Declawing Cats – Why I’m Stopping

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).

my sweet cat Gremlin

my sweet cat Gremlin

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 at the time 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 when I was a young first time cat owner who had not gone to veterinary school.  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.

film to end declawing

Paw Project movie poster

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).

pic from www.gopixpic.com

pic from www.gopixpic.com

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.

Plenty of color choices! pic from Wenn.com

Plenty of color choices! pic from Wenn.com

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.

declawing is chopping off finger tips

Disclaimer: All blog posts are personally written and my opinion and do not reflect those of current or former employers.

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32 Comments

  1. Interesting Post.I clip nails plus they have their own scratching post.They seem to like the clipping. I also have a spray bottle which I just show them occasionally if they look as if they might need a reminder.Works for me.

  2. Really great post. Glad to see a vet taking a stand, too. There are alternatives to declawing and people need to learn this!

  3. Very happy to see that you have decided against declawing!
    I truly don’t believe there is any controversy, clearly declawing has no benefit to the cat, and is done purely for convenience of the human.
    Cats deserve to keep their claws, even if it wasn’t amputation I would feel this way.
    Humans have no right to surgically alter another creature unless it will help their health (such as removing a tumor). (and yes I believe in spaying/neutering as it helps keep the already overwhelming number of animals out of shelters)
    Thanks again, and please keep educating people!!!

    • Dr. Ryan Llera

      February 1, 2015 at 9:54 pm

      Thank you Molly for your comments! Yes, spaying/neutering is definitely a whole different aspect and is in general beneficial for animals.

  4. Thank you for taking a stand and doing the right thing, as well as bringing up another point I hadn’t considered before, namely that when dogs do the same thing they aren’t forced to ensure corrective survey to fix the problem.

    • Dr. Ryan Llera

      January 29, 2015 at 5:57 pm

      You are very welcome! I’m just one person but change all has to start somewhere. There are many other veterinarians who are already in agreement and some I know have never done the procedure to begin with. I just felt I should come out publicly and say it and also to get more awareness on the issue.

      • Hi Dr Ryan. I’m from the UK so when I first heard of declawing some years ago I was stunned literally stunned, you see its banned here the same as in most if not all European countries so I joined like minded people in the fight to get it banned everywhere (although the 2 main focuses are naturally USA and Canada). Firstly may I say well done for stopping elective declawing I’m over the moon because as you rightly say it should only be done for medical reasons and not for the benefit of selfish people who’s priotity is inanimate furniture not their living breathing companion………sorry I digress and I aim to be positive on here. May I ask a couple of questions? Why did you need to watch the Paw Project to make you realise that declawing is wrong? you state; ‘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’ As a trained, qualified veterinarian how could you not know what declawing is? And if you didn’t know what it was why were you performing surgery that you (in your own admission) knew nothing about? You say you are one person and change has to start somewhere so as I say well done you are leading by example and I know your colleagues will follow on however I have to say change hasn’t started with you it has started with common sense and the realisation of the barbarity and the awful impact on cats which in turn has opened a massive can of worms namely various groups all raising awareness and educating, the Paw project probably the largest of those groups that has had the most impact – yes the worm has turned and I am one of thousands who can’t wait to see the day when declawing has been banned everywhere!!

        • Dr. Ryan Llera

          February 1, 2015 at 8:49 pm

          Hi Tracey. I appreciate your comments and will do my best to answer your questions. I don’t know watching “The Paw Project” was necessary to change my mind…I had never seen any post-surgery cats as bad as some of the ones in the film and I like to think of watching the movie, on the suggestion of a co-worker, as a revelation that made a lot of things become apparent. Regarding your second question, there might have been a misunderstanding there. That portion of the post was reflecting on my time years before I even started veterinary school. I can assure you I would never do a surgery that I didn’t know what I was doing as my patients come first; and now I have stopped declawing cats to better look out for their welfare. I have amended the post to reflect that those decisions were made before I even entered veterinary school. I hope that I can continue to lead by example.

  5. Thank you for making the decision to put your declawing days behind you!

    I feel badly even doing this, but I do need to quibble with one thing you said:

    “Opponents of declawing argue [there] can be more instances of inappropriate elimination. Personally, I … 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.”

    Generally, if inappropriate elimination is due to infections or crystals, the behaviour can be stopped by promptly addressing the underlying medical issue. If it is due to stress it is harder, but again this behaviour can usually stopped be stopped by taking appropriate steps. When the cause is declawing, it can be EXTREMELY hard ever to solve the problem. I volunteer at a no-kill shelter that has one area devoted to cats with behavioural issues, and too many of those are declawed cats with intractable inappropriate elimination habits. I am only thankful they found their way to us, instead of ending up dead after being abandoned, euthanized in a kill-shelter as unadoptable, or brought to a veterinarian for “convenience euthanasia.”

    Anyway, again, thank you for making the decision you have AND for going on record to talk about it.

    • Dr. Ryan Llera

      February 1, 2015 at 9:57 pm

      Thank you Tracey for your comments. I discussed the aspect of inappropriate elimination in that manner as I have never personally seen declawing as a cause. Once I’ve checked a urinalysis on a patient, and start to address any underlying problems, almost all of them have resolved. Thank you for your volunteer service to those cats.

  6. Long ago, we had KC declawed, because you were a baby and Dad was afraid he would scratch you. Poor KC – all 4 feet. He had no way to defend himself at all, except his teeth – fortunately, he didn’t bite anybody and he remained pretty much my kitty and stayed indoors. The times he got outside I was scared to death until I found him, knowing he was vulnerable.

    Mom’s cat, Sally, was declawed in front and mom adopted her that way. Sally never wrecked any furniture, but she bit the crap out of Mom several times, and most of the times I think if she had had her claws, it would have been a simple paw swipe to warn her off of something that Mom was doing to annoy her. But her only choice was to bite – on any other person it would have been a nip, but on mom, at 80ish, her elderly skin is super thin and a little nip generally led to a trip to the ER. I think Sally and Mom would have had a much better relationship if Sally had had her claws.

    Shutterbug had her claws, Zorro, too. Luke & Leia have their claws. Zorro attempted to attack the odd wicker chair now and then, but the others all used / use their scratching posts, cardboard scratchy things, sisal toys – I’ve caught Leia once or twice going after the love seat, but a squirt with the water bottle sends her running. So far the love seat seems to be OK, despite my being at work all day when she could probably take the thing to shreds if she wanted to.

    The only time I might agree with somebody doing this procedure is for medical necessity – either the cat’s or the human’s – there are some people with medical conditions that can make a cat scratch really serious, as bad as a bite, but that would be an extreme case.

    I will never do it again – ever. I think about KC all the time, how hard it was for him to recover from the surgery and how he didn’t even want to play with the dogs as he used to before the surgery. He became a little reclusive around other animals, just because he couldn’t fend them off, even with a minor paw / claw swipe. He may have forgiven me, but I find it hard to forgive myself, even after 34 years – KC has long crossed over the Rainbow Bridge – I hope he got his claws back, just like I hope Zorro’s and Shutterbug’s pancreases started working again.

  7. I currently work as a registered veterinary technician and just wanted to cover a couple points. 1) With inter-digital nerve blocks BEFORE removal of the digit, there is much less chance of lasting nerve/psychological trauma. 2) As a veterinarian, you above all people… “Also like many other people, I didn’t really know what declawing was.” should know what you are doing during surgery and I find this statement very troubling. 3) Soft paws do not last as long as the package says because cat nails can grow fairly quickly and will fall off after less than two weeks in my experience. 4) Dog toes are not amputated because they grow slower, are not nearly as sharp, and are not used as weapons. Both cats and dogs bite, and teeth are not removed as a solution so I don’t see your point in bringing that up? While I never recommend it as a routine procedure I would rather assist with the removal and post-op care of a de-claw than have the owner hit their breaking point and get rid of the cat.

    • Dr. Ryan Llera

      February 1, 2015 at 9:50 pm

      Hi Cookie and thank you for your comments & questions. 1) I agree with doing local nerve blocks for many procedures. I have seen cats that have not had nerve blocks look significantly worse post-operatively. Nerve blocks are also great for many other procedures. 2) There might have been a misunderstanding there. That portion of the post was reflecting on my time years before I even started veterinary school. I can assure you I would never do a surgery that I didn’t know what I was doing as my patients come first; and now I have stopped declawing cats to better look out for their welfare. I have amended the post to reflect that those decisions were made before I even entered veterinary school. 3) I haven’t personally used Soft Paws myself but of some staff members I work with that have used them they have routinely lasted for a month. 4) I brought this up as an extreme example to show the absurdity of the procedure and because such insane requests have been asked by veterinarians before. 5) I did consider the idea of whether or not cats would be given up but I think that is where veterinarians need to do a better job of communicating with their clients about alternative options.

  8. I never thought about the dog issue and now I’m mad. Have we so anthopromorphized the species (dogs/men…cats/women) that cats are more surgically altered now? Maybe thats too thin a connection. But psychologically in our lizard hind brains? I think it’s a possibility that might prove very enlightening.

    • Dr. Ryan Llera

      January 31, 2015 at 12:04 am

      Thank you for your comments Stacy! You see my point and I agree with your. The connection is there in that society does still have a double standard in what is acceptable for men, might not be for women and vice versa. It really is crazy that such a thing exists in civilized countries in this day & age…but as some countries have already banned declawing, maybe they are the more civilized ones.

  9. I found this blog entry after The Paw Project shared it on Facebook. Well done you. Lets hope that more vets join the cause.

    • Dr. Ryan Llera

      January 31, 2015 at 12:06 am

      Thank you Dave! I haven’t known too many veterinarians to come out and publicly say something that is essentially now on public record. I do think that in the next 5 years we’ll see more legislation for the better in regards to this issue and cats will be able to keep their toes.

  10. Anne Marie Powless

    January 30, 2015 at 10:11 am

    Dear Dr. Llera,

    Thank you so very much for taking a stand against this barbaric surgery!

    I applaud you!

    I am a Canadian citizen living in South Korea and I am running a nonprofit for special-needs kitties. I have cats with brain damage, two with damaged legs from some sort of trauma (before I found them), one with Mega Colon and also some aggressive kitties who had been in stressful or abusive environments before I got them. If my Korean vets and I can handle all these kitties with special needs, then surely other people can handle their one or two cats. I even had a blind cat with Hydrocephalus. You are are so right – it’s important to touch and play with their feet so that they get used to you touching them. I am still shocked and outraged that declawing continues to exist and that many vets and petowners try to justify it. You asked the same question I have been asking people – Why aren’t dogs declawed? I wouldn’t want that either though. Dr. Llera, please come and join us on our online Facebook page – The International Coalition Against Declawing. Two of my vets are members of our group as are vets in the U.S. and I think Canada, too. Please come! We need your support!!! And thank you so very much again!! YOU ARE INCREDIBLE AND YOU ARE MY HERO!!

    • Dr. Ryan Llera

      February 1, 2015 at 8:23 pm

      Hello Anne! Always nice to see where people are from. Did you travel to South Korea specifically for the kitties or is that aside from your regular job? You certainly are doing an amazing thing for all those cats and are a guardian angel yourself! I have requested to join the group and look forward to interacting with them.

  11. Ruth aka Kattaddorra

    January 30, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    Dr Llera, I am sending you admiration from England for your honesty in admitting that declawing causes cats to suffer. I am very glad you have stopped this cruel surgery and hope by your coming forward, that many other vets follow your lead and stop too.
    Even before declawing was banned here in 2007, our vets would never do it, so it is very hard to understand why it has been almost routine in the USA for so long.
    I co-founded The International Coalition Against Declawing around 7 years ago and we have almost 1,000 members now. People are becoming enlightened at last.
    Best wishes for your future as a non declawing vet!
    Ruth (retired vet nurse uk)

    • Dr. Ryan Llera

      February 1, 2015 at 8:17 pm

      Thank you Ruth and I’m going to look up the Coalition 🙂 I think the USA just has a different attitude than the rest of the world. It’s the culture of putting on certain airs maybe. I’m American myself but I live in Canada and I see the difference in humility and kindness now that I live north of the border.

    • Ruth is doing an excellent job on Facebook to promote our cause! Never and I mean NEVER under any circumstances should a cat ever be declawed! Any person that values their furniture MORE than a cat, should NOT own a cat in the first place.

      • Dr. Ryan Llera

        May 1, 2015 at 7:57 pm

        There may sometime be a medical reason for a toe amputation so we can’t completely say “never” but elective declawing is falling out of favor and will hopefully be considered illegal in the near future.

  12. The cats say thank you!

  13. I am shocked and embarrassed that I was totally unaware of what the reality is with declawing – amputation of part of a needed body part. We ‘inherited a beautiful 3 yr old neutered male who was front paw declawed, so we had no say in the issue; but now that I understand the gravity and the cruelty of doing this to a loving and trusting pet and companion, I will never again speak up in favour of declawing.

    • Dr. Ryan Llera

      March 23, 2015 at 11:05 pm

      Thank you Al for reading and I’m glad I was able to help change your mind. It is quite a shock to some people and I have seen more movement in the past few months that declawing may eventually be illegal in more places. We all make mistakes but at least we can learn from them and use them to help others learn. I had my cat done before I had even gone to vet school and also wasn’t fully aware at the time. Be sure you check out The Paw Project for potentially more ways you might be able to help.

  14. God bless you, Dr., for coming out publicly against the barbaric practice of toe amputation on cats. I have one friend who didn’t know what it was all about when she took her cat in for the surgery many years ago. At that time, she was told by the vet that it “wasn’t any big deal” & that her cat would be just fine after the surgery. Imagine her shock when she picked up her baby & he was in so much pain & he was never the same. She swore that she’d never do that again to another pet. I just posted on Facebook that as far as I’m concerned, I don’t care what excuse or rationale they come up with to justify doing this to their cats. The only reason I can see for doing this would be for medical reasons for the cat. I follow one Facebook kitty who has awful seizures & sometimes she’ll rip her claws out. Her human posted that she was considering having her claws amputated for that reason & that seems to be a perfectly good reason to have the surgery.

    Do you know if there is a list anywhere of veterinary Doctors or practices who refuse to do these surgeries in this country? I’d prefer to bring my babies to someone like yourself, because they are so precious to me. Again thank you, thank you, thank you!

  15. Hi Ryan
    I stopped doing them too 🙂
    Thanks for joining us
    Michelle
    (Jen’s old roomate)

  16. Thank you for deciding not to declaw cats. I have had cats since I was a young child and never had any of them declawed. I have 3 children who grew up with cats with claws and they’re all fine, no injuries beyond occasional superficial scratches if they weren’t gentle enough. I have always given my cats plenty of appropriate places to scratch (posts, cat trees, etc) and they have not been destructive. We did adopt one declawed cat (declawed before we got him) and he was the sweetest cat but did have litter box issues. He passed away from oral squamous cell carcinoma a little over a year ago. He was the only cat I ever had (other than one who had urinary crystals, whose problem stopped when we fed her low-magnesium food) who had litter box issues. He was tested for infection, crystals, and other urinary problems and had none. I can’t say for sure that it was because he was declawed, but I suspect it. Amputating part of a cat’s foot for no benefit to the cat is in my opinion cruel and I am very glad you have decided to stop doing this procedure.

  17. Hello Ryan. I was so pleased to come across this posting. This is such important information. I totally get where you are coming from. I too used to declaw cats when I worked in a clinic. I didn’t like doing them and I worked really hard at educating owners about the procedure and trying to guide them to make a different choice, but as an associate in a clinic at a time (the late 1990s)when declaws were considered part of your job, I did what I was told. When I began doing locums in the early 2000s I decided to take a bit of a stand and requested that declaws were not booked for me on my surgery days. It was a tiny stand to take without any significant repercussions for me personally but I did feel like an outlier in the veterinary community because agreeing to perform declaws was the norm. I have been watching the evolution of change as veterinarians have been debating and seeking consensus on issues like this and am so pleased in the direction we are going. I no longer feel like an outlier (with the luxury of taking a stance at no personal cost since I only do house calls now – so no surgery of any kind) and am pleased to see that declawing is banned in several Canadian provinces – just not yet in Ontario sadly. BUT that is yet. I am confident that it is coming. Keep up the great work.

    • Dr. Ryan Llera

      March 30, 2016 at 9:44 pm

      Hi Dr. Galbraith! I’m so glad you found my page 🙂 I definitely see the tides changing in the viewpoints of our colleagues. Dr. Jaime Lawless encouraged me to stop doing them and this was how I paid it forward by speaking (writing) out and hoping other veterinarians will see the light. I see a law happening within the next 5 years. Thanks again for stopping by! (P.S. If you’re interested in more, which might be along the lines of euthanasia, palliative care, etc., I’d love your take on my euthanasia posts, cancer, or anything about Charlie – you can message me privately. Thanks!)

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