Perhaps the most controversial issue on the topic of cat care is declawing. Declawing is certainly a popular practice – it is reported that 25-43 percent of all cats in American homes are declawed – but it’s one few cat owners truly understand.
What is declawing? Declawing is not the removal of claws, as the name suggests, but a painful series of bone amputations. In animals that hunt prey, claws grow from the bone; therefore the last bone must be amputated so the claw cannot re-grow. In the process, tendons, nerves and ligaments that enable normal function and movement of the paw are severed.
Why do people do it? Pet owners typically cite protection of furniture as being foremost among the reasons for having a cat declawed, but they may not realize that the pain and other complications from surgery can cause behavioral problems that are even worse than scratching.
Is it cruel? Animal advocates strongly disapprove of declawing. They consider the practice cruel because of the pain inflicted on the cat, but also cite ample evidence showing that declawing results in increased biting and litter box avoidance. These behaviors are the most common behavioral problems cited when owners relinquish cats to shelters.
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While some veterinarians believe that they are saving cats and keeping them in their homes by agreeing to declaw, many do not discuss the potential behavioral problems and risks of surgery, and simply perform the procedure. Rarely are the veterinarians contacted or informed when the resulting behavioral issues begin. Instead, it’s the shelters and rescue organizations that see the multitude of cats returned and surrendered when they begin to bite and no longer use the litter box.
Declawed cats are difficult to re-home. When a declawed cat is aggressive and will no longer use the litter box, there are limited options for him. Placing the cat outside – not even ideal for cats with claws – is no longer an option, as declawed cats have no longer have their primary defense system. In many situations humane euthanasia is the only choice.
This is a heartbreaking decision for shelters and rescue groups, many of which have animal lovers and volunteers that invest much time and love into raising happy, healthy kittens and cats and finding them homes.
Sad but common story. Recently, the Alley Cats and Angels rescue group was contacted by a local shelter when one of our adopted cats turned up as a stray. He was picked up by a volunteer who discovered he was declawed. When the adopter was called to let him know the cat was with us, he revealed the cat had been put outside because he had stopped using the litter box.
Situations like this are heartbreaking, and we are continuing to work with this cat to resolve this behavior by carefully assessing litter and litter box preferences, providing medication to mitigate any pain from the declawing and medication to help with the behavioral problems associated with declaw surgery.
But it’s legal, right? Tolerance for declawing in the United States is unusual compared to European countries and many countries around the world where it is already illegal. Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, Norway and Germany have laws that expressly prohibit declawing.
In the United States, declawing became illegal in West Hollywood, Calif., in 2003 and has since been outlawed in seven other California cities. In 2006, the USDA added to the Federal Animal Welfare Act a regulation that prohibits the declawing of animals that are exhibited, sold or bred.
What are the alternatives? There are alternatives to declawing –and they’re easy.
▪ Despite a reputation for independence, cats can be readily trained to use scratching posts to fulfill the physical and psychological needs of scratching. A scratching post needs to be kept in the common areas of the home to meet the cat’s psychological needs, and should be at least 28-36 inches high to allow the cat to stretch to full height when scratching. Some cats prefer horizontal surfaces and many materials are available – sisal, natural wood, carpet and cardboard are common; most cats have a preference.
▪ Regular nail trimming is easy and should be started with kittens to condition them to the process. Nails can also be trimmed at the vet, and many rescues organizations, like Alley Cats and Angels, are happy to trim the nails of cats that were adopted from them at no charge.
▪ Nail caps can be glued painlessly to the cat’s claws to prevent damage and can be purchased from pet stores and through many veterinarians. Once the cat adjusts to having the nail caps on their paws, caps can last for a month or more and be easily reapplied by owners.
▪ Furniture can be protected with double-sided tape made specifically for training. When applied to furniture, the sticky tape feels funny to their paws and they learn not to use that surface anymore.
▪ Many pet owners also use spray bottles of water to deter their cats from scratching furniture and getting on counters.
Jill Walters is vice president of Alley Cats & Angels, a Raleigh-based nonprofit. The all-volunteer rescue group uses a network of foster homes to place rescued cats and kittens. More info at alleycatsandangels.org.
Key Facts on Declawing
- Declawing is a series of bone amputations, not merely the removal of claws.
- Laser declawing and tendonectomy are not humane options to declawing.
- Many declawed cats won’t use their litter boxes, as they begin to associate the box with the pain from surgery.
- Deprived of claws, their primary defense, many declawed cats become biters.
- Cats typically conceal pain or illness until it becomes unbearable. While their behavior may appear normal, it is suspected that they learn to live with the chronic pain.
- Research has shown that newly declawed cats shift their body weight backwards off the front feet and remaining toes. X ray images of declawed cats show that the altered gait persists over time causing stress on the leg joints and spine and leads to damage and arthritic changes in multiple joints over the life of the cat.
- Pain from the declaw leads many declawed cats to be less active, leading to weight problems that add to the overall pain from the amputation.
Resources on declawing
The Paw Project, whose mission is to educate the public about declawing, has put together a collection of information and resources at their website: pawproject.org.
The Humane Society has information on the dangers associated with declawing, and offers advice on how to keep cats from scratching the wrong things: humanesociety.org/animals/cats/tips/declawing.html