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A Rational Look at Declawing

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

Declawing is not a routine surgery and should never be done as a "preventive." Despite their reputation for independence, cats can readily be trained to use a scratching post instead of the sofa, curtains, or rugs. Using surgery to prevent or correct a behavioral problem is expedient, but it is not the wisest, kindest, or best solution for 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.

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 neighbor's cat is declawed
  • they have always had declawed cats

Many people report that they are happier with their cats after declawing, because it makes the cats "better pets." Unfortunately, many people have also discovered -- too late -- that declawing frequently causes 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 ways to solve behavior problems than radical and irreversible surgery.

What is declawing?

Declawing itself is the amputation of each front toe at the first joint (hind foot declaws are not commonly done). This is equivalent to you losing the entire tip of every finger at the first knuckle. It is so excruciatingly painful that it was once used as a technique of torture, and even today it is used to test the effectiveness of pain medications. Recovery takes a few weeks, but even after the surgical wounds have healed, there may be other long-term physical and psychological effects.

Are claws important to a cat's well-being?

Claws perform a number of 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, build strength, 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, about 25% of cats developed complications from both declaw and tenectomy surgeries (digital tenectomy or tendonectomy is a procedure, sometimes promoted as an "alternative" to declaw, where the tendons that extend the toes are cut).
  • Pain. It is impossible to know how much chronic pain and suffering declawing causes. However, we can look at similar procedures in people. Almost all human amputees report "phantom" sensations from the amputated part, ranging from merely strange to extremely 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, and there is no physiological reason that this would not be true for cats. Cats typically conceal pain or illness until it becomes overwhelming. With chronic pain, it may be that they simply learn to live with it. Their behavior may appear normal, but a lack of overt signs of pain does not mean they are pain-free.
  • Joint Stiffness. In declawed (and tenectomized) cats, the tendons that control the toe joints retract after the surgery, and over time these joints become essentially "frozen." The toes can no longer be extended, but remain fully contracted for the lifetime of the cat. In cats that have been declawed for many years, these joints cannot be moved, even under deep anesthesia. The fact that most cats continue to "scratch" after they are declawed is often said to "prove" that the cat does not "miss" her claws. However, this could also be explained by the cat's desperate desire to stretch those stiff, contracted joints.
  • Arthritis. Researchers have shown that, in the immediate post-operative period, newly declawed cats shift their body weight backward onto the large central pad of the front feet and off the 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 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.
  • 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, drywall, bedding or mattresses) over 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 with physical ailments that accounted for the behavior. Some households with declawed cats have spent thousands of dollars to repair urine damage.
  • Biting. Some experts believe that naturally aggressive cats who are declawed are likely to become biters.
  • Death. There is always a small but real risk of death from any general anesthesia, as well as from hemorrhage or other surgical complications. Declawing that results in biting or inappropriate elimination may result in the cat being up locked in a 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 not be allowed outside -- their ability to defend themselves, and to escape danger by climbing, is seriously impaired. They also risk injury or death by dogs, cars, coyotes, poison, and other hazards of outdoor life. It is unfortunately common to have outdoor cats stolen and used as live bait to train fighting dogs, or sold to laboratories or biological suppliers.

How can I stop unwanted scratching behavior without declawing?

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 cedar or redwood plank, or posts covered with sisal rope. Some cats like to scratch on a horizontal surface; inexpensive cardboard scratchers are popular with these cats. 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.

There are many other options as well, such as clear sticky strips to apply to the furniture, and other deterrents, as well as a multitude of climbing trees, mats, and other distractions that will protect your possessions. Adequate exercise, especially interactive play sessions, will also help channel kitty energy.

For aggressive scratching, conscientious nail-trimming or soft plastic caps for the claws ("Soft Paws") are a good beginning. 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 canine teeth, it's not nearly as amusing. Serious aggression problems require assistance from your veterinarian or a professional behavior consultant.

Is LASER declawing okay?

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

Why did my veterinarian suggest declawing my cat?

Many veterinarians in the U.S. have become accustomed to performing the declawing procedure without thinking about -- or recognizing -- the consequences. Some even recommend routinely declawing kittens at the same time they are spayed or neutered, whether or not they have developed destructive scratching behavior. However, top U.S. veterinary behaviorists and the American Veterinary Medical Association agree that declawing should not even be considered until after all other options, such as training or deterrents, have been tried.

Who says declawing is a bad idea?

Declawing is illegal or considered inhumane in many countries around the world, including England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, New Zealand, Brazil, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Since animal shelters and humane societies are prime dumping grounds for cats with behavior problems, they should have a realistic and practical view about whether declawing keeps cats in their homes, or creates worse difficulties. API surveyed major shelters and humane societies around the country about their policies on declawing. The American SPCA, 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), the Animal Welfare League (the Midwest's largest humane society, Chicago), and many others are firmly against declawing. Some will not even adopt a cat to a person who intends to declaw him. 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."

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 love their feline companions, and want to do what is best for all concerned. If you are one of these, please make the humane choice -- do not declaw!


The Surgery

The cat is put under general anesthesia and the toes prepared with antiseptic soap. A tourniquet is placed on the cat's leg just under the elbow and tightened to prevent excessive bleeding. In the scalpel technique, the surgeon grips the tip of the claw with a hemostat, and use the scalpel to carve out the third toe bone, cutting through the skin and severing skin, ligaments, tendons, nerves, and blood vessels. In the guillotine blade technique, a sterilized veterinary nail clipper is used to cut the tissues instead. A scalpel may be used to remove the last piece. The wound is then closed with sutures or surgical glue. Bandages are usually applied. While the veterinary profession is finally recognizing the need to control the severe post-operative pain that accompanies declawing, pain medications are not always provided.


Scratching Solutions

1) Scratching Post

Essential for every cat, providing the right surface to scratch is the key to living with claws. Contrary to the usual selection available at the pet store, those short little carpeted scratching posts are not very attractive to cats. A good scratching post is at least 3 feet high, to allow an adult cat to stretch completely. Sisal rope is often a better choice for covering than carpet. The post must be very sturdy and stable. If it wobbles, your cat won't use it. Commercial posts may be expensive; but you can find plans for easy-to-make posts on the Internet or in many cat books. Don't be too quick to re-cover or discard a shabby, well-worn post -- that's when they are most cat-attractive! Some cats prefer plain softwood; perhaps it most closely approximates the tree bark they would normally use in nature. A log, tree branch, or plank of 1 x 6 redwood may do the trick. Inexpensive cardboard scratchers that lie on the floor at great for cats who go for area rugs or other horizontal surfaces. Be sure to replace them periodically so they provide an adequate anchor and resistance to the claws. If your cat likes catnip, rubbing the post with it, or using catnip spray, will be an extra incentive to scratch in the right place. Location is very important; start with the post near kitty's favorite scratching object, and gradually move it to its final destination.

2) Sticky Paws (www.stickypaws.com)

Similar to double-sided transparent tape, Sticky Paws is applied directly to the item your cat is scratching, such as front of the sofa. It has a special adhesive that does not hurt the furniture, but feels disgusting to the cat's sensitive paw pads. It may need to be replaced every 6 weeks or so as dust and hair accumulate and cover the sticky surface; but for many cats, one or two applications is enough to dissuade them permanently. A 24-foot roll sell for about $10. Sticky Paws is a good way to get your cat to quit using the furniture and try the post instead.

3) Soft Paws (www.softpaws.com)

These are blunt plastic caps that slide on over the claws. The cat will still scratch, but can do no damage. Of your cat is amenable to having her feet handled, these may be a perfect solution for you. The caps can be applied by your veterinarian the first time, but you should be able to replace them as they fall off; usually in 4 to 6 weeks. One box (40 caps) will provide protection for up to six months for less than $20. They come in fashionable colors, too!

4) Trimming the Claws

This will not prevent scratching, but it will minimize the damage that kitty can do to fabrics and furniture.

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