Cat declawing, i.e. onychectomy, is nail removal via amputation of a cat’s third and final toe bones. The procedure typically involves both front paws but sometimes includes back paws. Few medical conditions benefit from declawing, but it prevents behavioral issues like furniture-damaging scratching. On rare occasions declawing is medically necessary to treat advanced nail infections and cancerous growths. The humaneness of the procedure and associated acute and chronic health risks (mostly pain-related) are primary points of contention.
Veterinarian Karyn Collier doesn’t promote declawing but asserts it may save lives. “A lot of times it comes down to the owner making a choice between declawing a cat or euthanizing it — or taking it to a shelter where it’ll likely get euthanized,” she says.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) sides with Collier, considering declawing a last resort. The AVMA’s official policy on the procedure states: “The declawing of the domestic cat is justifiable when the cat cannot be trained to refrain from using its claws destructively.”
When behavior modification, scratching posts, nail clipping and plastic nail tips fail, Collier believes some people may consider declawing their only option. “In my nearly 20 years of experience, when those alternatives don’t work, it’s often a claw or a life,” she reveals adding, “In that case, I say declaw.”
When performed for behavioral reasons, vets prefer pairing declawing with spaying or neutering, preferably on kittens. “That’s one less episode of anesthesia,” says Collier, alluding to possible anesthetic complications. As chief medical officer at New Jersey’s St. Francis Veterinary Center, Collier asserts youngsters recover faster and are better adjusted post-surgery. Collier adds that laser declaw surgery may reduce the discomfort commonly associated with guillotine or scalpel procedures.
Most importantly, declares veterinarian Dr. Judith Shoemaker, DVM, people need to understand the extent of declawing. “It’s amputation of the third phalanx at the knuckle, so it’s like cutting off your fingertips,” explains Shoemaker, “I started (30 years ago) in conventional practice as a surgeon, and I’ve declawed cats — both ones I owned and other people’s — so I’ve seen its effects.”
Acute pain is practically a given, but bones left after declawing can dig into cats’ paws, causing chronic pain or infection. “Cats also develop arthritis in the other joints in their hands and feet because the tendon attachments are cut and they have to realign,” Shoemaker says. Phantom limb pain is another risk.
When faced with an ultimatum to declaw or euthanize, she reframes the issue. “There’re not a lot of reasons why cats should be declawed,” Shoemaker says. “If you offer proper scratching posts — with bark or sisal rope, not carpeting — it’s absolutely unnecessary.”
Shoemaker emphasizes that scratching is a natural feline behavior. It’s used for nail maintenance, marking territory and preserving muscle tone. Even declawed cats go through the motions. Since claws offer protection, some declawed cats may resort to biting.
A procedure known as tenectomy is sometimes suggested if pet owners disdain declawing. This alternative cuts the tendons that extend the claws. But like declawing, tenectomy comes with its fair share of medical and ethical consequences.
Is declawing a lifesaving surgery or unnecessary mutilation? There seems to be no easy answer. While cats are routinely brought to shelters for inappropriate scratching, there is evidence to suggest that in some cases, declawed cats may be prone to medical problems, biting and litterbox aversion. Although declawing has both its supporters and detractors, most feline experts and veterinary professionals tend to agree that behavior modification, regular nail trimming and client education offer the best solutions for keeping cats healthy, owners happy and furniture damage-free, and that declawing should only be a last resort.
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