declawWhether cats should be declawed or not has become a hot-button issue in recent years. As a result, the declawing of cats has been banned in more than a dozen countries and in several California cities, and a bill is currently being considered that would make New York the first state to outlaw the procedure. The surgery is currently legal in Colorado, although attempts have been made to introduce legislation that would ban the procedure to declaw a cat.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has taken the stance that declawing is not a medically necessary procedure, but that it can be beneficial in instances where the cat would otherwise be given up for adoption, or when the owners are immunocompromised and cannot risk being scratched.

The AVMA and the staff here at Lone Tree Veterinary Medical Center agree that, before making a decision, cat owners should be fully educated on normal cat scratching behavior and alternatives to the declaw procedure, as well as the risks involved. Our medical team works diligently to help cat owners with these alternatives. In the rare situation where all alternatives have been tried over time and have failed, in order to keep a cat in its forever home or avoid euthanasia, our veterinarians will provide the procedure.

Why Do Cats Scratch?

Cats scratch for a variety of reasons, including, to stretch, to sharpen their nails, or to leave their scent (via scent glands in their paws) on objects and surfaces for the purpose of marking their territory. Since cats tend to prefer scratching vertically, stationary objects that don’t move are primary targets. This is why a stable, vertical, and tall scratching post that allows the cat to both stretch and scratch at the same time, is an effective way to lure a cat away from furniture. Scenting it with catnip can also be helpful, as well as making sure it is somewhat nubby or textured, and that the claws can sink easily into it.

Scratching is a normal behavior for cats and, hence, offers a sense of expression, comfort and satisfaction. Consequently, managing this behavior is always preferable to removing it. However, in those situations where the behavior cannot be managed by any other means, declawing is an option.

What Is Declawing?

Declawing, or onychectomy, is a surgical procedure in which the third phalanx (toe bone) from each toe is amputated. Since a cat’s claws are attached directly to the toe bones, the entire bone must be removed in order to remove the claw.

When performed correctly, most cats will recover from the surgery and adjust well, especially if they are kittens. For adult cats, even when the procedure is performed correctly, recovery will take longer and the potential for ongoing problems is much greater.

Why the Declaw Method Matters

As with any surgery, declawing is not without certain potential dangers. Besides the risk of infection, a cat may experience significant pain, nerve damage, and even behavioral issues following the removal of the claws. To understand how these problems can be minimized, it is important to understand that there are differences in the methods used to perform a declaw procedure.

  • Guillotine Method – Our veterinarians do not recommend or use this method, which involves using a “guillotine” style nail clipper to remove the claw by clipping the ligaments and tendons around the end toe bone. While clipping can be done correctly, it is too easy to leave part of the end bone behind or to cut into the adjacent toe bone, both of which result in lifelong pain and other crippling effects and, in some cases, the nail may grow back.
  • Blade Method – This is the method used by our veterinarians and involves using a scalpel to cut the tendons holding the end toe bone in place. By using a scalpel, the procedure can be done with great precision, allowing the veterinarian to safely remove only the end bone and a small amount of skin tissue. The incision is closed using surgical glue or a suture and the paws are bandaged. With the assistance of proper pain management, the incisions usually heal within ten to fourteen days.

Age Considerations

Our veterinarians agree that when considering the declawing procedure, it is much easier for a kitten to recover and adjust than it is for an adult cat. When done correctly, most kittens will act as though nothing has happened within just a day or two. It is usually more difficult for an adult cat, since the scratching of objects is a well-established and routine behavior.

Lifestyle Considerations

It is important to understand that the decision to declaw your kitten or cat also has lifestyle implications for both you and your cat. Since the declaw procedure removes a cat’s primary form of defense from a predator, as well as its ability to climb up and away from any danger, a declawed kitten or cat must ALWAYS be kept indoors for the remainder of its life. This is a commitment that will require vigilance from all members of the household, but is necessary to ensure that your cat lives safely indoors.

Alternatives to Declaw Surgery

It is important to stress, again, that the urge to scratch is inherent in all cats. Not only is scratching one of the ways a cat marks its territory, scratching also provides stretching exercise, stress relief, and keeps the claws in good condition.

Before considering the declaw procedure, we encourage cat owners to explore the various alternatives to declawing and give them a good try.

  • Provide a place (or two) for your cat to scratch, such as a tall, textured scratching post or tree, a scratching pad or even an old cardboard box.
  • Place scratching posts in areas of the home where your cat spends the most time. You can also make the objects you don’t want scratched less attractive by obstructing them, attaching sticky tape to them, or by placing a scratching post in front of them.
  • Scent the scratching post or tree with catnip.
  • Regularly trim your cat’s claws  (every 1-2 weeks) to reduce injury or damage to furniture from scratching.
  • The use of a synthetic pheromone spray, such as Feliway, can reduce stress.
  • Be sure to provide your cat with the environmental enrichment it needs, such as daily play and interaction, interesting toys, and the addition of cat-friendly perches and hiding spots throughout the home.
  • Synthetic nail caps (which must be reapplied every 4-6 weeks) can be used to keep the claws intact while making them safe for household items and family members.

Most experts agree that declawing should not be the first option for solving a cat scratching problem. If you are having trouble with destructive scratching, please contact our medical team at Lone Tree Veterinary Medical Center and we will be happy to help you find the best solution for your cat.