Declawing in North America is a controversial topic. I had never heard of declawing before, until I moved to Canada. I knew that North American cats, for the most part, lived an indoor pampered life of luxury and comfort and that of course, like everywhere else, are valued members of their families. What I didn’t know was that there existed a culture of declawing for reasons none other than to spare the couch from damage. Roughly 31% of these pampered North American cats are missing a vital part of their anatomy, their toes. Try as I may, I could not come to grips with the fact that it is done purely for the convenience of the owners with zero benefit to the cat. As someone who has had the honour to have been owned by many clawed cats all her life, the idea of declawing is not only cruel but totally absurd. Why remove a body part that is as vital to them for their functioning and well-being, as our limbs are to us? As many as 28 countries all agree that there is nothing controversial or debatable about the amputation of cats’ toes, it’s just outright inhumane and shouldn’t be practiced.
March 29 is National Declaw Awareness Day. The goal is to create awareness around this heated topic, educate cat guardians about what declawing entails and help put an end to this unnecessary procedure which is still very much rife in North America. But what exactly is declawing and why is it still practiced here?
What exactly is declawing?
Declawing is an elective procedure carried out under general anesthesia to remove a cats claws in order to prevent scratching behavior and damaging furniture. There is no delicate or subtle way of explaining what declawing entails. Ironically, the word declaw (Onychectomy) erroneously suggests a simple removal of the claws, a routine manicure, which veterinarians traditionally perform at the same time that they perform the spay or neuter operation. A package deal for their clients. In truth, declawing should be called de-toeing as it is a very painful amputation of the third phalanx. This is equivalent to cutting off a human’s fingers at the third joint below the fingernail. Unlike human nails, a cat’s claws grow directly from the bone so in order to remove the claw, the last toe bone has to be removed.
There are three methods of performing this procedure, discussed in detail here Little Big Cat, a rational look. Amputation can be done using a guillotine-like nail trimmer, a scalpel or laser. After the claw and bone is removed, the open wounds are closed with sutures, surgical glue or tight bandages to control bleeding. Photos of guillotine method can be seen here. Please note, it’s not for the faint of heart.
The laser method is said to cause less post-operative bleeding and swelling but requires a high level of skill. However, it is still amputation of the last toe bone, including tendons, ligaments, nerves and blood vessels, and brings with it, the same potential risks such as long-term chronic pain and behavioural changes, to name but a few. In all three methods mentioned, even if a tiny fragment of bone is left behind in the open wound it could become infected or regrow, causing a ‘pebble in the shoe’ effect for the cat. Declawing is a major surgery requiring multi-modal pain management and local nerve blocks, and this is not always followed through by all veterinarians. “Of those few veterinarians that do provide adequate pain meds, they’re usually given only for 3 to 7 days, despite a study(2) finding that cats remained painful for at least 12 days.” as described by Jean Hofve, DVM, in The Chronic Pain of Declawing
Why do cats scratch?
Scratching is natural behaviour for a cat. We are all familiar by the site of that wonderfully satisfying cat scratch and stretch on his post after a long nap. This exercises, stretches and tones the muscles in the front legs and spine by hooking his claws and pulling his weight down. The action of scratching by hooking the claw onto a hard substrate conditions the claws by removing the outer nail sheath. This is known as stropping. You will often see little pieces of nail sheath lying around near their scratch posts. Scratching also marks and deposits their scent via scent glands on their paw pads and this is a form of territorial communication, letting other cats know they’ve dropped by. Scratching is also a confidence booster and makes them feel like they own their space, which is a very positive thing for a cat. Sometimes I’m convinced that scratching is part of their greeting ritual. I often notice my cats hop over to their scratch post when we get home and after doing the figure eight dance around our legs, they jump onto the nearest scratch post with eagerness. For all these reasons we can see why scratching is such a vital part of their well-being and it’s a behavior that makes them essentially “cat”. Lastly and most importantly they need their claws to defend themselves from predators if they ever get out. And this happens more often than we think.
Why is declaw surgery performed?
Damage to furniture caused by scratching tops the list as one of the reasons for the declaw surgery to be performed. What’s interesting to note is that in many cases, the reason is more of a preventative measure against potential damage. Some people I have spoken to who have just adopted their cat are adamant that the cat gets declawed before their precious furniture is destroyed. This is so unfair to the cat who is not even given a chance to get used to the idea of a scratching post.
It may be a requirement by landlords as a condition of the rental contract that the cat be declawed. But in many of these cases, the landlords are also not aware of what the surgery entails, and when properly informed, have changed their conditions and allowed their tenants to keep their clawed cats. Some cat owners especially those new to cats, do not realize that cats are trainable and that even the most insistent cat ‘scratching offenders’ can be trained. So with this mindset they are lead into thinking that declawing will solve their scratching problem.
It is also believed that declawing “saves” cats by preventing them being relinquished to shelters and therefore, keeping them in their homes. The thinking goes “I’d rather perform the declaw properly than have the cat relinquished to a shelter.” The AAHA has revised their stance on declawing which now recognizes that declawed cats are not necessarily prevented from being abandoned to shelters. Read Rogue’s story here at Meow Village. His is just one of countless stories of cats that were eventually abandoned due to a behavioural problem that arose after the declaw.
It is also sited as a valid reason to be performed in cases of immunocompromised individuals but according to the AAHA this situation does not warrant it as made clear in this statement: “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not list declawing as a means of preventing disease in either healthy or immunocompromised individuals.” It should also be remembered that people who are immunocompromised exist in countries where declawing is illegal and they live perfectly fine with their feline companions. Instead they are provided with advice on how to handle their cats correctly and to avoid rough play. Research shows that 18% of declawed cats tend to become biters and therefore would pose a greater risk to the well-being of immunocompromised cat owners. Medical doctors as well as the US Public Health Service do not recommend declawing cats to prevent disease.
What about spaying and neutering, does this also not alter the cat in the same way that declawing does? No, this is a very weak rationale for validating declawing. Spay and neuter surgeries cannot be compared to declawing. While declawing causes harm to the cat, with up to 50% of complications arising after surgery and is essentially a mutilation with no benefits to the cat whatsoever, sterilization of cats is a huge benefit to the cat population. Sterilization is a relatively simple procedure with most cats leaving to go home the same day. On the pain scale, the two surgeries do not even come close. There are millions of cats in shelters needing homes and many are euthanized as there are just not enough homes to adopt them all. Sterilization is a humane way of controlling the cat population.
Another argument I hear is “but in those non-declaw countries, cats are allowed outside so they don’t need to declaw them.” If this point had an ounce of substance, then the cat furniture and scratching post business would not be so big in these non-declawing countries! Free-ranging cats still come inside where they exhibit their very normal scratching ritual. They’re still coming indoors to sleep on your couch and cats consider the safety of their home as their lair, which includes their humans. So indoor or outdoor, cats love scratching and we as responsible guardians have to cater to this need.
Negative effects of declawing
- Early-onset arthritis
- Acute pain after surgery
- Phantom pain
- Paw sensitivity
- Litter box avoidance
- Tend to bite more
- Claw regrowth, which can be painful
- Change in gait and sometimes loss of balance – runway catwalk models mimic the graceful walk of cats. Cats are digitigrade animals, meaning they walk on their toes, giving them superb balancing skills, appearing graceful and lithe as they negotiate the narrowest of walkways. Declawing robs them of their agility and they sometimes have balancing problems and cannot jump like they could before.
- Chronic long term pain – I have heard arguments like “My cat is fine, she runs around and jumps like before”. But cats are experts at hiding pain. Perhaps it is this stoicism on the cat’s part that has allowed this practice to continue for so long.
Cats can be easily trained to use scratching posts. Most cats will instinctively gravitate towards a scratch post when presented with one. For the few that don’t quite get it first time around, don’t give up. Clicker training using their favorite treats is a sure winner! (Watch my video below). Rubbing catnip on the post helps too. Invest in not just one, but a few that are strategically placed near snoozing spots around the house, as they like a good stretch and scratch after a nap. Get the tallest scratching post you can find as cats, especially the bigger guys, enjoy a long stretch in order to tone and stretch not just the leg muscles, but the muscles of the spine too.
Trim your cats claws regularly
This should be done every two weeks using a clipper designed for cats claws. Cut a few milimetres away from the pink part, called the “quick”
Double Sided tape
Place double sided sticky tape on couches or on surfaces where he likes to scratch to deter the your cat.
What’s that smell?
To prevent them scratching a certain area, rub a few drops of citronella oil onto a cotton ball and rub this onto the spot where they like to scratch. The scent will help deter them as they hate the smell of citronella.
Texture is key
Experiment with lots of different textures like cardboard, carpet and other fabrics. See what your cat prefers and whether he is a horizontal or vertical scratcher.
Vinyl nail caps such as Soft Paws can be applied to the trimmed nail. These usually last 4 to 6 weeks and come in a variety of colors. A perfect solution for the fashionista cat in your life!
Watch below, a video of how I trained my kitties to use their scratching post. George loved it so much, I called him the tree hugger!
We, as loving caretakers of these beautiful creatures, are meant to protect them from harm. We are bringing them to live with us inside our homes, it is our responsibility to provide them with the necessary tools (scratching posts and training) to be able to live a fulfilled life, that includes claws. The day will come when enough people are aware about declawing and they will choose claws. When this happens, this barbaric procedure can then be relegated to the history books and exist only as a bad memory.
For additional info, hop over to my interview with two Montreal veterinarians working for animal clinics who have decided to stop declawing!
International Cat Care – Scratching on furniture and carpets
Cat Scratching furniture advice – From a UK magazine called Your Cat
Declawing – Whom are we protecting? By Narda Robinson, DO, DVM in Veterinary Practice news
City The Kitty – One cool polydactyl furry no-declaw advocate
Why are we still declawing cats in Canada? – Dr Enid Stiles DVM
Educhateur – About declawing – Daniel Filion, well known cat behaviourist in Quebec, Canada
The Cat Clinic – We are no longer declawing cats – Clinic in Ontario, Canada
Alternatives to cat declawing – Centre Vétérinaire Riv Sud – a no-declaw clinic in my area.
Montreal Veterinarian, Dr Enid Stiles asks, Why are we still declawing?
Declawing – Far worse than a manicure – Humane Society
American Associate of Feline Practitioners – Declaw Position
Ordre des médecins vétérinaires du Québec | OMVQ – Recommnedations concernant le dégriffage félin – Position on Declawing (French only)
CVMA – Scratching is normal behaviour in cats
CVMA – Position on Declawing
The Paw Project – Health problems due to declawing
The truth About Declawing – declawing.com
The AAHA – declawing
Declawing and Science – Little Big cat (Jean Hofve, DVM)