By Dr. Leslie Ross D.V.M. BSc.
The practice of declawing of cats is a controversial surgical procedure that many people consider to be inhumane and cruel. In fact this procedure is ruled to be illegal in many European countries except if it is performed for obviously justifiable medical reasons. By far the commonest reason why cat-owners feel the need to request this procedure is because of furniture damage caused by their cat’s sharp claws. Less commonly, they may request it as a safety measure to protect their children from being scratched or as an occupancy requirement of a shared residence. Surgical declawing is not a medically necessary procedure in most cases although there are exceptions such as with cats that have experienced nail injuries resulting in deformed claws that snag or painfully penetrate into their pads.
Although it is normal for cats to scratch things to establish their “property rights” as well as to condition their claws, this activity can destroy the bond between an owner and pet cat. Also, many cats, especially young ones, have a tendency to play rough, scratching their owners or other pets in play, sometimes causing significant injury. A declaw surgery can provide a permanent answer to these problems. In this discussion I will discuss the basic pros and cons associated with this procedure and also offer some practical alternatives and then conclude with my own opinion concerning this practice.
To understand the implications of this surgical procedure it is important to be aware of what is involved. Declawing surgery involves the removal of a cat’s nails by amputation at the lost knuckle joint of each of the digits of the cat’s paws. It is also important to understand that this procedure involves the amputation of not just the cat’s claws, but the whole first bone of his or her digit up to the first joint including bones, ligaments, nerves and tendons. A rather graphic comparison in human terms would be the cutting off of a person’s finger at the last joint of each finger. Generally surgeons declaw only the front paws of cats although there are some cases where a surgeon will declaw all four feet. Different vets use different cutting tools to perform this procedure based on their personal preference. The three commonest surgical instruments used are a guillotine-type sterile nail-trimmer, a scalpel or a laser. Laser surgery is the most recent technology used to perform declaws. In experienced hands this technique has some advantages however, burning of tissue and delayed healing are more likely with a less experienced user. The extra expense of laser declaws can also be a deterrent. No particular technique is superior to the other as far as anyone has been able to conclusively demonstrate. However, No matter what technique is employed, this procedure always causes pain and the rate of complication is relatively high compared with other so-called routine procedures. Some of the more common complications include excessive bleeding of the paws, infection and variable periods of lameness. In general, all declawed cats are lame for a while. Some cats show varying degrees of lameness after this operation that can last for weeks or even months, depending on how much they careen around the house.
Occasionally, as an alternative surgery to declawing, a procedure called a tendonectomy is offered by some vets. Since the incisions needed for this procedure are small, the recovery is minimal, which can be a real asset for older cats. The downside of this less-invasive procedure is that the tendonectomy patient will require life-long regular nail clipping because his claws will continue to grow despite the surgery. If very regular nail trimming is not accomplished, and because the cat can no longer make grasping motions after this surgery, his claws will naturally grow in a circular manner into the footpads causing pain and infection. Also, it is important to be aware that a few surgical tendonectomies can fail and the patient may regain his ability to extend his claws.
Quite understandably, despite the complication rate of surgical intervention, many owners resign themselves to a surgical solution rather than having to rely on alternatives such as stacked mousetraps set up upside down against their living room furniture, upholstering with aluminum foil, or decorating sofas and chairs with balloons, motion detector booby traps and the like to deter their cats away. However, there are practical alternatives that can be a very effective means to deal with this very normal feline behavior.
Cats scratch for three main reasons: to mark their territory visually and by leaving their scent, to remove any frayed nail husks that they may have acquired that day and thirdly, to allow for plain-old pleasurable body stretching. Fortunately, scratching posts, elaborate indoors “trees” and scratching boards are widely available at a host of pet supply retail outlets that can provide a great solution to this very common problem. These alternatives can create a harmonious existence between family members and cats that need their daily scratch-stretch fix. However, it is important to be aware that almost without exception owners must spend some time training their cat to use the alternative scratch object. The kitty needs to understand that it is allowed to scratch only certain things. Two simple ways to encourage attraction to this preferred object is by rubbing catnip on it or spritzing it with a little Feliway pheromone spray. In most cases, verbal praise and brushing of the cat by the object when he or she shows interest can also be quite reinforcing.
Often less expensive scratching objects can be used with equal effectiveness to store bought items. Most of the time the best policy is to simply observe your cat to see what he likes to scratch and climb and then give him something of his own that is very similar to these items in terms of height, type of surface, and location. For example, small logs with the bark still attached, flattened cardboard, outdoor twined rope mud mats or carpet strips firmly attached to stationary objects can often suit a cat’s scratching requirements to a “T”. All of these objects need to be long enough to allow full body stretching, and be firmly anchored to provide necessary counter-force to sometimes quite vigorous scratching activities. It is also very important fthat these objects be easily accessible and fairly centrally located in a house since, as mentioned above, cats like to visually communicate to housemates by “showing-off ”their territorial rights.
It should be mentioned at this point that the simple act of trimming of your cats nails regularly can also help decrease furniture damage as well.
Another affordable solution to destructive clawing is achieved by gluing blunt acrylic nail caps onto the front feet of a cat’s claws. These nail caps are produced under the trademark name of SOFT PAWS. ™ The principle is that the blunt nail cap will not be sharp enough to cause damage. In most cases these work quite well although they do need to be replaced every 4 to 6 weeks as the cat’s nails grow out. The most affordable approach when considering this option is for the owner to learn how to apply these at home after some coaching at a veterinary clinic. One further point worth mentioning is that there are a few cats that despite being fitted with these caps are not in the least deterred from scratching and are able to scratch even larger holes in upholstery.
There are a number of humane ways to effectively deter cats from scratching upholstery. One very obvious method is to close off areas or block off access to these areas. If this is not a viable option there are other methods as outlined below ranging from very basic to quite creative!
Slipcovers over top of furniture, although generally not esthetically as appealing as the underling furniture fabric, may help reduce the urge of a cat to scratch. Similarly, double stick tape can be attached onto furniture to create an undesirable scratching area. Another trick that often works well is to spritz onto the preferred scratching areas citronella or citrus spays or even spray-on antiperspirants.
Negative reinforcement sometimes is a necessary option but it is important that the cat not connect the punishment with the person administering it to avoid the cat learning to not scratch while that person is watching. Yelling, or shaking a can with pennies in it is not going to be as effective as a water squirt bottle but only if the cat does not see where the squirt comes from. It is also important to not continue spraying a cat caught in the act of scratching once it has stopped or it will not understand the punishment. Stacked mousetraps set upside down and safely out of harm’s way can also be a creative solution to this problem. The added advantage is that this method is effective even when the owner’s are away. Of course, it is very important that they be set in such a way that the kitty’s foot won’t be accidentally caught in the trap.
Even as an experienced veterinarian, I continue to find myself feeling conflicted about performing surgical declaws on cats. I certainly am opposed to altering a cat, thereby causing the animal pain, just to fit an owner’s lifestyle, sense of esthetics or to accommodate their convenience. On the other hand, I am quite comfortable performing this procedure on a cat patient that has a medical problem such as an inherited digital defect or a digit deformity from an injury. Where I am most conflicted is with cases where it appears to be a last resort before euthanization or abandonment. In these cases I always endeavor to carefully explain the full procedure and provide to clients other options that they can try first before resorting to this painful, irreversible practice. I also like to inform clients that declawing does not stop chase, bite and hind leg clawing behaviors of the majority of cats and also that a declawed cat can still harm children if feeling provoked or threatened. This especially applies to kittens, which are more claw -aggressive than older cats. Further, I always like to emphasize that a responsible person always should supervise cats and children together.
As I approach the end of this article I would like to point out that for people interested in adopting a new kitten but already concerned about the risk of furniture damage it would be worthwhile to research cat breeds because some breeds are definitely less claw-aggressive than others.
Finally, on a lighter note, a good client of mine, who owns three malti-poos and one very personable tabby cat called Max, informed me recently that one of his dogs has cheerfully and with due diligence assumed as his personal responsibility the task of controlling Max’s occasional attempts to scratch his owner’s wicker furniture. Apparently, this little dog’s shrill bark- and-mock charge tacticS inevitably result in a discontented Max abandoning his plan and scrambling for the cat door!