Here’s What You Really Need to Know About Cat Declawing

Cats are incredible companions. They are fuzzy and snuggly and incredibly entertaining, acrobatic, independent, and famously curious.

There are few things about cats that aren’t great, but among the most common complaints might be hairballs, scooping litter boxes, and the damage caused by their dagger-tipped paws. These little retractable slicers can really make a mess of furniture or carpeting, so what’s a person to do if kitty is getting a little too prolific in the use of such tools?

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There are many widely accepted options that can help you redirect kitty scratching, one remains highly contested: declawing. Here’s all you need to know about cat declawing, why it’s controversial, and alternatives to it.

What are cat claws for anyway?

The most obvious answer is for self-defense. When cats play, one of their favorite postures is on their backs with paws outstretched. What better way to defend oneself than to present 18 sharp objects at the enemy?

Most cats have five toes on each of their front feet, four each on the back. If your kitty is polydactyl, she may have more–the current claw-bearing record belongs to Tiger in Alberta, Canada, who has a whopping 27 toes.

That fun fact aside, kitty claws also serve as tools for hunting, climbing, territorial marking, traction, and balance. According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, “Scratching is a normal behavior of cats. It conditions the claws, serves as a visual and scent territorial marker, allows the cat to defend itself, and provides healthy muscle engagement through stretching.”

What exactly is declawing?

The medical term for declawing is onychectomy, and it’s the removal of the third phalanx of the toe. An onychectomy is major surgery that includes multiple amputations. “The procedure involves removing the last bone of the cat’s toe,” explains Angelica Dimock, DVM, managing shelter veterinarian at the Animal Humane Society in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN. “This ensures the nail bed is removed and the nail can no longer regrow. This is how I explain it to my clients:  look at your hand. Find the knuckle/joint below your nail.  Now imagine having all 10 fingers amputated at that site.”

There are three major methods for declawing: laser surgery, removal with a scalpel, and the guillotine method. These are all still amputations, just using different tools. Many studies suggest laser surgery as the safest method of declawing, with a lower incidence of infection and faster recovery time, though it has no influence on the physical and behavioral after-effects of declawing your cat.

“If an owner is adamant on getting their cat declawed, I recommend only getting it done with laser surgery. The healing time is substantially reduced compared to using a surgical blade,” says Dr. Dimock. “I would also only do this procedure on a cat under three to four months of age since they heal quicker.”

The American Association of Feline Practitioners also points out that there are “inherent risks and complications with declawing that increase with age such as acute pain, infection, nerve trauma, as well as long term complications like lameness, behavioral problems, and chronic neuropathic pain.” The surgery can be risky not only for older cats, but for those who are overweight.

What is the recovery from declawing surgery like?

The immediate recovery from onychectomy usually includes hospitalization. Kitties must recover from general anesthesia and be carefully monitored for proper administration of pain relief medicines.

Once a veterinarian has determined it is safe for kitty to return home, their owner must continue with pain medications and antibiotics. Many times owners will need to acquire special paper litter to help keep kitty pain free. Surgery recovery time (until wounds are safely healed) can take up to six weeks—sometimes more.

“We don’t know for sure if animals get ‘phantom limb pain’ after an amputation, but imagine getting a toe amputated and then being forced to walk on it immediately after surgery,” points out Dr. Dimock of the Animal Humane Society.

Beyond the pain of multiple amputations, complications during recovery can include infections, excessive bleeding, pad injury, and limping. It’s complicated because cat paws are not especially clean areas. “You can’t sterilize this area. And if it’s not performed properly, the claw can grow back. But it won’t grow back properly and that can cause abscesses,” Atlanta veterinarian and past president of the Academy of Feline Medicine, Drew Weigner, tells PetMD.

Side effects of declawing

As explored in an article on PetMD, while it’s true that declawing means your cat can no longer scratch, the list of negatives side effects can be quite long. The most commonly reported side effects of declawing include pain, litter box issues, deformation, and behavioral problems.

1. Side effect: Pain

Pain is a complex issue the extends beyond the surgery itself. Because cats use their paws for pretty much everything—walking, climbing, using the litterbox—there are many things that can cause them pain.

Additionally, the procedure can cause long-term problems, like arthritis. “The last digit of the toe is used for balancing, which is why arthritis develops. The cat now needs to grip more when walking and the remaining bones were not made for that kind of action,” explains Dr. Dimock.

Some might argue that their cats seem to be fine after the procedure, but Dr. Christine Schelling of declawing.com, disagrees. “Not only are they proud, they instinctively know that they are at risk when in a weakened position, and by nature will attempt to hide it,” she says. “But make no mistake. This is not a surgery to be taken lightly.”

2. Side effect: Litter box issues

If a kitty’s feet are hurting, then scratching and standing in gritty kitty litter isn’t going to be a pleasant thing. For that simple reason, declawed kitties may find other, more comfortable places to relieve themselves. Generally these are softer surfaces such as carpets, bedding, and furniture.

3. Side effect: Shortening of ligaments/deformation

Without claws, cats can not stretch the ligaments they were once attached to. This can cause a change in gait which, according to a study in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, can lead to back pain. Deformation can also happen when regrowth occurs at the amputation sites. As many as a third of cats who are declawed end up having surgical complications, according to cat advocacy group Paws and Effect.

4. Side effect: Behavioral issues like biting

Remember how we mentioned cat nails are primarily for defense? Well, when you take that defense away, cats notice. “By removing their sense of security in protecting themselves, they usually turn to biting, which is perceived as increased aggression,” Dr. Dimock tells Rover. Not a great trait for bonding with new people. Additionally, with no method of self-defense, declawed kitties can never be allowed outside.

Are there people against declawing?

Yes. In fact, most major organizations and many veterinarians are fully against the procedure. That includes The Humane Society of the United StatesASPCA, and PETA. The American Association of Feline Practitioners also strongly opposes declawing, and many vets refuse to perform the operation. Most local animal shelters and welfare agencies will not adopt cats out to those who plan to declaw a cat.

Even among the groups who don’t outright disavow the practice, they allow it only in specific circumstances. The AVMA and the International Society of Feline Medicine have adopted specific language that recommends declawing only as a last resort. This “non-therapeutic” declawing means the owner has worked with a veterinarian to examine every last option to declawing and the procedure is medically necessary for the cat (such as in the case of tumors) or the owners (such as people with compromised immune systems.)

Is cat declawing illegal?

Outside of the United States, declawing is generally not a common practice. Nevertheless, many countries in Europe have officially banned the practice of non-therapeutic declawing of cats as have others including Brazil, Japan, Turkey, New Zealand, and Australia. It’s also banned in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, Canada. Additionally, VCA Canada, which operates over 100 clinics across the country, has banned non-therapeutic declawing procedures in its clinics.

In the United States, cities and municipalities including San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles, CA, have banned the practice of declawing, as has the city of Denver, CO. In July 2019, the state of New York became the first to ban declawing and similar bills have been introduced in Florida, Massachusetts, California, and New Jersey.

What are alternatives to cat declawing?

There are many things you can do to stop kitty from inadvertently shredding your stuff. Most of the options are pretty simple and with some quality time spent reinforcing good behaviors, most kitty owners will find success. The American Association of Feline Practitioners offers a free webinar on cat clawing behavior, which gives an in-depth overview of these behavior-altering suggestions.

1. Nail trimming

This is perhaps the easiest way to prevent unwanted scratching as it simply removes the sharp end of kitty’s nails. “Train your cat to get its nails trimmed,” suggests Dr. Dimock. “Give lots of treats and praise. By making it a fun experience, the cat will eventually allow the trimming.”

Commercial cat nail trimmers, human nail trimmers and dremels are all options, or you can take your cat in to a professional like a veterinarian or groomer. Dr. Dimock mentions that vaccine clinics and shelters also often offer nail trims for a fee.

2. Nail covers

These are plastic caps that are glued on to a cat’s nails, preventing the sharp end of the nail from shredding, but still allowing cats to use their nails for the various reasons they do. While it takes kitties a while to get used to them, it’s better to cause some annoyance than anything permanent. We’ve written a whole guide to nail caps here: Everything You Need to Know About Nail Caps For Cats.

If you aren’t comfortable putting them on yourself, a veterinarian can do it for you. They’ll do it right and prevent you from having to struggle with both a squirmy kitty and sticky glue.

3. Redirected scratching

Don’t want them to scratch your couch? Make sure you have somewhere they can scratch. “Provide lots of scratching posts and use an attractant like catnip to encourage your cat to scratch on the post versus your furniture,” advises Dr. Dimock.

Invest in a sturdy scratcher that won’t topple over onto your cat (we’ve got some recommendations here). If your kitty goes to the couch to scratch, place the cat scratcher in the same area then gently redirect her to it. Show her scratching on the scratcher is better for her and for you.

4. Double stick tape

Not only is it useful for getting cat hair off your pants, but double stick tape is also a great training method for keeping cats from scratching on or getting on surfaces you don’t want them to. It works pretty simply: kitties have extremely sensitive paw pads and the feeling of being stuck to something isn’t ideal. Once kitty has had a couple of experiences with it, they will likely avoid the area. Sticky Paws is a popular choice.

5. Foil

This is perhaps the least attractive method of behavior training, but laying or taping sheets of foil to places kitty likes to scratch can serve as a deterrent. Cats don’t like the sound or feel of foil on their paws, so household foil can be a quick and cheap solution. After a few weeks, you can likely remove it as kitty will continue to associate the area with that weird-feeling stuff.

6. Squirt bottles

You can easily redirect kitties from scratching by giving them a quick squirt with a water bottle at the moment they begin scratching where you don’t want them to. It works best as a surprise so kitty doesn’t think it’s coming from you but just a random environmental response to that area. After a few squirts, kitty will begin avoiding the area.

7. Cat-resistant furniture

Buying a new couch can be cheaper than major surgery. If you are at your wit’s end, consider replacing furniture with soft, scratchable coverings with materials that are not as scratch-friendly. Options include leather, pleather, and hard-woven fabrics.

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