Declawing cats is one of the most common elective veterinary procedures performed in the United States. It’s estimated that between 20 – 25% of all cats living in U.S. households (approximately 20 million) are currently declawed.
For many years, declawing was seen as a simple, routine procedure that was neither harmful nor painful. Most people viewed declawing as a type of permanent nail trim that made it impossible for their cat to scratch furniture, climb drapes, or inadvertently scratch a human family member. For this reason, many veterinarians offered declaws as part of bundled spay-and-neuter “packages” for cats.
But here’s the thing: a declaw is not just the removal of the visible part of the cat’s claw. In fact, declawing cats involves the actual amputation of the tips of all 10 of the cat’s toes.
Take a look at your own fingers. The lowest finger bone (P1) goes from the bottom of the finger (where it attaches to your hand) to your first knuckle. The second bone (P2) goes from your first knuckle to your second knuckle. The third bone, P3, is the one that extends from your second knuckle to the tip of your finger and includes your finger nail. It’s this bone that is completely removed during a cat declaw.
When P3 is removed, the surrounding ligaments, tendons, nerves, and joint capsule are taken out along with it – and this can end up causing major problems for the cat.
What A Declaw Looks Like
There are several different techniques that can be used for declawing cats. The most common method is amputating each of the cat’s 10 (or more, if she’s got mitten paws) toes using a scalpel or a sterilized guillotine-style nail clipper.
Another technique is using a laser to cut through the tissue by heating it up to temperatures so high that the tissue vaporizes. The third method is called a “tendonectomy”, in which the tendon that controls the claw in each toe is completely severed so, although the claw is still present, it can’t be extended to scratch.
After all the claws and surrounding bone are removed, the resulting open holes over each of the cat’s toes are either sutured or glued shut with surgical glue, and the cat’s paws are bandaged tightly to minimize heavy bleeding, which can be common for up to several days afterwards.
All of these procedures come with risks. It’s for this reason that the American Veterinary Medical Association states “Onychectomy (declawing) is an amputation and should be regarded as major surgery.”
Problems Caused By Declawing Cats
There are several long-lasting physical and psychological effects on cats who have been surgically declawed.
Post-Declawing Pain Syndrome:
Not only is the declaw procedure itself extremely painful (the AVMA categorizes pain from a declaw as severe, and some veterinary researchers claim it can surpass the pain of both neutering and spaying), but the pain can last for years – sometimes even for the lifetime of the cat. Because the nerves have been severed, many declawed cats appear to experience pain similar to neuropathic pain in people, who describe it as tingling, burning, throbbing, or “electrical shocks” in their bodies.
Additionally, small pieces of bone can be left behind during the procedure. These bone fragments can become incredibly painful, pressing into tissue and nerves.
Changes to the Cat’s Basic Anatomy:
Cats are digitigrades, which means they walk on their toes instead of on the soles of their feet. Amputating the tips of their toes drastically alters the conformation of their feet and their overall gait, which over time can lead to chronic arthritis, neuralgia, degenerative joint disease, back pain, and balance impairment.
Cats who have been declawed essentially have to relearn how to walk so that their weight is redistributed. Gradually, they can experience progressive weakening of the muscles of the shoulders, back and legs.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, declawed cats who live with other cats are 3 times more likely to fail to use the litter box appropriately than cats who still have their claws. This could be due to the pain felt when using a litter box with traditional granular litter. Another theory is that once declawed cats realize they can no longer mark with their claws, they begin urinating in other areas of the house to mark their territory.
Additionally, declawing cats can make them more likely to bite – presumably because they feel more vulnerable when they no longer have their claws to defend themselves.
Complications from declaws can include severe pain, heavy bleeding, infection, tissue necrosis (death of the tissue), lameness, back pain, nerve damage, and the formation of bone spurs.
Additionally, since a cat’s claw grows right out of the bone, if a piece of the bone is accidentally left inside the cat’s toe, a partial nail can develop and begin to grow outward through the skin.
Why Cats Should Keep Their Claws
For cat parents who are frustrated by their cat’s scratching behavior, it’s important to remember that scratching is a completely normal behavior for cats! Kittens instinctively begin scratching around 8 weeks of age. Whenever cats reach up to scratch a vertical surface, it not only helps remove the old, dead layers of their claws and keeps the new claws underneath sharp, it also stretches their muscles, relieves stress, and just plain feels good!
Cats use their claws for exercise, balance, stretching and toning the muscles in their shoulders and legs, capturing prey, defending themselves against predators, and marking territory. Claws are not useless parts of any cat’s anatomy – cats were born with claws for a reason, and removing them has numerous detrimental effects.
Alternatives To Declawing
If your cat is scratching things in your house, it’s much better to provide her with alternatives rather than resorting to declawing. To discourage scratching in inappropriate places (and to minimize any damage caused by sharp claws), try the following:
Provide Other Appropriate Surfaces to Scratch
As cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy likes to say, “For every no, provide a yes.” If your cat is scratching your furniture, simply offer her something that’s even more fun to scratch. This could be:
- Scratching posts (some are scented with catnip)
- Kitty condos
- Cardboard boxes
- Logs or pieces of lumber
- Old car floor mats
- Carpet remnants
Some cats prefer tall, vertical scratching posts, while others enjoy horizontal surfaces like mats. Find what your cat likes best and make sure there are numerous options for her placed around the areas where she likes to scratch.
Keep Your Cat’s Claws Trimmed
Although the thought of trimming your cat’s nails may be a little intimidating, many cats can be trained to tolerate nail trims. You can use a pair nail trimmers made just for cats (I prefer these over human nail clippers, as they provide a cleaner cut and won’t split the claw). Over time, you can desensitize your cat to having her feet touched by gently and regularly stroking her paws, then progress to mini paw massages.
There’s an excellent article from cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett on how to trim your cat’s claws that offers excellent tips for making nail-trimming for your cat relatively stress-free!
Use Claw Covers
Claw covers (such as Soft Paws) are soft, non-toxic vinyl nail caps that can be placed over your cat’s claws to prevent her from doing any damage while scratching. Once applied to the nails, the covers stay on for approximately 4-6 weeks, and will fall off on their own once your cat’s claws grow to a certain length. Many cats tolerate these fairly well, and the caps don’t interfere with their ability to extend their claws.
Use Deterrents to Keep Cats Away From Certain Areas
There are several things you can use to discourage your cat from scratching in specific areas of your home. These can include:
- Double-sided sticky tape applied to surfaces your cat is scratching (cats dislike the texture)
- Aluminum foil (cats don’t like the feel or the sound)
- Bubble wrap (can be taped or draped on furniture)
- Plastic carpet runners
- Car mats or carpet runners placed with the nub sides up
- Motion-activated air sprayers
- Citrus sprays (can’t don’t like the smell)
A Big Deal
So what’s the big deal about declawing cats?
Turns out, there are plenty of great reasons not to declaw your cat. You’ll avoid the possibility of a lifetime of pain, back problems, potential behavioral issues, and numerous other physical and emotional side effects. Your cat gets to keep all her toes intact, and you won’t have to put her through an extremely painful and traumatic surgical procedure that has already been banned in numerous countries across the globe for being inhumane and unnecessary.
So please consider…save a paw, don’t declaw!
What are your thoughts about declawing? Have you ever had a cat who experienced negative effects from being declawed? Please tell us about it in the comments below!