Why We Should Avoid Declawing Cats

By Teresa Garden, DVM

Declawing consists of amputating not just the claw but the whole phalanx (up to the joint) including bones, ligaments, and tendons. It is still a relatively common surgery in veterinary medicine in our country but not a minor one. Declawing is a painful operation. It is the equivalent of removing the first joint of all of your fingers. It can impair a cat’s balance, weaken it (from muscular disuse), and cause a cat to feel nervous and defenseless. The resulting stress can lower immunity to disease and make the cat more likely to be a biter.

Cats are digitigrade which means they walk on their toes. Their back, shoulders, paws, leg joints, muscles, tendons, and nerves are naturally designed to support and distribute the cat’s weight across its toes. A cat’s claws are used for exercising and stretching the muscles in their legs, back, shoulders, and paws. Declawing alters the conformation of their feet and causes the feet to meet the ground at an unnatural angle. It may result in back pain.

There are complications to the declawing surgery. Localized hemorrhage may occur in the immediate post-op period. Lameness due to wound infection or a lacerated foot pad can occur. Abnormal growth of severed nerve ends can occur, leading to long-term painful sensations in the toes. The procedure can lead to chronic back and joint pain.
If we choose not to declaw our pet cats then how do we learn to live in harmony with them? There are some solutions. Keep the nails trimmed short. When the nail grows out it becomes shaped like a scythe. It is the tip of the nail that does the most damage. Never let a kitten or cat scratch your bare hands-even in play. Instead, use a toy when playing with your cat or kitten. The toy can be bit or scratched without feeling any pain!

Enriching your cat’s environment is the best alternative to declawing! First, it is important to understand why a cat scratches with its claws. Claws are retractable in cats making them useful for hunting, self-defense, or for marking territory. Scratching also allows the cat to dislodge old nail growth. They scratch after sleep as a means of stretching their limbs. Increased scratching may occur with anxiety and stress. The goal of enrichment is to train cats to scratch only desirable surfaces without preventing the cat from expressing what is natural to them. Scratching posts are probably the most important way to enrich your cat’s environment. Scratching posts can be vertical, horizontal or angled depending on your cat’s preference. If vertical, they should be at least 3 feet tall with 2 or 3 platforms. They should be made of sisal rope, natural bark or wood, corrugated cardboard, or carpet depending on your cat’s preference. The more types and styles provided have been shown to better decrease undesirable behavior.

The location of scratching posts is of paramount importance. Put some near windows to allow cats to visualize the outdoors. This is mentally stimulating for them. Put a post near sleeping areas since they like to scratch after waking up from a nap. Place a post near a piece of furniture that your cat has scratched. This helps to redirect the scratching behavior to the scratching post or pad and spare your furniture. Applying catnip or catnip spray to the scratching pads or posts will entice some cats to use them. A new pheromone product called Feliscratch by Ceva can help as well.

Environmental enrichment consists of more than just providing scratching posts. Please provide lots of soft toys and feather toys to mimic prey. Putting a bird feeder outside a window can provide lots of entertainment for your feline friend and satisfy his desire to hunt. Some cats enjoy watching Animal Planet or watching small animals on a computer screen. An outdoor cat enclosure made of fine mesh screen will allow your cat to get fresh air and to see birds, butterflies, bugs, etc. Some cats love puzzle toys or interactive feeders. And don’t forget the litter boxes. They, too, play a big role in how happy your cat may or may not be. The number of boxes you should have in your home is the number of cats you have plus one. The boxes should be distributed throughout the home, be of large size, uncovered, and contain clumping unscented litter with an odor neutralizer. And the boxes must be kept clean in order to have happy well behaved cats.
As of this writing, many countries have deemed declawing inhumane and, hence, have banned the procedure. Among them are England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Yugoslavia, France, Germany, Bosnia, Malta, Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium, and Israel. Perhaps, one day soon, we could join them.

Dr. Teresa Garden is chief veterinarian/owner of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood/Richmond Heights area. 314-781-1738. www.AnimalHealthandHealing.com.