print at least part of this article & put it up on my board out front in my waiting area!

    Thank you

  3. Jo Singer on February 23, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Thank you so much Dr. Hofve for providing such important information.

    So many people feel that declawing is a benign and simple procedure and are not fully informed about its risks and what the surgery actually entails.

    Jo

    • jhofve77 on February 24, 2011 at 8:40 am

      You are most welcome. I am constantly amazed and bewildered at the stream of misinformation coming from AVMA and others about this devastating, painful, and entirely unnecessary procedure. Thanks for all you do, too!

  4. Maria on February 11, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    It must be a horrible procedure to do this to a cat. It is inhumane and I was shocked to learn that it is a routine vet procedure! The cat suffers not only physical pain, but also psychological. They use nails to hold object, to play, to balance. I can not imagine someone would took my fingernails away from my hands and feet! Can you? Those who allow this to be done to your cats – think twice before you allow this.

  5. Roxanne Holloway on December 10, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    I have worked for and continue to work with (since 1999) a local cat rescue group who”firmly” believe that declawing is unethical and totally unnecessary. When we go through our adoption process we talk in detail about the ramifications of this gross procedure. We feel so strongly that part of our adoption contract stipulates that the adopter agrees to never declaw their cat. The fact that vets continue to declaw is the cause of much heartache and work for us; many people make the comment that it must be okay if vets are willing to do it it. We also talk to potential adopters about the “behaviour” issues caused by declawing and how the cats pay the ultimate price when people abandon them because of this. I will say that on numerous occasions people just don’t know the true reality of declawing and once we have provided this information they see the light, become educated.

    The point of my writing this is to say that it is so validating to read articles such as yours written by knowledgable and education people, it helps keep us going forward and sticking to what we know.

    Thank you.

    • jhofve77 on December 12, 2010 at 12:06 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment! It is very encouraging to know that our work is helping!

      I also want to thank you SO MUCH for the good work *you* do in educating people about the cruelty of declawing! Please feel free to call upon us if we can do anything to help you!

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