It’s the hot-button issue to end all hot-button issues, at least among cat parents. Declawing has long been a highly controversial treatment for cats but in recent years the conversation around the practice has been getting louder as the moral and ethical obligations we have to our animals take center stage. Some states are now considering or enacting laws that ban the procedure altogether.
So, let’s talk about declawing in a judgement-free space. Here’s what you need to know.
Exactly What Does it Mean to “Declaw” a Cat?
In order to understand the process of onychectomy (declawing), it’s critical to understand how cat’s paws are constructed. A cat’s claw isn’t the same thing as a toenail; their claws are actually an extension of the last tiny bone in their toe.
Effectively removing a cat’s “claws” actually means removing his whole phalanx up the first joint. If a cat’s claws were simply clipped back, they’d regrow or worse, become abscessed.
An onychectomy is a complex and, yes, painful process. To be declawed, a cat must be put under full anesthesia. The surgery itself involves 10 separate “amputations” removing bone, ligaments, and tendons. It’s fair (and graphic) to compare declawing a cat with amputating a person’s fingers from their fingertips to their first knuckle.
Cats who undergo declawing are likely to need pain medication during recovery which usually lasts a few weeks. Older or heavier cats may take longer to heal.
Why is Declawing So Controversial?
Cats are digitigrade which means they walk on their toes, not their actual feet. They use their toes for everything, from balancing to exercising, and their claws are an integral part of their stretching (i.e. strengthening) routine. Many people believe depriving a cat of these abilities is both misguided and cruel.
Additionally, cats without claws are virtually helpless once outdoors. A domestic cat’s claws are really his only weapon against predators but they’re surprisingly effective. Opponents of declawing say that removing a cat’s natural defense mechanisms puts them in grave danger should they be outside.
Onychectomies tend to have a higher complication rate than other surgeries, if not because they’re actually ten surgeries in one. Declawed cats are more likely to endure a long healing process, extreme pain, damage to the radial nerve, abscesses, and regrowth. Because cats’ claws actually affect the way they walk and balance, removing them can eventually lead to chronic joint and muscle pain.
Why Would Someone Declaw Their Cat?
Many people declaw their cats simply because they don’t fully understand what the procedure and process entails. Sometimes they’re told it’s a “quick fix” or a “minor surgery.” It’s neither. Occasionally breeders will declaw cats in order to keep them from scratching each other or to make them more “attractive” to buyers.
There are several reasons a pet owner might choose to declaw their cat, even knowing the risks. Some cat parents choose to declaw to protect themselves or their family members from a particularly aggressive cat, particularly if humans in the household are elderly or immunocompromised.
What Do Vets Think About Declawing?
That’s a complicated question. By and large, most vets would agree that declawing is a last resort in cases where the alternative is euthanasia, surrender, or unwillingly restricting the cat to outdoors. It’s becoming more and more common for vets to be against the practice altogether. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the generally accepted “voice” of veterinarians, takes a stance that falls just short of disapproval.
As with any surgical procedure, it’s incredibly important to discuss declawing with your vet, particularly if your vet isn’t the one who will be performing the procedure. You should carefully weigh your vet’s years of experience with both clawed and declawed cats, as well as his final recommendation.
So What Can I Do?
Know that there are alternatives to declawing. Keeping your cat’s claws neatly trimmed and filed is the easiest way to curb destructive clawing. Providing your cat with plenty of surfaces on which to claw is also a good start, as is giving him adequate playtime. It’s also possible to buy tiny, temporary claw caps, but those come with their own risks and warnings.
It’s your cat, and you know him best. Understanding what’s causing the problem whether it’s behavior, boredom, or aggression, puts you on the path to solving it without having to declaw. Your vet has the answers.