The Truth about Declawing Cats

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Why do owners decide to have their cats declawed? There are several reasons owners may consider this. The main reason is so the cat can’t scratch. Owners are concerned about damage to furniture, carpet, walls, and their skin. Sometimes declawing may be a requirement for a cat to reside in a particular type of residence. Some owners may have difficulty trimming the nails of the cat either because it is too aggressive or difficult to handle. I believe that anyone who is thinking about having their cat declawed no matter the reason, needs to have a full understanding what the procedure is. Many owners are unaware what is involved and what alternatives are available.

Declawing is a very controversial surgical procedure that is performed on cats. In parts of Europe the surgery is against the law because it is considered cruel and unusual. The procedure is hotly debated among animal activists, cat owners, and veterinarians. This post discusses information about declawing cats while attempting to remain objective. Whatever side of the argument you are on, I hope you will still find the information in this post helpful. So what is declawing? Well the name itself can be somewhat deceiving. The term “declawing” to some people can mean just the claws of the cat are being removed. This can lessen what the process actually is. On the other side of the spectrum some people have described the declawing procedure as “mutilation” or “maiming”. These terms I would consider extreme, though I have seen a few botched declawing procedures that those terms would be appropriate for. When the surgery is done correctly, those terms are not an accurate depiction in my opinion.

Declawing, also known as onychectomy, is the amputation of the third digit of the paws. Some people who request to have this procedure, don’t understand that they are asking for multiple amputations. Is it the same as having your fingertips cut off? Well . . . . . yes and no. Anatomically it is the same as if a human had their fingertips cut off, but functionally it is not. For example, if you observe a declawed cat you cannot tell that it has been declawed by the way it walks or uses it paws. It is not until you attempt to retract its claws that you will get confirmation. This is in contrast to a human or even a dog who if they had the same procedure it could be recognized by the way they used their limbs. Humans would have some difficulty gripping things if they were missing finger tips. A dog would have a noticeably abnormal gait. Therefore, the main function of the third digit in cats differs when compared to other species.

A scalpel, guillotine clippers, or a laser may be used to amputate the digit. Each method may have its own advantages and disadvantages. The scalpel method ensures removal of the whole claw, but it can take longer to perform and there is a greater risk to cut the pads during the procedure. Using guillotine clippers are typically the quickest way to perform the surgery, but this method often leaves part of the digit. If too much of the digit is left over then it is possible for the nail to grow back. The advantage of the laser is that it can result in less bleeding during the procedure, but it can take some time to master this technique.

To prepare for the procedure, the cat’s paw is usually soaked in an antiseptic solution or the paws are clipped and scrubbed. A nerve block is typically performed to help minimize the pain of the procedure. A tourniquet is temporarily placed on each forelimb to minimize bleeding during surgery. The tendons and the ligaments associated with the digit are severed to remove it. The skin is apposed either through sutures or with skin glue. A compression bandage is placed on the feet to help minimize post-operative bleeding then removed in 12-24 hours.

The most obvious side effect is pain. This can be minimized if cutting the pad is avoided during the surgery. Nerve blocks can be helpful but can wear off after several hours. Other complications include infection of the site, regrowth of the claw, and lameness which can last for up to 2 months. Some people believe that declawing a cat can be emotionally traumatic resulting in more withdrawn or aggressive behavior. I personally have not seen any personality changes in cats after this procedure.

One easy alternative is that if you have expensive furniture or are afraid of being scratched, maybe a cat is not the best pet for you. Also you can train your cat not to scratch furniture through negative reinforcement. I have trained two of my cats through having them sprayed with a water bottle when they attempted to touch my furniture. After that I never had a problem with them scratching my furniture. It is also important to have plenty of toys and a scratching post to take your cat’s mind off your property. Soft paws may also be something to consider. They are vinyl nail covers that can be glued on your cat’s nails. They typically have to be changed every 4-6 weeks.

In conclusion being well informed is the most important factor when deciding whether to declaw your cat or not. Please consider the alternatives first before making a final decision. It is a good idea to have a discussion with your veterinarian first to get their input. Don’t just drop your cat off at a clinic on the day of surgery without even talking to the veterinarian.

Dr. Alleyne

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