Declawing Cats – Why I’m Stopping
It is highly unlikely that there is a more controversial or debated topic amongst animal lovers even in the veterinary community. I personally had not given it much thought until I met my colleague at the Kingston Veterinary Clinic, Dr. Jaime Buchanan. She mentioned that I should watch “The Paw Project” (which is readily available on Netflix). I watched it this past weekend and here’s my thoughts on onychectomy (the proper name for declawing).
I’ve been in practice as a veterinarian for almost 9 years now and I’ve declawed a number of cats. I’ll admit, I even had my own cat, Gremlin, declawed almost 14 years ago. Like many other people, I didn’t give it a second thought as I had a waterbed and lived in a rented apartment where my roommates dog had already torn out a chunk of carpet. Also like many other people, I didn’t really know what declawing was. In actuality, it is the amputation of the third phalange of each digit (toe) – basically from the tip of your finger to the first joint.
Watching “The Paw Project”, I was baffled why anyone, let alone who, would declaw a lion, panther, or other wild cats. There were visible physical deformities that when watching, I attributed to a very poorly done surgery. Namely, nails regrowing which is often the result of incomplete amputation of the bone the nail grows from. Then they turned to domestic house cats as the focus. This is not to say that house cats do not have any problems after a declawing surgery. Undoubtedly, there is always a risk for complications such as open wounds, infections, remainders of bone left behind, damage to paw pads, or residual pain despite analgesics (pain meds).
What about the psychological or behavioral implications? Well, this is part of the major dilemma. Cats are typically declawed to avoid unwanted behaviors, namely furniture destruction. Declawing a cat doesn’t remove that behavior…I see Gremlin making the same motions on a step stool all the time. Opponents of declawing argue that declawed cats have more instances of biting and can be more instances of inappropriate elimination. Personally, I can agree with the biting aspect but find difficulty accepting the inappropriate elimination aspect as I see that almost daily in non-declawed cats and find the causes are infections, stress, or bladder crystals. Yes, there are studies out there that discuss this but they are primarily retrospective studies involving asking pet owners. Several of these are cited on pawproject.org under the FAQs.
Now Gremlin does not harbor any ill-will toward me because I had her declawed; she is bonded to me and very rarely is social with other people. But for many people and their cats, the relationship may change. That relationship is what leads owners to elect for a declaw procedure in the first place. They think that by removing the cat’s ability to destroy furniture or scratch people that all will be good in the house. Unfortunately, some cats who do begin to bite more as a way of defending themselves or communicating are very likely to end up outside, in a shelter, or euthanized. Outside, they are even more helpless against other animals.
Nowadays, there are alternatives to declawing aside from nail trims though trimming a cat’s nails is much easier than black nails of a dog. I always recommend to new pet owners to start playing with their kittens feet to get them used to being handled and also to start trimming every couple of weeks while they are young. Soft Paws are plastic coated nail covers which can be applied with an adhesive and will last for several weeks. The old standby is scratching posts. Cats can be taught to go after the scratching post instead of your furniture by rubbing catnip into the material. It’s best to let your cat choose the post, so give them a few options – carpet covered, rope, cardboard, etc. Another product I became aware of is called Sticky Paws which is a double sided adhesive that can be stuck on objects you don’t want scratched and when the cat goes after that object the material will be unsatisfying to them and they can be taught to avoid it.
Let’s briefly look at the other pets in the house – dogs. Dogs have been known to rip up carpets, chew couches, scratch up doorways but nobody ever considers taking off the dogs toes or removing all their teeth. So why have we gotten into this acceptance of declawing for cats? When I think about it this way, it becomes clear to me.
We have to start to make a change somewhere. As of today, I am declaring that I will cease to do elective declaws on cats (this includes another type of procedure called a tenotomy). The only situation that I would still do such a procedure would be if a medical reason for the cat to have a toe amputated was given (such as a tumor). Next time you’re in to your veterinarian, maybe ask them how they feel and maybe it will make them step back and think. As of 2014, declawing was banned in at least 30 countries and at least 8 US cities all in California (per The Paw Project). The State of New York is also currently considering a law to join in the ban. Someday maybe this procedure will be illegal elsewhere but until then, inform yourself and bond with your cat.
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