The Facts About Declawing and the Alternatives
by Jennifer Dougherty, for use by the Partnership for Animal Welfare
It's major surgery. It's very painful. Countless people consider it a form of mutilation. It's illegal in fourteen countries. It has serious side affects, and it's not even necessary. Yet, 31% of all cat owners in the United States have their cats declawed. If you are considering the same fate for your cat, allow Fluffy five minutes of your time, and make sure you have all the facts.
Does your favorite couch or armchair look like it has armrests made out of shredded wheat? Can you see the wood through the carpeting at the bottom of your stairs? Does the sunlight escape through little holes in your drapes from kitty's last climbing escapade? It's hard to believe all of the destruction came from your tiny eight-pound furball. Maybe you are thinking that one sure way to stop the destruction is to have your cat's claws removed. Declawing is not only unfair to your furry friend, but it is also cruel.
If your new puppy scratched grooves in your front door trying to escape, would you have his claws removed? If your child began the bad habit of biting his or her nails, would you have the child's fingertips amputated? Of course not! You'd teach them to change their behavior. Likewise, you can teach your cat to use his or her claws in a non-destructive manner.
Why Do Cats Claw?
Clawing is not a behavioral problem -- it is a necessity and a natural thing for a cat to do. Cats need their claws for several reasons. Grooming is necessary to maintain health and cleanliness. Scratching and licking prevents the fur from tangling, removes dead skin and hair, and helps to waterproof their coat. Because cats require a lot of sleep, it is also necessary for them to stretch and exercise their muscles. Notice how a cat will always stretch after waking from a nap. Clawing is often part of their stretching ritual to exercise the muscles in their toes. Cats also need to scratch to help shed away the dead outer layer of the nail to expose the healthy nail underneath. At the same time, scratch marks are visual and olfactory territorial markers. The act of scratching deposits the cat's scent from glands in their feet (Eckstein 110). However, the most important function of a cat's claws is for protection. A cat will use the front claws against an enemy before using any other natural weapon. When that weapon is taken away, the cat would be in danger if it were let outside.
Many cat owners find out only too late the seriousness of declawing. Therefore, it may help to know what is involved in the surgical procedure. The procedure (referred to as an onychectomy) requires the amputation of the entire last joint of the toe (Marder). For a human, declawing a cat is equivalent to having the tips of the fingers cut off at the first joint below the fingernail. The amputation could be performed in one of two ways: using a "guillotine-type nail trimmer which cuts the joint between the last two bones of the toe," or with "a scalpel blade to dissect between the two bones" (Marder). The wounds on each toe are filled will surgical glue and held closed for several seconds to promote bonding. Several layers of bandages are applied while the cat recovers from anesthesia. The bandages are removed before the cat goes home, but unfortunately, several toes usually need to be cleaned and reglued which is extremely painful to the cat who is no longer under anesthesia (lisaviolet.com). Once the cat goes home, he or she will have trouble walking for several days, and the caregiver must use a special litter made out of recycled newspaper to avoid infection. The surgery is considered to be moderately to severely painful (Geller). One vet described, "cats bouncing off the walls of the recovery cage because of excruciating pain. Cats that are more stoic huddle in the corner of the recovery cage, immobilized in a state of helplessness, presumably by the overwhelming pain" (Dodman).
Post Surgical Statistics
Following the surgery, there is no question that the cat will experience pain for several days. Cats do not exhibit pain the same way humans do, but elevated blood pressure, an increased pulse rate, fever, and limping are evidence that pain exists. Complications such as bleeding, swelling and infection may also occur. If any of these complications arise, it means another painful and expensive trip to the vet. A Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine study on 163 cats reported that 50% of the cats experienced one or more of these complications. About 20% experienced further complications such as infection, nail regrowth and lameness (qtd. Marder). There is also speculation that behavioral problem arise in cats that undergo declaw surgery (although there is no hard evidence). For example, immediately following the surgery, it is painful for a cat to use the litter box. The cat then associates pain with using the litter box, which may result in the cat using other areas of the house for elimination. Other behavioral side affects are biting and personality changes. Because the cat no longer has its claws for protection, he or she may overcompensate for the loss by biting. The cat may also become withdrawn or stressed due to the loss of its claws (Ginsberg). The stress could be caused by many things including the inability to simply jump onto an object, like a chair or couch or bed, and hold on with its claws. Even the joy of playing will be altered because the cat will no longer be able to grasp string or other toys with its claws.
If putting your loving cat through the anguish is not enough to dissuade you against declawing, there are significant medical reasons not to go through with it. An onychectomy is major surgery. There is a risk involved with subjecting a cat to the physical stress of anesthesia and the strain of surgery. There is also a risk that substandard surgical techniques can result in shattered bones, hemorrhaging, and regrowth of the nail in a deformed manner that is hard to treat later (Ginsberg). According to Warren Eckstein, a world-renowned pet behaviorist, "X-rays of the bone structure of Kitty's legs before and after declawing show a marked difference that's caused by his having to balance himself unnaturally. Without the nails, physical stress is placed on the legs, where it wasn't intended to be." From an emotional standpoint, the added long-term stress and frustration can cause chronic cystitis (bladder infection) or skin disorders (HDW Enterprises). If a cat experiences any or several of these side affects, the additional veterinary costs, in addition to the initial surgery, will well exceed any monetary loss due to damage in the home.
There is another procedure you may hear mentioned called a flexor tenectomy. In the flexor tenectomy surgery, the tendon that enables a cat to extend its claws is severed. The cat is then prevented from extending its claws, which dramatically decreased the amount of damage the cat can inflict, as long as the owner keeps the cat's claws trimmed. However, similar to the declaw surgery, the tendon surgery has serious side-affects. In 1998, a study conducted by the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and VCA Newark Animal Hospital compared 38 cats that received either a declaw or a tenectomy. Twenty-five percent of the cats in both groups developed infections. In addition, many of the tenectomy cats were still able to scratch, and they developed unattractive, thick claws (Marder).
Some owners will still argue that there are valid reasons to have a cat declawed. For example, an immune-compromised member of the household could be in danger by a simple cat scratch (Maurer). Mothers with newborns or young children often feel like declawing their cat will better protect their children. Under these condition, the person should decide against owning a cat at all. Removing the cat's claws is not a guarantee against possible injury. If such a person still wants a feline companion, they should consider adopting an already declawed cat. If they already own a cat with claws, they should consider placing their cat up for adoption in exchange for one without claws. There is no good reason to declaw a cat, other than rare medical conditions involving problems with a cat's claws that require such treatment.
Most cat owners declaw their cats for convenience only. The fact is, cats will claw. Claw marks in your house, along with occasional carpet stains and hairy clothes, are a consequence of bringing an animal into your home. All potential pet owners should be aware of the ways their house will change when they obtain a pet, and weigh the options they have to coping with these environmental changes. Contrary to a popular myth, cats can be trained and are very smart. Because of the myth, many people never attempt to train their cat.
Creating a Scratch-Friendly Home
There are many solutions cat owners can utilize to create a safe, happy, scratch-friendly home for their cats. A scratch-friendly home begins with the proper scratching tools. There are many wonderful scratching devices on the market today. There are scratching posts, trees, condos, toys, and even boxes covered in carpet to hide the litter box. Most cats prefer scratchers made out of corrugated cardboard or sisal. The corrugated cardboard scratchers look like rectangular boxes or floor mats several inches thick filled with cardboard. Fortunately, these types of scratchers are very inexpensive so you can buy several.
Teaching Kitty to Use the Scratching Tools
More important than picking the right type of scratching tool is the quantity and location of those tools. If you only provide one scratching post, it isn't going to work. You can't expect the cat to travel to where the scratching post is located when the urge hits it. If your favorite chair, couch or rug is closer, that is what the cat will use. Therefore, place the scratching devices near any vertical object you think the cat will scratch. Place one near the bottom of the stairs (if carpeted), next to any vulnerable furniture item where the cat and the family spend a significant amount of time, and place one near the cat's favorite napping place. Next, you need to show your cat what to do with the scratching devices by using it yourself. That's right! Scratch your own nails loudly on the scratching device to attract the curiosity of the cat. When your cat investigates to see what you are doing, praise him or her with kind words and a rub in their favorite place. You can also rub catnip on each scratching post to increase the attraction, but consistent praise is the most important ingredient. Don't grab the cat's paws and force them on the scratching device. Most cats don't like to have their paws grabbed, which can cause the cat to avoid the scratching device. Admonish kitty when he or she scratches on anything that is off limits. All furniture should be considered off limits to eliminate confusion. Even furniture specifically designated for the cat should be a no scratching zone (lisaviolet.com).
Never use hitting as a form of correction. Hitting has proven to cause more problems than it solves. The kitty will also associate the hitting correction with you, and will continue to scratch where he or she please when you are not around. Instead, use a firm tone in your voice, "No," to let kitty know what is inappropriate behavior. Even better, you can use a squirt bottle to squirt the cat with water or a can filled with pennies to make a loud noise. This method is not only cheap, but the cat won't know where the water or noise came from and will be fearful of the correction when you aren't around. When the kitty scratches in the proper places, go out of your way to praise him or her. Even if you are in another room, go to your kitty to let it know it has done well. Consistency is the key. Within the first week, you will notice progress in your cat's behavior.
During the learning period, it may help to utilize scratching deterrents on the areas your kitty likes to scratch. You can use double-sided sticky tape, aluminum foil, or the prickly side of a plastic carpet runner. There are also sprays you can use to deter cats away from the area or place inflated balloon on the areas where you don't want kitty to scratch. These deterrents are all temporary until the learning process is complete.
Trimming your cat's nails is also a very important step in maintaining a scratch-friendly environment. Even if you don't have help, there are methods to nail trimming you can learn from your vet to make it easy for both you and your cat. The first time you trim the nails, only cut the tip. There is a vein that runs through the nail and it's important you don't cut that, but it's very easy to see. Two weeks later, cut the tips of the nails again. After two or three pedicure sessions, the vein will recede on its own which will allow you to cut a little more nail each time (Eckstein). As long as the vein is easy to see, you should have no problem giving your kitty pedicures. If you repeat these pedicures every two weeks, it will minimize any scratching damage kitty may cause.
Soft Paws ®
If you just don't have the time to spend on consistent training, you can apply Soft Paws nail caps to your cat's nails. SoftPaws are plastic nail caps that are glued to the end of your cat's nails and they last about one month. Your veterinarian can show you how to apply the nail caps the first time, and then you can buy the do-it-yourself kit thereafter from the pet store or a pet magazine.
It may seem like a lot of work at first, but the process is an interesting and fun experiment in your ability to train your cat. You will also find that you can use some of the techniques to teach your cat other useful lessons. In the end you will have a scratch-friendly safe environment for your cat where he or she will be able to enjoy the use of its claws.
A Comprehensive Guide: Training. Lisaviolet's Cathouse. April 14, 2001.
Declaw Surgery - What it Really Is?
Declawing: The Facts & Alternatives. HDW Enterprises & Foothill Felines Bengals. April 14, 2001.
Dodman, Nicholas, DVM. The Cat Who Cried for Help. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub., 1999.
Eckstein, Warren and Fay. How To Get Your Cat To Do What You Want. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.
Geller, Jon. Doing It Right: Feline Onychectomy. Source: Veterinary Technician, Oct. 1999, Vol. 20 Issue 10, p. 549. Masterfile FULLTEXT 1000. MdUSA. March 10, 2001.
Ginsberg, Susan. Source: Animals, July/Aug. 1993, Vol. 126 Issue 4, p. 26. Masterfile FULLTEXT 1000. MdUSA. March 10, 2001.
Marder, Amy. Source: Prevention, June 1999, Vol. 51 Issue 6, p. 183, 3p, 3c. Academic Search Elite. MdUSA. March 10, 2001.
Maurer, Ginnie. Cat Care Handbook. Partnership for Animal Welfare, Inc. 1998. August 27, 1999. April 14, 2001.
So You're Thinking Of Getting Your Cat Declawed? A Post from A Vet Tech. Lisaviolet's Cathouse. April 11, 2001.
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