By Dr. Patrick Mahaney, VMD
There are other alternatives to declawing your feline friends. Have you declawed your feline companion? Do you believe that declawing is a humane procedure? Are you thinking about declawing your cat or kitten? Although you might be worried that declawing your cat is the only way to save your furniture, declawing is considered inhumane by many and is even illegal in certain areas of the U.S. There are also many safer alternatives to stopping your cat’s inappropriate scratching. Get the facts and answers to your questions before you consider declawing your cat.
What is declawing? Declawing is the surgical removal of the nail and the outermost bone from each of your cat’s toes. The declaw procedure is a surgery called onchyectomy. The term comes from the Greek words onchyo (nail) and ektome (excision). The suffix -ectomy denotes surgical removal of a particular body part. Phalangectomy would be a more accurate description, as the surgery involves the amputation of the third phalanx (“tip of the finger”) from each digit, including the nail.
Post-operatively, the newly declawed cat is hospitalized for 2-3 days with protective bandages covering the healing limbs to reduce swelling, bleeding and potential for self-trauma. Barring complications such as infection, recovery takes 10-14 days. Appropriate pain management protocols, such as nerve blocks and medications, and excellent surgical technique are essential to achieve an optimal outcome. Should complications occur, the cat may permanently suffer from pain or compromised mobility, and may even be prone to behavior changes including aggression and a tendency to bite.
Why do owners declaw their cats? Cat owners seek the declaw procedure in an attempt to improve the relationship they have with their cat. Claws have the potential to destroy objects and surfaces in the home environment or inflict injury on pets or people in the cat’s home. Cat scratches can potentially infect people with life-threatening illnesses. Pregnant women, cancer/HIV patients and the elderly are more prone to infection. Bartonella henselae, which causes cat scratch fever, is a common bacteria found in flea feces that can be carried on a cat’s claws and infect people through a scratch or bite.
When is performing a declaw acceptable? Declawing a pet for cosmetic (non-medically necessary) reasons is commonly considered to be inhumane. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) advocate against declawing. From a medical perspective, it’s acceptable to perform a declaw procedure if trauma or disease has made the toe and nail unviable. For example, if a cat’s foot gets stuck in a door or fence that crushes the foot or cuts off the blood supply, then the toes can become a source of infection for the rest of the body, or can cause significant discomfort while standing or walking. Tumors can also grow on the digit or nail bed and metastasize or spread to other body parts.
Is declawing illegal? In certain areas of the country, it’s illegal to perform a cosmetic declaw on an animal. California has led the way in creating laws that prevent veterinarians from declawing an animal unless there is a medical necessity to do so. In 2003, West Hollywood (my place of residence) was the first California city to ban declawing. Many other cities in Los Angeles county have also followed West Hollywood’s example. In 2004, California became the first U.S. state to enact a ban on declawing wild and exotic cats. The bill was sponsored by the Paw Project and introduced by California Assembly member Paul Koretz. In 2012, The Paw Project sponsored another bill prohibiting landlords from “requiring declawing and devocalization of animals as a condition of tenancy.” Rhode Island passed a similar bill in 2013 which prevents landlords from “requiring declawing as a condition of occupancy.” It’s also illegal to declaw a cat in Australia, Austria, Brazil, Estonia, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
As a vet, where do you stand on the topic of declawing? In my 14 years of veterinary practice, I estimate that I’ve performed the procedure less than 10 times, with the last being before I moved to West Hollywood in 2006. It’s not a surgery that I recommend for cat owners, and always strive to work with my clients to seek the best combination of alternatives. Yet I’m against a national, state or local government deciding the nature of the procedures that veterinarians can offer their clients. A veterinarian’s determination that a particular service is appropriate for a patient should result from an informed decision-making process between the client and veterinarian and should not be one dictated by the government. My beliefs coincide with those of the California Veterinary Medical Association’s (CVMA) Policy on Declawing of Domestic Cats.
What are the alternatives to having my cat declawed? There are many reasonable alternatives to declawing a cat, including:
- Frequent nail trims- Trim your cat’s claws at least every 14 days to keep nails short and the tips blunt. Make sure you don’t cut the wick. For cats who don’t like nail trims, wrap your cat in a towel or have someone hold your cat and give her treats.
- Nail caps- Temporary vinyl nail coverings, such as Soft Claws, are glued to your cat’s claws and prevent trauma from scratching.
- Scratching posts- Have multiple scratching posts available in your cat's environment. Posts that are taller than other objects which you do not want your cat to scratch will be more desirable scratching surfaces. Include a variety of posts, such as horizontal corrugated cardboard and vertical sisal-rope styles. Infusing the posts with catnip essence can make them more attractive, too!
- Double-sided tape- Put double-sided tape like Sticky Paws on furniture or carpets to dissuade your cat from scratching.
- Pet proofing mats and barriers- Keep your cat off carpets and furniture or away from areas where she scratches with mats, sprays, and barriers that give your cat a gentle reminder to stay away.
- Feline pheromone sprays/diffusers- Feline pheromones such as Feliway can reduce stress and modify undesirable behaviors.
- Behavior consultation- A board-certified veterinary behaviorist can suggest additional techniques or prescribe behavior-modifying pharmaceuticals. To find a behavior specialist, visit the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists website.
- Complementary therapies- Acupuncture, herbs, dietary modification and other therapies can address energetic abnormalities from a non-traditional perspective.
If a client has diligently explored these options without success, then pursuing declawing as an alternative to euthanasia is an acceptable path. However, if an owner is willing to terminate the life of their cat as a result of the cat’s scratching tendencies, then it is best that a new home is found for the cat.