Paws down, cat declawing is one of the most sensitive, emotionally charged and controversial topics associated with cat ownership. Once considered a “quick fix” for destructive scratching — even though performing the elective surgical procedure made some veterinarians uncomfortable — many veterinarians now view declawing as a procedure of last resort. This shift in perspective reflects changes in veterinarians’ and cat owners’ ethics, greater understanding of animal pain, and increased knowledge of cat behavior.
Cat owners seeking hard facts about declawing — the technical term is onychectomy — will find a lot of conflicting information. News stories about cities, states and countries banning onychectomy and how humane groups and some veterinary associations oppose routine declawing can add to owner confusion. Here, we’ll provide a simple overview about declawing cats. For a full peer-reviewed summary of the veterinary literature, please check out this paper from the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Animal Welfare Division.
More invasive than a manicure
While our nail matrix and nail bed are attached to the soft tissues of fingers, cats’ claws are attached to the last bone in their toes. Declawing is the surgical amputation of all or part of a cat’s toe bones, called phalanges, in addition to the attached claws. If the base of the claw, or ungual crest, isn’t removed, the claw may regrow — usually in an abnormal way that causes pain and discomfort.
Typically, only the front feet are declawed, although you may occasionally find a cat with all four paws declawed. When you consider that a cat has five toes on each front paw (at least normally), declawing is similar to performing 10 separate amputations. That’s major surgery.
Why cats may be declawed
One of the most common reasons given by pet owners for having their cat declawed is to protect furniture and other belongings from destructive scratching. In these cases, declawing is an elective procedure that isn’t medically necessary.
Declawing may also be done to protect other members of the family, including people, other cats and even some dogs. Some people have suggested declawing a cat as an acceptable way to prevent the spread of diseases to people with impaired immune systems, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t advise declawing cats owned by HIV-infected people. Rather than declawing, research suggests that good hygiene and parasite control provides better protection from zoonotic (spread from pet to owner) diseases.
Onychectomy may be medically appropriate — even vital — to a cat’s health at times. A tumor, chronic infection or irreparable damage to the claw are all cases in which declawing may be considered medically necessary.
Finally, some veterinarians will consider declawing a cat if an owner has tried everything to redirect the destructive scratching habits of a cat and is considering surrendering, abandoning or euthanizing the pet.
Concerns about cat welfare and potential complications
Any surgical procedure involves some degree of pain and inherent risks and complications. Onychectomy is no different, although, since it’s a multiple amputation, veterinary pain management specialists can make the case that it would lead to severe pain. Appropriate pain management before and after declawing is more than important, it’s required.
Infection is a possibility after declawing, just as it is after any surgery. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians use aseptic surgical techniques (sterile scalpels, gown, gloves and mask) to perform the procedure. However, prepping the surgical sites — each front paw and each of five claws per paw — may be done slightly differently than other surgical sites. The paws and toes are cleaned with surgical scrub, but they’re not often shaved to remove the fur. When the onychectomy is finished, the cat’s paws are bandaged and the kitty spends the night in the veterinary hospital. Keep in mind, too, that cat’s walk on their toes. Once the bandages are removed from the paws, a cat will walk on its surgical sites, which makes them vulnerable to contamination.
The risks and complications associated with declawing increase with a cat’s age, which is why most veterinarians perform the surgery (if they will do it) when kittens are young, often in conjunction with neutering or spaying. Short-term complications of declaw surgery include acute (sudden) pain, bleeding (hemorrhage), swelling, infection and nerve trauma. Long-term complications can include lameness, chronically draining wounds, bone chips or fragments left behind that lead to claw regrowth, abnormal stance, behavioral problems and chronic nerve pain.
There are alternatives to declawing. If you’re considering the procedure for your kitten, please talk with your veterinarian and learn as much about it as you can. Only you, in consultation with your veterinarian, should decide what’s best for your cat.