FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT FELINE DECLAWING
What is declawing?
Declawing is a series of bone amputations. Declawing is more accurately described by the term de-knuckling and is not merely the removal of the claws, as the term "declawing" implies. In humans, fingernails grow from the skin, but in animals that hunt prey, the claws grow from the bone; therefore, the last bone is amputated so the claw cannot re-grow. The last bone of each of the ten front toes of a cat's paw is amputated. Also, the tendons, nerves, and ligaments that enable normal function and movement of the paw are severed. An analogous procedure applied to humans would be cutting off each finger at the last joint.
Declawing, also known as onychectomy (än-ik-ek-tō-mē), is a major surgical and potentially crippling procedure that robs an animal of its primary means of defense. Declawed animals may be at increased risk of injury or death, if attacked by other animals. They are deprived of their normal, instinctual behavioral impulses to use their claws to climb, exercise, and mark territory with the scent glands in their paws.
What are the risks associated with declaw surgery?
Declaw surgery exposes cats to the risks of general anesthesia and complications of the surgical procedure, which include bleeding, infection, lameness, nerve damage, gangrene, extensive tissue damage, and death.
A report published in the January 1, 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) by Yeon, et al., states that 33% of cats suffer at least one behavioral problem after declaw or tendonectomy surgery.
Jankowski, in JAVMA (August 1, 1998), reports that acute complications "develop in up to one-half of onychectomized (declawed) cats. Long term complications of the procedure (are) reported for about one-fifth (20%) of onychectomized cats."
Martinez, in Veterinary Medicine (June 1993), reports 11% lameness, 17% wound breakdown, and 10% nail re-growth post-operatively in cats having declaw surgery.
Why is declawing so common?
The estimates of the prevalence of declawing vary considerably. It seems that 25%–43% of all cats in American homes are declawed. The reason for this high number is that many veterinarians actively market and recommend the procedure without disclosing the details of the procedure to their clients with cats. Others perform declawing unquestioningly. Many people with cats don't understand that declawing is amputating the bones and think they are doing "all the right things" for their beloved animal.
A survey of twenty Los Angeles area veterinary clinics, reported in the February-March 2003 issue of The Pet Press, found that 75% agreed to perform declawing without question and without any attempt to establish a medical, behavioral, or any other indication to justify the procedure. Not only is declaw-on-demand the norm, the staff at veterinary clinics commonly encourage clients, whose cats are scheduled for spaying or neutering, to "supersize" the procedure by adding declaw surgery.
According to the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association (SCVMA), most veterinarians offer declawing and 5% make over $1000/hour performing the procedure. Clients who bring their cats to these veterinarians typically report that neither the nature of the procedure, complications, nor humane alternatives is ever discussed.
Is declawing a painful procedure?
Declawing is one of the most painful, routinely performed procedures in all of veterinary medicine. Each toe of the cat is amputated at the first joint.
Declawing a cat is equivalent in a person to amputating the entire first knuckle of every finger.
Declaw surgery is so predictably painful that it is used by pharmaceutical companies to test the effectiveness of pain medications in clinical trials.
Initial recovery after declaw amputation surgery takes a few weeks, but even after the surgical wounds have healed, there are often other long-term physical complications and negative psychological effects.
In DVM Best Practices, August 2002, veterinarian Kip Lemke illustrates typical levels of post-surgical pain using common surgical procedures. Declawing is associated with "severe pain," compared against spaying ("moderate pain") and neutering ("mild pain").
Pollari states in JAVMA (June 1, 1996), "Because these procedures are so routine, they are often trivialized by clients as well as veterinarians."
"Declawing is very painful – there's no question about that…" says Dr. Katherine Houpt, Professor and Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Carroll, et al., in JAVMA (July 15, 1998) report, "Typically, cats undergoing onychectomy (declawing) are not given any analgesics (pain medication) or are only given a single dose of analgesic before or after surgery…. There is a physiological cost associated with uncontrolled pain. Thus, provision of adequate analgesia…would be of benefit." However, the investigators go on to report that veterinarians often have misconceptions regarding the degree and duration of pain following declawing, as well as the safety of analgesic use in cats, despite the abundance of published data documenting the efficacy of these drugs. The article also points out the challenges in assessing pain in cats. Cats instinctively hide signs of pain. The difficulties of clinically recognizing pain in cats is reported by a number of other authors, including Winkler ( J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 1997), Franks (JAVMA 2000), Cambridge (JAVMA 2000), and Gellasch (JAVMA 2002).
Although cats typically are sent home one to two days after declawing surgery without pain medication, Carroll points out that "the optimal duration of post-operative analgesic treatment for cats is unknown." A cat's behavior may be misinterpreted, because not all cats show outward signs of pain after surgery, such as crying, whining, or licking at a paw. "What they'll often do is curl up and go to sleep in the back of the cage," says Dr. Karen Tobias, an associate professor in small animal surgery at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, who conducted a study on pain in cats after declawing surgery. "Owners or veterinarians may think they're sleeping comfortably and not in any pain."
It appears that under-medicating cats after declawing is the norm. A survey of over 1000 veterinarians by Wagner and Hellyer (JAVMA Dec. 1, 2002) found that 30% administered no pain medication after declaw surgery. For those animals receiving pain medication, there are potential problems. Some veterinarians have proposed the use of fentanyl patches. The patches, which are placed on the skin, contain a powerful narcotic. Their use in humans for post-operative pain was abandoned after several deaths occurred from accidental overdose.
Do declawed cats have a difficulty defending themselves?
Yes, declawing deprives cats of their primary means of defense—their claws. Non-declawed cats will use their front paw claws to stave off a threat by swiping. Without these claws, declawed cats have to resort to biting to protect themselves. Many people mistakenly believe that a cat can protect itself by kicking with its back feet claws. What they do not realize is that in order to use the back claws, the cat has to be in the very vulnerable position of laying on its back, which is a disadvantage that can easily lead to losing the battle.
Do declawed cats find homes more easily because they won't damage furniture? Do people abandon or euthanize their cats, if veterinarians do not perform a declawing procedure?
Actually, declawed cats seem to lose their homes BECAUSE they were declawed! There is evidence that declawed cats are disproportionately abandoned to shelters, and that declawed cats may be euthanized more often because of the behavioral and physical problems that the cat begins to exhibit because the cat was declawed.
Pet owners typically cite protection of their furnishings as being foremost among their reasons for having a cat declawed; however, such owners may not realize that the pain and other complications from the surgery can cause behavioral problems that are even worse than the problems for which the cat's toes were originally amputated:
- A cat can still bite a child and may have to resort to doing so since the cat has been robbed of its primary defense: its claws.
- A cat whose paws hurt when digging in a litter box may avoid the litter box altogether. If someone is intolerant of a cat scratching furniture, that person is most certainly going to be intolerant of a cat biting or not using the litter box!
- In a 1996 JAVMA article, Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD, using multivariate statistical analysis, found that declawed cats were at an increased risk of relinquishment to animal shelters and that among relinquished cats, 52.4% of declawed cats were reported to exhibit litter box avoidance, compared to 29.1% of non-declawed cats.
- The risk of cats being relinquished to pounds if the owner cannot declaw the animal is grossly overestimated by the veterinary profession. In a survey of owners of cats that had been declawed and their veterinarians, reported by Dr. Gary Landsberg in Veterinary Forum (September 1994), only 4% of the owners said they would have relinquished their pet had it not been declawed. In contrast, the veterinarians in the survey speculated that 50% of the owners would have relinquished their pets.
- We could reasonably expect that if cat owners knew the risks and alternatives to declawing and if veterinarians took a more active role in offering and assisting with the alternatives (such as nail caps and nail trimming), the 4% figure would be further reduced. As veterinarian Nicholas Dodman, board-certified animal behaviorist and Professor at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, has said, "There are very few people of this ilk (who would euthanize a cat if it could not be declawed) who could not be reeducated by an enthusiastic and well-informed veterinarian as to the inhumanity of this approach."
- Janet Scarlett, DVM, of Cornell University, in the article, "The Role of Veterinary Practitioners in Reducing Dog and Cat Relinquishments and Euthanasias," JAVMA (February 1, 2002), states that client counseling is "probably the most effective means by which veterinarians can influence the number of dogs and cats surrendered to animal shelters today." Veterinarians have an opportunity to intervene because people relinquishing pets are veterinary clients.
An estimated 50–70% of pets in shelters had visited the veterinarian in the year preceding relinquishment. Yet, Dr. Scarlett reports, "Only 25% of veterinarians routinely actively identify and treat behavioral problems." She writes, "Less than a third felt confident of their ability to treat common behavioral problems. Perhaps even more disturbing, only 11.1% of veterinarians felt it was the veterinarian's responsibility, rather than the client's, to initiate discussion about behavioral problems." Dr. Scarlett admonishes veterinarians to ask specifically about problem behaviors to uncover problems that clients are reluctant to mention or that they may not realize can be modified. Once identified, appropriate interventions can be recommended.
It seems clear that the real solution to the euthanasia concern will be convincing veterinarians to offer proper education. Treating a behavioral problem such as scratching with a surgical procedure went out of fashion with lobotomy. Declawing can cause worse behavior problems like not using the litter box and biting. These new behaviors can easily lead to abandonment and death.
Does declawing contribute to behavioral problems such as litter box avoidance or biting?
Yes, declawing a cat can be the reason that cat loses its home. Cats may be abandoned by their owners after being declawed because the cats develop behavioral changes or other problems after the declaw surgery. These behaviors include biting and urinating or defecating in unwanted areas outside of the litter box. Declawed cats with these behaviors are more likely to go to the pound, where an estimated 70% will be euthanized (killed). The pain of declawing sometimes causes cats to be reluctant to walk or play, and as a result, owners sometimes neglect them or mistreat them.
Since 1966, there have been several articles in the veterinary literature that have examined the behavioral changes caused by declawing:
- Yeon, et al., (JAVMA 2001) found that 33% of cats suffer at least one behavioral problem after declaw or tendonectomy surgery. The study showed that 17.9% of cats had an increase in biting frequency or intensity and that 15.4% would not use a litter box.
- Bennett, et al., examining 25 declawed cats, reported that declawed cats were 18.5% more likely than non-declawed cat to bite and 15.6% more likely to avoid the litter box.
- Morgan and Houpt found that the 24 declawed cats in their internet survey had a 40% higher incidence of house soiling than non-declawed cats.
- Borchelt and Voith, looking only at aggressive behavior in a retrospective survey of pet owners, found declawed cats bit family members more often than did non-declawed cats.
- Gaynor (in North American Veterinary Clinics, April 2005) described cats suffering from a chronic pain syndrome as a result of declawing that is associated with increased biting.
- In a retrospective phone survey, Patronek found that among 218 cats relinquished to a shelter, 52.4% of declawed cats versus 29.1% of non-declawed cats were reported to have inappropriate elimination.
- Landsberg reported that about 5% of cats developed either biting or litter box avoidance problems after declaw surgery. These figures were obtained by means of a written retrospective owner satisfaction questionnaire, approximately half of which were distributed by veterinarians other than the investigator.
- In a commentary of the Yeon article, Professor Nicholas Dodman, DVM, MRCVS, DACVB of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine writes, "It is amazing that none of the studies to date on declawing has addressed the right questions to the right persons and drawn the right conclusions. This study is no exception. Owners are an unreliable source of information about their pets, especially months or years after the fact….Almost one-half of the cats in the study required post-operative opioids to control pain following surgery, and the remainder would have probably benefited from it. The owners reported that one-half to two-thirds of the cats in this study showed signs of pain after surgery, likely only the tip of the iceberg…. In addition, though the authors were more interested in comparison of the two techniques, it is notable that about 33% of all cats developed a behavior problem after surgery, either house soiling or increased biting. Whatever the owners may have assessed, this was not a good outcome. And, to top it all, 42 of 57 cats (74%) had at least one medical complication following surgery. In light of such findings, it is hard to see why veterinarians don't spend more time and effort recommending alternatives to declawing than these painful and sometimes debilitating procedures. Instead, we seem to keep finding ways of justifying declawing as an essential component of feline practice."
- In the December 2003 issue of Cat Fancy magazine, Karen Overall, DVM, PhD, DACVB, a board-certified animal behaviorist, writes that scratching behavior is a complex behavior that "behavioral biologists have been almost wholly uninterested in" and that "fewer and fewer people favor declawing." She observes that "cats do not scratch to annoy us; they scratch to communicate something and the cues are physical and olfactory. This is one aspect of declawing that has never been investigated, and until we understand how much these elective surgeries affect normal feline behavior, we could do best to avoid them."
Do behavioral problems in declawed cats result in abandonment or losing their homes?
The National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy published "The Top Ten Reasons for Pet Relinquishment to Shelters in the United States" in 2000:
- #1 House Soiling
- #2 Aggression (biting)
- (These are the two behavior problems most associated with cats that have been declawed.)
The report showed house soiling, followed by aggression, as the most common behavioral reasons for pet relinquishment. These two problem behaviors are frequently reported about cats that have been declawed; however, for cats with claws, it is interesting to note that destructive scratching did not make the list. Only 3.3% of cat owners, according to Scarlett, et al. (JAVMA 2002) claim destruction of furniture as the unwanted behavior that led them to relinquish their pets. This figure is similar to the 3% of cats that, according to the study, were relinquished for being "unfriendly and disobedient."
What is the experience of animal shelter workers with behavioral problems in declawed cats?
Ample evidence shows that declawing does result in increased biting and litter box avoidance, the behaviors that scientific researchers and shelter workers agree are the most common behavioral problems cited as reasons for relinquishment. Many animal shelters publicly discourage declawing:
- San Francisco Animal Care and Control — Some declawed cats become more nervous biters; others are known to become even more destructive to furniture than before the operation; and many cats stop using the litter box.
- East Bay SPCA — Deprived of their primary form of defense, declawed cats become nervous, fearful, and/or aggressive, often using their only remaining defense, their teeth. Some cats stop using their litter pan. This may be associated to the discomfort of scratching in the litter after the surgery.
- Palo Alto Humane Society — We have a no-declaw policy.
These organizations and the individuals working there are obviously highly motivated to find each cat a home and do not wish to see the cat returned. They have found that declawed cats, with a disproportionate rate of biting and house soiling, have a relatively low adoption success rate.
The American veterinary literature has contributed only six articles in the past 45 years that examine the link between declawing and behavior problems. The veterinarians are of a "don't ask, don't tell" mentality. It seems they don't want to know what the true consequences of declawing are. The articles do find that there are behavior problems that are initiated by declawing, but they ignore how wide spread the problem truly is. "Shelter workers and rescue organizations have a better idea of what is going on with cats that have been declawed. These people are the ones who know that declawed cats are more likely to die. Veterinarians just don't see the harm they are doing by declawing. If they knew they were sending animals to their deaths, they wouldn't be declawing," says Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior specialist and animal rescuer in Berkeley, California.
Many shelter workers have seen the association between declawing and the behavior problems that are the cause for relinquishment. Janet Winikoff, former adoption program manager for The Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, Virginia, says, "I have seen firsthand the problems associated with declawing. It was not unusual for the shelter to receive surrendered cats who began exhibiting aggressive behavior and refused to eliminate in the litter box after being declawed. Sadly, these cats were typically considered unadoptable and euthanized."
A widely reported survey by Forgotten Felines and Friends of Caddo Parish in Louisiana found that 70% of cats surrendered to animal shelters for behavioral problems were declawed. Most of these animals are ultimately destroyed. This statistic is again corroborated by a survey of a Delaware animal shelter, reported in the magazine, Animal Times, which puts the number at 75%.
In February 2003, the Gloucester County (New Jersey) Animal Shelter instituted a policy forbidding the declawing of any cat adopted from the county animal shelter. Director William Lombardi, an animal control officer with over twenty-five years' experience, said, "Eighty percent of the declawed cats that are surrendered are euthanized because they have a behavioral problem. That totaled 300 cats at the shelter last year." He found that "declawed cats have a greater chance of having a behavioral problem than (non-declawed) cats. When a cat is brought into the shelter because it is biting or not using the litter box, the first thing we ask is, 'When was it declawed?'"
Cocheco Valley (New Hampshire) Humane Society has also reported a disproportionate number of relinquished cats with behavioral problems having been declawed, and is another of the many animal shelters in the US to adopt a no-declaw policy.
Do people with compromised immune systems need to declaw their cats?
No, people with compromised immune systems do NOT need to declaw their cats. In fact, declawing cats to prevent human illness is not recommended by the Center for Disease Control, the US Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, or infectious diseases experts.
Robert Goldman, DVM, says, "The only people who seem to recommend declawing cats for protection of immune-compromised people are the veterinarians who make money declawing cats. I'd listen to the CDC, US PHS and NIH before I'd listen to a veterinarian when it comes to issues of human health. Veterinarians who recommend declawing for people living with HIV/ AIDS are really doing these people a huge disservice. In fact, because declawed cats are known to bite people more, and bite wounds are worse than scratches, these veterinarians are actually putting immune-compromised people more at risk!"
In his book, The Guide to Living with HIV Infection, John G. Bartlett, MD, Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, writes that common sense practices to avoid bites or scratches are sufficient and specifically states, "You need not declaw the cat." Dr. Bartlett was the president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America in 1999 and has served as a consultant to the National Institutes of Health and as an editor for the New England Journal of Medicine.
In a Winn Feline Foundation article, Susan Little, DVM, says, "It is likely that CSD (Cat Scratch Disease) can also be contracted from environmental sources of the bacteria or from other animals. (CSD is widely known to come from flea bites). She continues to say, "Onychectomy (declawing) is also not recommended, since infection can occur without a cat scratch…. A common sense approach is the best way to safeguard against CSD."
"Pet owners are far more likely to contract most zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transmitted to humans from vertebrate animals) from contaminated food or drinking water than they are from their healthy companion animals," says Suzanne Jenkins, VMD, MPH.
C.M.G. Buttery, MD, MPH of the Office of Epidemiology, Virginia Department of Health. "Keep your cats' nails trimmed, but do not subject them to declaw surgery."
Michael G. Groves, DVM, MPH, PhD, Professor of Epidemiology at LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, answered the following when asked if declawing is an effective means of preventing human infection: "No, a significant number (of illnesses) are associated with bites, with wounds not inflicted by cats, or with no known site of inoculation. HIV-positive individuals and AIDS patients should be able to have cats, if they follow the prevention guidelines…. The benefits of a companion animal for some people may outweigh any risks of pet ownership, provided steps are taken to keep the risk at a minimum."
Dr. Groves writes, "Veterinarians often are consulted by the public, and occasionally by physicians and other veterinarians, for information regarding zoonoses, diseases that are transmitted to humans from animals." Veterinarians and physicians, "perhaps seeking 'zero risk,' advise patients to dispose of pets to prevent or alleviate a zoonotic illness. HIV-positive people may be told they that should not have animals at all. Although this advice may be well intended, it is often ill informed. Too often what is missing is some reasonable approximation of the true risk of disease transmission balanced against the benefits of pet ownership."
The human diseases most associated with cats are Toxoplasmosis and Bartonellosis. The risk of developing these or other opportunistic diseases from cat scratches is exceedingly low. Infectious diseases specialist, Ralph Hansen, MD, of Pacific Oaks Medical Group in Beverly Hills, says, "The risk of diseases being transmitted from cats comes primarily from the litter box and teeth, with claws far down the list. There is no rational medical reason for a physician to recommend declawing a cat."
Dr. Hansen's clinic treats over 2500 HIV-positive individuals. Dr. Hansen said that he has seen only one or two cases of full-blown Bartonellosis in the 30 + years since HIV was first recognized. Bartonellosis is also known as Cat Scratch Disease (CSD); although, Dr. Hansen notes, current thinking is that Bartonella is not from scratches in most cases and more likely to be transmitted by fleas.
To avoid the risk of toxoplasmosis, J. P. Dubey, MVSc, PhD, a microbiologist at the USDA Zoonotic Diseases Laboratory, recommends avoiding cat waste and notes that "the possibility of (disease microorganisms) sticking to cat fur is minimal, as is the possibility of transmission to humans via touching or handling a cat."
If it is possible to repair the paws of declawed animals, why not just declaw them in the first place with the repair surgery technique?
Declawing is performed solely for the convenience of the person who has the animal. There is absolutely no benefit to the animal. Because declawing impairs the normal function of an animal's paws, declawing may result in a bad outcome for the animal—physically and psychologically. See behavior problems associated with declawing ». The repair surgery technique takes as many as 6 hours per paw. Rather than attempt a lengthy and risky reparative surgery technique, it is much more practical not to declaw in the first place, and thereby avoid inflicting potential adverse health consequences and psychological trauma that produces negative behavioral changes.
The Paw Project has repaired the paws on about 75 declawed wild and exotic cats and that has resulted in significant improvement for the animals, but has not restored them to a normal condition. The repair surgery is expensive and can take up to six hours per paw, which significantly increases the inherent surgical risks. It has been performed on only about 10 domestic cats because their paws are small and the anatomy is often not recognizable for reconstruction.
Is there precedent for banning declawing?
Yes, there is precedent for banning declawing. The Paw Project has successfully sponsored these American laws: Declawing became illegal in the West Hollywood, California in 2003—the first city in all of North America. Declawing has since been made illegal in 7 other California cities: Santa Monica, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Culver City and Berkeley. Declawing of wild and exotic cats is illegal throughout the State of California. The USDA, the governing body over animals that are exhibited, sold or bred, added to the Federal Animal Welfare Act a regulation that animals cannot be declawed or defanged as of August 2006.
Regarding tolerance for declawing in veterinary practice, the United States is unusual compared with European countries. Declawing is illegal in many countries around the world, because it is regarded as inhumane. There is growing support of the European Council's Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, which prohibits declawing. To date, the Convention continues to gather signatories, and since its inception, countries including Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Norway and Germany have enacted laws expressly prohibiting declawing.
European veterinary medical professional organizations, including the UK's Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, have publicly expressed their accord, equating declawing with "mutilation" and stating that declawing for the "prevention of furniture or carpet damage is unacceptable."
Further support for the enactment of laws prohibiting declawing has been expressed by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, whose convention calling for an end to non-therapeutic surgeries, including declawing, ear cropping and tail docking, has been ratified by veterinary associations from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia Herzegovina, British Columbia, Columbia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan, United Kingdom and Uruguay.
Attitudes concerning the relationship between humans and animals are changing worldwide. In 2002, Germany became the first European nation to vote to guarantee animal rights in its constitution when the members of the Bundestag voted to add "and the animals" to a clause that obliges the state to respect and protect the dignity of humans. Article 20a of the German Basic Law now reads: "The state takes responsibility for protecting the natural foundations of life and animals in the interest of future generations." In January 2003, the European Union Parliament voted unanimously to ban the testing of cosmetics on animals as well as the sale and import of new cosmetics tested on animals. The farming of animals for fur was recently banned in England. Switzerland passed an amendment in 1992, recognizing animals as beings and not things.
Mohandas Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Although animals are still regarded as 'property' in the eyes of American law, changes in the attitude of the American public are evident. Thirty-seven states have recently passed laws making some forms of animal cruelty a crime. (New Jersey and Massachusetts have passed statewide laws prohibiting the devocalization, also known as debarking, of dogs.) Like declawing, this procedure is a non-therapeutic surgery that affords no benefit to the animal.
A ban on declawing is consistent with this evolving attitude and would make California a leader and a model in the field of animal welfare.
Is declawing with a laser better? What about tendonectomy?
No, despite all of the marketing hype, by laser isn't better. Neither is tendonectomy. Currently, the most common surgical procedure used to declaw cats is complete amputation using a blade, nail clippers or laser. Partial amputation, nail bed ablation, and tendonectomy (also called tenectomy) are also common declaw procedures. Some of these techniques were developed in an effort to compensate for the mutilating effects, extreme pain, or health complications known to be associated with the other techniques; however, each of these techniques has complicating factors or adverse health risks associated with them.
Lasers declawing is often marketed by veterinarians who have bought a laser. Laser beams are used to burn through the cat's toe joint instead of using a scalpel or guillotine blade. A study reported in the September 1, 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Association by Mison, et al., reported that lasers offered no benefit over the more conventional methods of declawing, stating "differences in discomfort and complications between groups treated via scalpel versus CO2 laser were not clinically relevant."
Levy, et al. (1999), found that complications (bleeding, limping, swelling, infection) were generally worse in the laser onychectomy (declawing) group, compared against blade onychectomy in the first 2 days after surgery. Laser declawing can result in 4th Degree burns (burning of the bone).
Robinson, et al. (JAVMA 2007), found no difference in limb function after 48 hours between the laser and the scalpel onychectomy groups. Sadly, one cat in the laser group "had signs of depression and was reluctant to walk on day 2 after surgery...and was euthanized." Disturbingly, 12 days after the surgery, at the conclusion of the study, declawed cats still showed evidence of pain.
Tendonectomy or Tenectomy is a procedure in which the tendons in the toes are severed. The cat still has its claws, but is unable to control them. This procedure does not necessarily protect people from being scratched, and it is associated with a high incidence of abnormal claw growth and muscle atrophy. In a 1998 JAVMA article, Jankowski, et al., concluded that "owners should be aware of the high complication rate for both [tendonectomy and declawing] procedures and of the need for constant trimming of claws of cats that have undergone tenectomy."
Jankowski also reported that 55% of the cats having tendonectomy were still able to scratch with their claws to some degree, and that 10% of the cat's owners had the cats declawed after the tendonectomy procedure for this reason.
In March 2003, the AVMA stated that tendonectomy is "not recommended."
Dr. Wendy Feaga, a Maryland veterinarian, wrote in Veterinary Medicine (May 1998), regarding tendonectomy, "I hope this cruel practice is stopped immediately." She describes a post-tendonectomized cat that "had badly arthritic toes and did not move around comfortably. The toenails were thick and disfigured, and the toes were painful on palpation. I was horrified."
Robert Goldman, DVM, says, "Veterinarians who recommend tendonectomy for cats will tell their clients that they have to trim the cat's claws at least every week. If the client is going to have to trim the nails every week, why not just trim the nails and avoid the tendonectomy procedure all together?"
If declawing is unethical because it surgically alters animals for the convenience of humans, why isn't spaying or neutering also unethical?
Spaying and neutering benefits animals. Declawing provides no benefit to the animal. Spaying and neutering are the most effective and acceptable form of contraception for animals. About 6 million animals die every year in the US shelter system because there are not enough people who will adopt these unfortunate creatures. This tragedy can be prevented through spaying and neutering animals to prevent pet over-population. Spaying, or the removal of the uterus and ovaries in a female animal, also prevents certain cancers and deadly infections. Neutering, or the removal of the testes in a male animal, prevents certain cancers, and may help prevent prostate problems. Both surgeries can be performed with the animal going home that same day.
The number of cats and dogs that end up in pounds and being destroyed is estimated by all authorities to be in the millions annually. Until another alternative is available, surgical sterilization, when done properly by qualified personnel, benefits all companion animals by preventing unwanted pregnancies, as well as the deaths, of many animals.
It should be stressed that equating surgical sterilization to surgical declawing is an invalid comparison and a poor rationalization for performing the mutilating procedure of amputating a cat's toes.
Why do cats scratch things?*
A cat's natural instinct to scratch serves both physical and psychological needs. Their claws are their primary, instinctive tools for defending themselves and capturing prey. They scratch to keep their nails in condition and to mark territory. Before domestication, cats satisfied these needs by clawing tree trunks. House cats can be trained to satisfy their desire to claw without damaging valuable property. Most cats can be trained to use a scratching post. Other options include the use of nail trimmers, sticky strips applied to furniture, climbing trees and scratching mats.
Cats stretch their bodies and tone their muscles by digging their claws into something and pulling back against their own clawhold. Declawed cats are deprived of the means to defend themselves or flee from danger. Declawed cats have been injured or killed by other animals when they could not climb out of harm's way or had impaired ability to protect themselves.
By far, the most common reason given by cat owners who are considering having their pet declawed is to protect furniture or other property. Some may believe that declawing will prevent the cat from injuring them. Some veterinarians will recommend the procedure to their clients. Some people will not ever notice that their cats are having trouble after being declawed. Unfortunately, as many people discover too late, declawing may cause far worse problems than it solves. There are many better ways to treat behavior problems other than radical and irreversible surgery.
Soft Paws® and Soft Claws® are vinyl nail shields that are safe, non-toxic caps adhered to your cat's natural nails. They protect your furniture from scratching damage without interfering with the cat's natural ability to extend and retract its claws. After a month or so, the caps are shed with the natural growth of the cat's nails. Items like Soft Paws® and scratching mats will protect your possessions and provide the necessary outlet for your cat to scratch. Remember, the time you invest in training your cat will be rewarded over a long and happy lifetime together.
* This and the following sections are reproduced by permission. Copyright 2001 © Jean Hofve, DVM – All Rights Reserved.
What are the potential complications of declawing?
Felines—whether house cats or big cats—can suffer pain, post-operative complications, serious health problems, psychological trauma that manifests itself in negative behavioral changes, and even death because of being declawed. More details about the complications associated with declawing include the following:
Litter box problems.
Many declawed cats won't use their litter boxes anymore. After the declaw surgery, the cat's paws are very raw and when the cat goes to use the box, digging in the sand causes the cat a lot of pain. They begin to associate the box with that pain and may never use it again. Many cat experts know this and it has been confirmed in the veterinary literature. It is not uncommon for declawed cat owners to trade scratched furniture for urine-soaked carpeting. In one survey, 95% of calls about declawed cats related to litter box 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.
Deprived of claws, which is their primary defense, a cat may turn to its only other line of defense—its teeth. Some experts believe that cats that are declawed are likely to become biters. Many veterinarians will recommend declawing to protect human beings from being scratched. This goes against what human health organizations recommend. Declawing the cat can give people a false sense of security because declawed cats bite more often after being declawed.
James Gaynor, DVM, an expert in pain management at Colorado State University Veterinary Medical School, has written about chronic pain syndrome in cats that have been declawed. The article describes severe pain in cats that can last a lifetime.
Veterinary textbooks list the pain from declawing as "severe."
Declawing is considered one of the most painful, routinely-performed surgeries in all of veterinary medicine and yet 30% or more of veterinarians don't provide any pain medication whatsoever to their declaw patients. Another study showed that declawed cats were still in pain from the surgery at the end of the study, which was 12 days after the operation!
Declawing is so predictably painful that it is used in clinical trials by pharmaceutical companies to test new pain medications.Determining pain in cats is much more difficult than determining pain in dogs. Cats are very often stoical and people will interpret a cat curled up in a ball and sleeping as normal, when in reality, the cat is in a lot of pain. Dogs are more demonstrative of their pain.
While the immediate post-surgical pain that the cats suffer is obviously severe, it is impossible to know how much chronic pain and suffering declawing causes. Declawing is ten (front toes only) or eighteen (there are only 8 toes on the back feet) separate amputations, so it is not unreasonable to believe that declawed cats experience phantom pain in one or more toes. (Many human amputees report life-long, painful "phantom" sensations from the amputated part.) Cats typically conceal pain or illness until it becomes unbearable. 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.
Lameness, abscesses, and paw pad atrophy can occur after surgery. In some cases where the veterinarian left part of the bone in the toe, the claw can begin to grow again. However, the claw grows abnormally under the skin and might eventually bust through the skin on top of the paw. In one report that studied cats for only five 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 declawing, where the tendons that extend the toes are cut). Click here to see the section on Tendonectomy »
In declawed (and tendonectomizedized) cats, the tendons that control the toe joints retract after the surgery because they are no longer anchored to the bones, 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. The toes become like hammer toes. Cats may continue to "scratch" after they are declawed, this is probably explained by the cat's desperate desire to stretch those stiff, contracted joints and not evidence that the cat does not miss its claws.
Veterinarians, in clinical settings, have found that in the immediate post-operative period, newly declawed cats shift their body weight backward onto the large central pad (the three-lobed pad on the palm) 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). This altered gait may persist over time, and can cause stress on the leg joints and spine, and could lead to damage and arthritic changes in multiple joints. X ray images of declawed cats confirm this theory.
Death due behavior problems, anesthetic complications or defenselessness.Declawing that results in biting or litter box avoidance may result in the cat being 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. There is always a small but real risk of death from any general anesthesia, as well as from hemorrhage or other surgical complications. Many veterinarians will say that they would rather declaw the cat than have it die—it seems that they don't realize that declawing is often the cause of the cat's death. Declawing is unnecessary when there are so many humane alternatives.
What are the humane alternatives to declawing?
Humane alternatives to declawing exist and are easy to use.
A cat can be trained to use scratching posts to sharpen its claws without damaging furniture. Look at what the cat chooses to scratch on and duplicate it in your choice of scratching posts. If the cat chooses to scratch on the vertically oriented wooden legs of a table, get a wooden scratching post. It's the same for carpet. Most cats like the corrugated cardboard scratching pads that are available at grocery stores or pet supply warehouses. Place a little catnip on the new post to entice the cat to use it. Reward the cat with praise, love and treats for scratching in the right place. A vertical scratching post should be at least 28-36" (1 meter) high to allow the cat to stretch to its 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. 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.
Regular nail trimming should help prevent damage to furniture. The cat's claws are clear, so it is easy to avoid accidentally trimming too deep and getting the quick. Click here to see the guide to trimming a cat's nails.
Nail caps called Soft Paws® or Soft Claws® can be glued painlessly to a cat's claws to prevent damage due to scratching. These items can be purchased at pet supply stores or through your veterinarian.
Double-sided Sticky tape like Sticky Paws® can be applied to furniture help deter a cat from scratching that surface. When the cat goes to scratch there, the tape feels funny to their paws and they learn not to use that surface anymore.
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 went out of fashion with lobotomy. 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 the cat's energy. For aggressive scratching, conscientious nail-trimming or soft vinyl 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 the cat 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 the 15 pound cat with 1/2 inch-long canine teeth does it, it's not nearly as amusing.
Why did my veterinarian suggest declawing my cat?
One veterinarian in the Los Angeles described declawing as his "Bread and Butter." However, top veterinary behaviorists and the American Veterinary Medical Association agree that declawing should not be considered as routine or preventive procedure. 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.
Some veterinarians in the U.S. and Canada have become accustomed to performing the declawing procedure without thinking about—or recognizing—the consequences. Some veterinarians even recommend routinely declawing kittens at the same time they are spayed or neutered, whether or not they have developed destructive scratching behavior.