Cats: To Declaw or Not to Declaw?

 

 By Lisa Maciorakowski, DVM

Adapted from Faye Rapoport DesPres’s Care.com interview with Dr. Maciorakowski

Most cat lovers know that veterinarians do not recommend declawing because of its painful effect on the animals. Some still feel that declawing is the only way they can manage their pets' scratching habits. Dr. Lisa Maciorakowski of the General Medicine Team at Angell Animal Medical Center weighs in on the declawing debate.

Many cat lovers are aware that veterinarians do not recommend declawing cats. Why, generally, is this?

Dr. Maciorakowski: Declawing cats is generally not recommended because it is an elective surgical procedure done solely for owner convenience, with no benefit to the feline. It is difficult to justify a procedure that is painful and can result in physical and behavioral complications when there are alternative methods to deter scratching of undesirable surfaces. The solution to the undesirable scratching should be to modify the cat's conduct by making changes in the environment and redirecting the cats' natural scratching behavior to an appropriate area. Scratching is a natural, healthy feline behavior that allows cats to stretch and mark their territory, and is an activity they simply enjoy. Declawing cats takes away all of this as well as their integral means of movement, balance and defense. Cats should not be treated as an inanimate objects that can be modified as owners see fit. In fact, there are several countries in which declawing is illegal.  

Are there specific methods or tricks for discouraging a cat from scratching furniture versus a scratching post or other toy?
Dr. Maciorakowski: Another way to discourage cats from scratching furniture is by applying double-sided sticky tape to the surfaces. This can be unpleasant to some cats and may deter them from scratching. Most cats dislike citrus smells, so this fragrance sprayed around or on the surface may make them want to stay away. Some cats will be less likely to scratch near the pheromone spray, Felaway.
Try to avoid punishment and strongly encourage the use of the scratching posts. Catnip can be sprinkled on the desired scratching objects and all scratching done on the appropriate surface should be "praised" or awarded with petting or treats and always associated with a positive response. While the transition is being made, the posts should be placed close to the area that they were scratching and the object being protected may be covered with a sheet or other smooth material that is unlikely to be scratched. If the cats are still insisting on scratching at unwanted surfaces after all of the above, then a quick squirt of water directed at the cat in action can be used as an aversion technique.

What is the medical procedure involved in removing a cat's claws?
Dr. Maciorakowski: Declawing is a surgical procedure that is much more complicated than simply trimming or removing the cat's nails (claws). Cats' nails are actually part of the last bone (distal, or third phalanx) in their toes. Therefore, the declawing procedure involves amputation (using scalpel blade or laser) of the last bone of each toe. It would be comparable to cutting off a human's fingers and toes at their last knuckle.

Does the cat experience pain or disability?
Dr. Maciorakowski: Declawing is a very painful surgical procedure with a strong potential for secondary complications. Our feline patients cannot go on "bed rest" following their surgery and have to walk around on their amputated, bandaged feet as soon as they wake up from the anesthesia. Hopefully they are receiving pain medications to help control some of this pain. Infections, chronic pain (comparable to "phantom limb" syndrome in humans) and gait abnormalities or lameness can be seen later on. If the last phalanx (toe bone) has not been completely removed the first time, a second surgery would be needed. Remember, by declawing we are drastically altering the conformation of cats' feet, causing the feet to meet the ground at an unnatural angle. This can cause back or other muscular pain as the cat tries to compensate for the change. As the cat attempts to balance with the altered conformation this can be extremely distressing beyond just the physical discomfort.

What about behavioral changes?
Dr. Maciorakowski: Some cats can develop psychological and behavioral changes following declawing. The adjustment to living without body parts that had been such an important part of their lives can be difficult and their personalities can change. Cats once social and playful may become withdrawn and introverted. Others become nervous, fearful and/or aggressive. Left with no defense other than their teeth, declawed cats often resort to biting. If the cat associates the litter box with a painful experience during recovery, this could result in a life-long aversion to using the litter box. Also, when left unable to mark territory by scratching, some cats may mark with urine, also resulting in inappropriate elimination problems. Many cats are surrendered to shelters and adoption centers due to such behavioral issues that often develop after declawing.

Some people adopt cats from shelters that have already been declawed. Are there any special considerations regarding their care? I assume, for example, that a declawed cat should never go outside?
Dr. Maciorakowski : Declawed cats should never be allowed to go outdoors unsupervised. Always remember that they cannot scratch to defend themselves or climb well to get away -- indoors or out. Also, make sure that they are always able to get around comfortably and that they are not bothered by their feet.

Is there any situation when you would judge it necessary to declaw a cat? If so, where should the procedure be done?
Dr. Maciorakowski: I would only consider declawing in a few specific situations where it is in the best interest of the cat. Removing extra interdigital nails that are at risk of growing into the foot or floppy, non-weight bearing nails that are at risk of getting caught and torn off are some examples. In these cases, it would never be all of the toes, but only the selected "problem" nails. Any declawing procedure should be done at a veterinary clinic where the veterinarian is experienced with the procedure and will provide the necessary pain control during and after surgery.

For more information on Angell’s General Medicine service, please visit www.angell.org/generalmedicine. To schedule an appointment, please call 617-524-5653.