Take one look at my hands and forearms, and it’s no secret that I worked with cats for a very long time. A peril of working as a veterinary nurse is an upset cat’s claws when she’s in for a checkup. I’ve assisted in hundreds of declaw procedures, also known as onychectomy, over 15 years, but I made a personal choice not to declaw my own kitty, Mardie (much to the dismay of my couch).
The majority of pet owners I’ve encountered in my career support declawing (the Associated Press says 60 percent). However, now the scales seem to be tipping in the other direction.
In January 2015, New York State Assembly Bill 1297 was introduced to committee calling for a statewide ban of onychectomies except when the procedures are medically necessary; for example, because of an injury or illness. Hawaii has a similar bill in committee, too, and in California certain municipalities have succeeded in banning the procedure. As the discussion about declawing continues in the United States, legislation could have significant implications for cat owners and veterinarians, so I called Ben Brown, DVM, who owns a small-animal mobile practice in the Salt Lake City area, to get his take on this hot-button issue.
Educating Owners About Cat Declawing
In Brown’s experience, many people aren’t opposed to the procedure until they learn what’s actually involved.
“Declawing involves amputation of the 3rd phalanx — last bone and nail — from each digit,” Brown explains. “After removal of the bone and nail, the surgical site is either sutured or a skin adhesive is used to close each incision. This procedure is done with a scalpel blade, a surgical laser or other methods with the patient under general anesthesia.”
The term “amputation” is significant, because in 2014 the American Veterinary Medical Association amended its position statement on declawing to clarify declaw procedures as amputations. Many pet owners worry about recovery from such an invasive procedure.
“Recovery time is widely variable, depending on several factors,” Brown says. “Age, immune-system status, concurrent infection, surgical technique, self-trauma and improper post-operative care can all play a role. With proper care and barring complications, most cats can heal within approximately two to four weeks.”
Cat Life After Declawing
Brown also stresses that effective pain control is key to a cat’s healing process. On a scale of mild, moderate or severe pain, onychectomy is categorized as severe (compared to a neuter, which is mild, for example) by veterinary professionals.
A cat’s quality of life is also of concern once her claws have been removed.
“After declawing, a cat should not be allowed to venture outside at all,” Brown says. “The claws provide protection from other cats and outdoor dangers, so it is unwise to send a declawed cat out into potential danger without adequate protection. Considering that a declaw is an elective procedure, many people feel that the pain, risk of anesthesia/surgical complications, and lifestyle changes are not worthwhile and decrease quality of a cat’s life.”
Cat Declawing Pros And Cons
The AVMA places a large burden on veterinarians to educate pet owners about the pros and cons of declawing, and for pet owners to exhaust alternatives before electing for the surgery. It notes that scratching behavior is normal for cats, and contributes to their well-being. Brown says that many people still choose the surgery.
“Some owners elect to have their cats declawed to protect furniture by preventing scratching,” Brown says. “Others seem to request this procedure based on previous experience or tradition.”
In his experience, owners who object to declawing cats often express that they consider the procedure unnecessary and cruel.
“These are typically owners who have found alternative methods to preventing scratching of furniture,” he says.
Alternatives To Declawing
There are several great alternatives to declawing. Here are the most common suggestions Brown offers:
1. Artificial nail caps. “These can be used to cover the nails and prevent the nails from contacting the scratched surface directly,” Brown suggests.
2. Routine nail clipping. “Nail trimming can also be used as a method to prevent furniture damage.” Brown says. “Nails cannot do as much damage if they are not sharp.”
3. Provide multiple acceptable scratching options. “Make sure you offer acceptable scratching posts or boards in many different areas of the house — this is a great way to direct scratching to desired areas,” Brown says. Also be sure to have several scratching posts or surfaces for each cat.
Brown reports that these days he has very few requests for declawing cats or kittens in his practice.
“I find it important to discuss alternative options with my clients,” he says, “and find that many clients consider declawing unnecessary after exploring some of the alternatives.