Declawing Cats: Controversy and Considerations
Happy cats with happy cat owners in a happy home…what a beautiful relationship!
Sometimes this relationship hits a stumbling block and life is not so happy. Sometimes a seemingly harmless feline action can tip the scale and put cat owners in a difficult situation. Sometimes a happy cat does what comes naturally – extends a claw, scratches what he sees as an appropriate surface, tips the harmonious family balance and prompts his faithful owner to consider a radical measure: removing his claws.
With the best interest of the feline community in mind, let’s try to discuss the controversial subject of declawing with the overall wellbeing of our feline friends as a top priority.
Why do cats scratch?
Cats scratch and claw for several reasons. First, scratching serves to shorten and condition the claws. Cats in the wild don’t have owners or veterinarians to give them pedicures, so they take matters into their own hands (paws). Second, scratching allows an effective, whole body stretch. Cats stretch their muscles as they rise on their hind feet, arch their backs, extend their legs and extrude their claws. Third, and perhaps most importantly, cats scratch is to mark their territory, both visibly with claw marks and invisibly by leaving scent from the foot pads. In addition, trying to establish their place in the household, cats may exert their authority or play with a swipe of their paws.
Why is scratching a problem?
When domestic cats live primarily outdoors, scratching is seldom a problem for the owners. Cats direct their scratching at prominent objects such as tree trunks or fence posts. They swat at flying insects or flowers swaying in the breeze. Of course, if they inflict wounds when they swat at other cats or get stung by insects, infections and abscesses may occur that require veterinary attention. But otherwise, scratching and swatting outside does not tip the familial balance.
Cats residing primarily or exclusively indoors don’t have tree trunks readily available and may run into disfavor with their owners when they begin to scratch furniture, walls, or use their claws to climb up the drapes. Claws can also cause injuries to people when the cats are overly playful or resist handling. This will certainly tip the harmony scale. But with a good understanding of feline behavior and a little bit of effort, it should be possible to prevent or avoid most clawing problems and maintain a healthy balance.
Why do some people choose to declaw their cats?
Why would a cat owner ever consider subjecting his cat to a declawing procedure that is a serious operation with a lengthy healing process?
Sometimes, there is no controversy because there is no other choice in the matter. Declawing is often a necessary surgical procedure. In the case of cancer, not all tumors respond to radiation or chemotherapy alone so amputating the toe may be the best way to reduce the threat to life and limb. Some orthopedic injuries to the foot are too devastating to repair, making amputation the only viable alternative. These surgical procedures are not disputed. They are definitely in the best medical interest of the cat. The controversy arises when pet owners choose to remove their cat’s healthy digits for other reasons.
The most controversial reason cat owners opt for declawing is to stop the cat from scratching people, other pets, or furniture. Some cats are quite destructive, especially with their front claws. The reality is that, destruction aside, scratching is normal cat behavior. Kitties don’t set out to destroy the couch. They just want to remove the dead husks from their claws, mark their territory, and stretch their muscles. Cat owners don’t appreciate this unbalanced situation regardless of the motivation and unfortunately try to suppress this natural instinct or thwart it by removing the claws instead of redirecting Mother Nature.
Another less controversial reason people declaw their cats is to protect their own health. Cat scratches are no small matter for people with severe immune-deficiencies or bleeding disorders. Declawing a cat may be the only way these owners can keep their kitties with them. Both the health of the owner and the wellbeing of the cat are considered in this decision.
What is declawing?
While considering declawing your cat, you should take a short anatomy lesson. A cat’s claws are attached to the last joint of their toes much like fingernails and toenails in humans. To completely remove the claw, the bone must be removed as well. A different procedure “inactivates” the claw without removing the claw or any bone.
Usually one of two surgical procedures is performed when declawing a cat. The first procedure, called onchyectomy, involves amputating the last joint of a cat’s toes, thus removing the claw entirely along with the bone to which it is attached. Amputation may be accomplished with a scalpel, guillotine clipper, or laser. This procedure is the equivalent of amputating a human finger at the first knuckle.
The second method does not involve amputation. This procedure, called tendonectomy, involves severing the tendon that controls the extension and retraction of the claw. Although the cat keeps his claws he cannot extend them to scratch. Even though the function of the claw is “inactivated,” the nails still grow and require frequent clipping.
Both procedures require general anesthesia and post-operative pain control. The feet are usually bandaged to control bleeding and swelling. Antibiotics are prescribed to prevent infection. Healing may take weeks and cats need to be closely monitored at home during this period. Since the front claws are most often used to scratch, only the front feet are operated on. The rear claws are usually left intact.
Here are guidelines for post-operative care of a surgically declawed cat:
Litter box: Litter box duty can be especially challenging since cats use their claws to bury their eliminations. Litter sticks to the surgical sites, causing irritation, and exposes the foot to bacteria. Replace normal litter with dust-free, pelleted litter or shredded strips of paper for at least a week. Change the litter daily to minimize contamination of the surgery sites.
Exercise: As much as possible, discourage your cat from jumping on furniture and countertops for the first week after surgery by blocking the access to these areas. If you see your cat on the countertop or high furniture, do not scare it into jumping off; instead, help it down. Cats primarily use their back legs to jump up, but may injure the surgical sites when they jump down and land on their front paws. If a cat limps or hesitates to move around after 4-5 days at home, consult your veterinarian.
Bleeding: Occasionally a cat will break open one of its incisions and a few drops of blood may ooze out. The blood should clot rapidly and form a small scab. Notify the hospital if you observe continuous bleeding from a surgical site or if your cat constantly licks at his paws. Do not attempt to clean the paws or apply any topical medications without consulting a veterinarian. Most doctors will advise a recheck examination two weeks after surgery to make sure healing is progressing normally.
Restricted access: After declawing, it is advisable to keep your cat indoors…forever! Even though he still has his rear claws, a cat without front claws is at a disadvantage. While he may scale a tree, a kitty missing his front claws may have a decreased ability to defend himself against aggressive cats or other predators.
What should you consider before declawing?
Before declawing your cat, consider working to redirect or prohibit his destructive scratching habits.
Consider your cat’s nature. Understand that indoor cats need outlets for their scratching and marking. They also need a regular daily routine of social play, object play and exercise. So spending time with your cat is a good first step to deter scratching.
Consider your cat’s motivation. For cats that suddenly start scratching indoors, figuring out why is key to stopping the behavior. Some cats may increase their territorial marking (e.g., scratching, urine marking) in situations of anxiety or conflict. Scratching of new areas may be related to anxiety caused by a change in the household such as the introduction of a new cat, moving to a new house or a change in the family’s schedule. These changes tip the balance of your cat’s comfortable world.
Decreasing the cat’s anxiety level may eliminate the scratching. Gradually introducing your cat to a new place or new family members (human, canine, or feline) will help him feel more secure. When changes in household routine occur (e.g. start of a new school year or job) spending quality time with your cat is very important, as is providing distractions during your absence (e.g. food hidden inside toys).
Consider your cat’s natural territorial instincts. If your cat scratches only new objects or furniture he may simply be marking “unmarked” territory. This will usually pass when he develops a sense of ownership of the new stuff. Resident cats will also “re-mark” territory if someone new – whether they have two or four feet - moves into the house. There are pheromone products, such as Feliway diffusers and spray, that help decrease household marking.
Consider medical therapy. If other signs of anxiety such as a change in appetite or a change in social behavior (e.g., becoming more aggressive or more withdrawn) occur, consult your veterinarian. The combination of adjusting household situations and spending more time with your cat along with medical therapy may be needed.
Consider entertaining your cat. Providing the cat with a more enriched daily routine, including multiple feeding sessions, additional opportunities for social / predatory play, and new objects to manipulate and explore, may help to better settle the cat at times when it might otherwise be scratching.
Consider making physical changes in your house. Oddly, sometimes cat owners need to consider making further changes in the household to stop anxiety based or behavior related scratching. If your cat returns to the same scratching sites repeatedly, consider making these sites less accessible. Consider confining your kitty or “cat-proofing” your home when you are not around to supervise him. If the scratching occurs in just a few rooms, keep them off limits by closing off doors or using child-proof locks or barricades. To simplify matters, when you are away you can confine your cat to a single room that has been effectively cat proofed. Of course the cat’s scratching post, toys, water and food bowls, and litter box should be located in this cat-proofed room.
If cat-proofing is not possible or the cat continues to use one or two pieces of furniture, you may consider placing a scratching post directly in front of the furniture that is being scratched. Take a good look at the surfaces of the scratched furniture and ensure that the surface of the post is covered with a material similar to those for which the cat has shown a preference. Some scratching posts are even designed to be wall mounted or hung on doors.
What are non-surgical, non-controversial alternatives to persistent scratching?
Provide scratching options. One alternative to surgically declawing a cat is to train the cat to scratch only appropriate objects Cats are usually about 8 weeks old when they begin scratching, so that’s the ideal time to start the training process. Place acceptable scratching posts in various parts of the house where the cat likes to spend time with one close to the cat’s sleeping quarters. Providing the proper outlet for the natural inclination to scratch may prevent any unbalanced household situations from ever developing.
Because cats use their scratching posts for marking and stretching as well as sharpening their claws, the post should be tall enough for the cat to scratch while standing on hind legs with the forelegs extended, and sturdy enough so that it does not topple. Some cats prefer a scratching post with a corner so that two sides can be scratched at once while other cats may prefer a horizontal scratching post.
Special consideration should be given to the surface texture of the post. Commercial posts are often covered with tightly woven material for durability, but many cats prefer a loosely woven material where the claws can hook and tear during scratching. Remember that scratching is also a marking behavior and cats want to leave a visual mark. Good post covers include cardboard, carpet, wood, or sisal.
Use one of the commercially available pheromones to lure your kitty to the scratching post or place a few toys or his food bowl nearby. All of these things may help draw your kitty to the scratching post. Reward your cat generously with treats and affection for scratching his scratching posts, especially in the beginning. This will help him to both understand what you want from him, and to develop a positive association with scratching there.
Make inappropriate scratching unpleasant. Aversion therapy may also decrease destructive scratching. The simplest approach is to cover the scratched surface with a less appealing material like aluminum foil. Or attach tin pie plates to the furniture by hanging them from string safety pinned to furniture arms that will create noise and a bit of a breeze when the cat attempts to scratch. Cats don’t like sudden noises or breezes and may opt for the scratching post instead of the furniture. Applying special tape (like Sticky Paws®) to furniture is another option. Some cat owners booby-trap problem areas so that either scratching or approaching the area is unpleasant for the cat (e.g., motion detector non-toxic air spray or alarm, odor repellents, or stacked plastic cups that topple when the cat scratches).
Remember: none of these deterrents will successfully stop inappropriate scratching unless the cat has an alternative scratching area that is comfortable, appealing, and easily accessible.
Cover the claws. Another alternative to surgical declawing is the application of soft plastic caps (like Soft Paws®) to the nails. These nail caps are attached with glue to a clipped toenail. The nails continue to grow and the caps eventually fall off making frequent re-application necessary. Most cats tolerate this quick and painless process which can be performed in the veterinary clinic or at home.
Trim the nails. Lastly, all cats with claws need regular nail trimming. When done properly, clipping decreases the cat’s need to remove the shedding nail parts(See article entitled, “Taking the Stress out of Nail Trimming”).
Controversy and Considerations
Before deciding to declaw your cat, consider all these alternatives. There is usually a non-surgical solution to scratching issues. Performing surgery to save your sofa is a major step; many veterinarians decline to perform the surgery to resolve behavior problems, and it’s even illegal in some areas.
Medical circumstances are not so controversial. Amputating a body part to save the whole body is not a pleasant task for the veterinarian or the patient, but it is sometimes necessary to achieve a greater good.
Lastly, consider this: The goal is to achieve a healthy balanced home in which happy, healthy cats and happy owners share joyful lives. No controversy there!
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