Scratching is a normal activity for cats, but one that not all cat owners appreciate. In the first part of this article, we saw that scratching is beneficial and necessary for cats, but that inappropriate scratching is a common problem. Now that we understand the reasons why cats scratch, we will turn our attention to declawing and why cat owners should not consider it as a solution for inappropriate scratching.
History of declawing (Onychectomy)
Onychectomy, also known as declawing surgery, used to be a common option that veterinarians offered to address cats that scratched furniture. In 1991, about 86 percent of cat owners who had their cats declawed did so to prevent household damage. It was considered a harmless solution and was typically performed on young cats.
Over time, declawing has become very controversial and with good reason. More and more cities, states, and countries are banning or regulating it. Many countries have outlawed it or authorized it only under extreme circumstances. Some cities and municipalities in the US have made it illegal unless medically necessary.
Still, approximately 20 to 25 percent of cats in the United States are declawed. Part of the reason so many people still have their cats declawed seems to be that some veterinarians continue to market and recommend it to their clients.
A 2003 survey found that 75 percent of veterinarians declawed cats on demand without any justification. Clients report that they are not informed of what the procedure actually entails, the possible complications, or the humane alternatives.
What declaw surgery is
The key to understanding why you should not declaw your cat begins with knowing what exactly declaw surgery is and how it affects cats. Declaw surgery is an elective surgery performed on cats to prevent scratching. While that sounds relatively harmless, in fact, it is a major and painful surgery that is totally unnecessary.
Because cats’ claws grow directly from the bone, part of the bone is removed when a cat is declawed. For this reason, declaw surgery is not simply removing the claws, but actually involves de-knuckling or partial digital amputation.
Declawing involves partial amputation of all or part of a cat’s third phalanges, the bones that make up their toes. In the process, bones, tendons, ligaments, and nerves are detached. Most cat owners are not aware of this and believe that the surgery is minor and beneficial.
The surgery itself is severely painful and has many potential risks. First, there are the risks involved with the use of general anesthesia. Added to this are possible complications that include infection, bleeding, nerve damage, and death.
The recovery time for the surgery can take two to six weeks and depends on the techniques used, but there are often long-term negative physical and psychological effects. Cats hide their pain instinctively, which makes it difficult to manage and control. Most veterinarians do not give cats sufficient pain medication during and after the surgery. A 2002 study found that 30 percent of veterinarians did not administer any pain medication at all.
What science tells us now
According to today’s science, declawing has no benefits and many risks. We now know that declawing can cause behavioral and health problems in cats, including aggression, house-soiling, chronic pain, reduced play behaviors, and gait abnormalities.
Both The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) and the AAFP (American Association of Feline Practitioners) recently have issued statements discouraging the practice of declawing.
The AVMA states that declawing should only be considered after other attempts have been made to prevent destructive scratching or when clawing presents an above-normal health risk for owners. According to the AAFP statement, declawing is not “medically necessary,” and scratching is normal feline behavior.
Science also tells us that declawing is unnecessary mutilation that does not benefit cats. As such, it is not consistent with principles of good animal welfare. Furthermore, there are many humane prevention and treatment options available.
Painful and crippling: negative effects of declawing
There are many negative physical effects that declawed cats might suffer from after being declawed. One study in 2018 showed that declawed cats experience a greater risk of back pain, undesirable elimination, biting, aggression, and problems with licking and grooming.
These effects can occur right away or over the course of the following months or years. Long-term complications, such as lameness, arthritis, and infection can also occur, and the effects can be permanent.
A report in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 1998 found that complications develop in up to 50 percent of declawed cats. In 20 percent of cases, the complications are long-term and include lameness, wound breakdown, and nail regrowth.
Declaw surgery is complex, and poor surgical techniques are common. In some cases, residual bone fragments are left behind. These bone fragments may contain remnants of nail-forming tissue that can grow into the foot and lead to infection. Nail regrowth from residual bone fragments causes a lifetime of pain for cats.
Supporting their body weight can be painful for declawed cats. The tendons attached to a retained segment can pull it back under the foot. Foot pain can cause cats to shift their weight further back in their foot leading to an abnormal posture and arthritis.
Declawing causing behavioral issues
As if all the physical effects aren’t bad enough, declawing might also cause behavioral issues. Although a literature review in 2016 by the AVMA found no evidence that declawing increases the risk of undesirable behaviors or decreases desirable behaviors, surveys of cat owners have suggested otherwise.
According to a report published in 2001 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, a behavior problem occurred in at least 33 percent of declawed cats after surgery.
A survey from 2011 showed that declawing is a risk factor for house-soiling. According to a 2017 survey declawed cats play less frequently than cats with claws. Another survey suggested that conflicts with other cats are more common for declawed cats.
According to this survey, 47.4 percent of cats involved in conflicts were declawed, although only 20 to 25 percent of cats in the United States are declawed. Among the victims, 60 percent were declawed, and among aggressors, 44 percent were declawed. Although the results of this particular study are not statistically significant, they strongly suggest that declawing has a negative impact on social relationships.
There are many reasons why declawing might affect a cat’s behavior. Declawed cats cannot defend themselves and might feel vulnerable. This might cause them to be irritable and aggressive, to lash out and bite, or to engage in house-soiling.
Declawed cats are also deprived of the natural instinct to climb, stretch, and use their scent glands to mark their territory. Without the ability to mark with their paws, they may resort to marking with urine. Declawed cats might avoid the litter box because it is painful to dig. It is likely that urine marking and house-soiling resulting from declawing will end up causing more damage to homes than if the claws had been left intact.
Declawing outdoor cats is especially dangerous because it deprives them of the ability to defend themselves against predators or escape from danger. Not having claws decreases their chances of surviving attacks from other animals.
Behavior and personality changes that result from declawing might lead to household strife and high vet bills. In some cases, owners might abandon their cats, relinquish them to a shelter, or even euthanize them as a result of negative behavior. While one study found that declawing may save some cats from relinquishment, other studies found it increased the incidence of relinquishment.
While the evidence that declawing results in negative behavior or emotional problems is debated, there is no doubt that declawing is a major elective surgery performed for the sole convenience of owners and provides no benefit to cats. It involves amputation and causes a great deal of pain to the animal.
Paw repair surgery
Veterinarians have performed paw repair on over 70 declawed wild and exotic cats. Performing this surgery provides them some relief but poses many challenges. The difficulties range from getting the animal to the operating table to the intricacies of the surgery itself.
Even with the surgery, the animals do not recover full function. However, it can provide relief from pain and restore their ability to leap, run, and jump and live a more normal life. However, paw repair surgery is costly and time-consuming. Only about 10 domestic cats have undergone this procedure because the small size of their paws makes it even more difficult.
Alternatives to declawing
Another reason to steer clear of declawing is that there are many safe, humane, and effective alternatives available. Before resorting to painful and unnecessary surgery, cat owners should be encouraged to consider all of the alternatives.
Environmental enrichment is one place to start. This entails making changes to the environment to discourage undesirable scratching. Placing scratching posts in strategic areas around the house and in places where the cats like to scratch provides your cats with appropriate surfaces for scratching.
Try offering a variety of scratching boards and posts made from different materials to see what your cats prefer. To make the scratching post more enticing, apply catnip, toys, or Feliscratch to the post. Feliscratch is a synthetic version of the pheromone that cats deposit from their paws. A mixture of Feliscratch and catnip on a rope-covered scratching post has been shown to be an effective way to manage unwanted scratching.
Another alternative to declaw surgery is to discourage your cats from scratching inappropriate objects by removing them or covering them with sticky tape, sandpaper, or an upside-down vinyl carpet runner. Regular nail trimmings and plastic nail caps are other ways to prevent destructive scratching. Nail caps attach to cats’ claws with adhesive and last four to six weeks.
All things considered, it is abundantly clear that declawing surgery for cats is a very bad idea. The risks of complications, long-term physical effects, and negative personality and behavioral changes definitely outweigh any possible benefits. The surgery causes cats excruciating pain, and it is totally unnecessary.
While it is usually performed for the purpose of preventing scratching, declawing can lead to much more disruptive and destructive behaviors. These include aggression, biting, and house-soiling. There are many more effective and humane alternatives to declawing that can help manage your cat’s desire to scratch.