by Lyn T. Garson, CVT, CCRP
The technical term for declawing a cat is onychectomy. And it’s not just the term that most owners are unfamiliar with, but also exactly what this surgical procedure entails – amputation of the toe bones to which a cat’s claws are permanently attached. Specifically, all 10 of the third phalanx (P3) bones. In humans this would be equivalent to removal of the fingertips up to the first knuckle.
Elective declawing, a practice now deemed illegal in more than twenty countries, is a controversial surgery performed to prevent cats from scratching a home’s furnishings and interior. Although not legally banned in the United States, there are anti-declaw ordinances in place in some U.S. cities and towns.
Declawing is a highly painful major surgery often performed on young cats at the time of spaying or neutering. Spaying (for females) and neutering (for males) provide cats with numerous health benefits, however the decision to declaw is solely for the purpose of owner convenience, and has negative ramifications for the cat – both physiological and behavioral. Declaw surgery is not simply a harmless permanent nail trim. It involves severing blood vessels (known as the “quick”) of each claw/toe bone combination, along with associated nerves, tendons and surrounding soft tissue. Since cats are digitigrade – meaning they walk on their toes – changes to their natural gait caused by declawing produces compensatory pain and increased risk for developing arthritis in other areas of their body. Acute and chronic pain, and high complication rates are commonly seen with declawing. Short- and long-term complications can include:
• Wound dehiscence (re-opening of a wound after sutures)
• Nerve damage
• Claw regrowth
• Bone spurs
• Chronic neuropathic pain
• Tendon contracture
• Back pain
Declawed cats may develop behavioral problems as well. Some cats avoid using the litterbox, not out of spite, but due to pain experienced while digging in litter. Others exhibit pain-related aggressive behaviors, such as growling and biting.
Alternatives to Declawing
It’s important to remember that for cats, scratching is a normal and instinctive behavior. The action of exposing and retracting claws is inherent in many of their physical behaviors, such as stretching, balancing, and marking their territory through scratching.
Cats also maintain the condition of their claws through scratching, better enabling them to grasp prey while hunting, defend themselves, and climb objects such as trees to escape from predators. Scratching is also vital for relaxation and stress relief in much the same way that chewing bones or toys is for dogs.
As an alternative to declawing, cats can easily be trained to use appropriate scratching surfaces instead of shredding your living room sofa. Provide tall, sturdy scratching posts of wood, sisal, or carpeting – or a variety of inexpensive cardboard scratchers. Experiment with horizontal, vertical and slanted surfaces to see which your cat prefers. Use catnip to entice them. In addition, try these tips and techniques:
• Learn how to trim your cat’s nails. Combined with a special treat afterward, your cat may actually enjoy routine trimming.
• Consider vinyl nail caps, which are generally well tolerated and come in various colors. Clip the cat’s nails, glue on the caps. As the nails grows, replace caps every four to six weeks.
• Cover tempting surfaces with double-sided sticky tape or tin foil.
• Try using pheromone sprays or plug-in diffusers in problem areas. These mimic a cat’s facial gland scent and may help eliminate territorial behavior.
• Avoid playing with your cat using your hands or feet as the toy, as this can lead to biting or scratching. Instead use interactive pole toys allowing cats to stalk or chase. Providing enrichment activities such as these help build a strong bond with your cat.
The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) strongly opposes declawing – except where medically necessary – and recommends that veterinary teams provide cat owners with effective alternatives. Before deciding to move forward with the procedure, owners should be informed of inherent risks and complications, both short- and long-term. Sadly, in hindsight, many pet parents wrestle with guilt, regretting their decision when they later learn more about the procedure and its irreversible consequences for their cat.