Author, Stacey Kalinnikova, BVetTech for Professional Pet Sitting Etc.
Declawing in cats, also known by its medical term onychectomy, refers to surgical removal of the claws. Declawing is an elective procedure that is banned or illegal in many parts of the world including the UK, Australia, and many European countries. It is still offered in veterinary practices across the United States in conjunction with spay or neuter surgeries.
What declawing involves
Declawing involves surgical removal of the claw and the distal phalanx (the last joint and bone in a cat’s toe) that it is attached to. A partial digital amputation is the only way to completely remove the claw in order to prevent regrowth and abscess formation in the area. This is the equivalent of removing the last bone on the tips of human fingers at the first knuckle. Declaw surgery is subject to risks and cause long term physical and behavioral complications in cats.
Declaw surgery is extremely painful and cats require large doses of analgesia (pain relief) for several days post-operatively. Risks of surgical complications include damage to the radial nerve, residual bone fragments, and hemorrhage (excessive bleeding).
Removing the claw and distal phalanx alters the structure of a cat’s feet. This altered anatomy causes the feet to touch the ground at an unnatural angle and places physical stress on the legs. The unnatural balance that declawed cats must adapt to results in weakened muscles and chronic joint pain. There is an increased risk of developing arthritic changes earlier in life and declawed cats can develop abnormal growth of severed nerves leading to recurrent painful sensations in the toes.
Declawed cats often develop behavioral problems. Litter box aversion, problem biting, and ongoing stress are common.
Litter box aversion occurs because cats experience a significant amount of pain when climbing in and out of the litter box for the first few days after surgery. They learn to associate the litter box with pain and will avoid it. As cats can no longer use their claws for marking territory, they may begin urine marking and develop inappropriate urination habits.
Cats use their claws for a variety of tasks including protection, jumping, and playing. Declawed cats can no longer comfortably exhibit normal behaviors such as jumping, self defense, or even grasping onto toys. Cats who have lost their primary means of protection may overcompensate and start problem biting. Declawed cats are often nervous, fearful, and stressed. Chronic stress can lead to a weakened immune system and ongoing medical complications.
Alternatives to declawing
Declawing is a harsh and final procedure. There are less painful ways to manage a cat’s natural scratching behavior.
Deter the behavior
The best way to deter problem scratching is to make furniture unattractive for cats. This can be achieved by covering the area in foil or double sided tape, or by using repellent sprays to make the area unpleasant.
Punishment can be successful but should be done with care. It is best to implement punishment from afar so that cats do not associate punishment with their owners. An example of a successful tactic is using a water bottle to spray the cat from a distance when scratching occurs. Punishment should be implemented immediately after the unwanted scratching behavior occurs.
Scratching is a normal behavior for cats which helps to stretch their muscles and keep their nails short. Scratching should be encouraged when it occurs in the correct scratching area such as a scratching post or cardboard log. Placing catnip or using a catnip spray around these areas can make them more attractive for cats than the furniture. Whenever a cat uses their designated scratching area, they should receive positive reinforcement in the form of treats and praise.
Regular trimming of nails helps to remove sharp tips and prevent damage caused by scratching. Consistent trimming is required, ideally every 1-2 weeks. A veterinarian can explain the components of the nail including the quick (the area that contains blood vessels) and demonstrate a proper technique. It is easy to trim the nails at home for well-behaved cats.
Acrylic nail caps are available that fit over the top of a cat’s claws and are glued in place. The adhesion of nail caps with glue is not painful. The caps will still allow cats to perform a scratching motion, but will not cause damage to furniture. The nail caps will grow out with the cat’s claws so reapplication every 4-6 weeks is required. Once the application process has been demonstrated by veterinary staff, they are simple and easy to reapply at home.
Declawing is not only removal of the claw, but a mutilation of the bones in the feet. It is a painful and unnecessary procedure that often results in long term medical and behavioral troubles. Claws are used for balance, stretching, and exercise and without them cats can develop chronic pain and exhibit ongoing stress. Scratching is a normal behavior and there are ways to control it without the need for surgery.
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