The Regina Humane Society (RHS) is opposed to the declawing (onychectomy) of cats for routine purposes. Surgical amputation of the last digit of the paw holding the nail is extremely painful. Because of the discomfort associated with this surgery and the potential for future negative behavioral or physical effects, the RHS does not support declawing in lieu of alternative solutions to prevent unwanted scratching behavior. The RHS believes that declawing cats should only be performed when medically necessary or as a last resort when all alternatives have been exhausted.
The RHS strongly endorses the necessity for education regarding this procedure and the potential for negative consequences, as well as tools and techniques available to prevent and minimize behavioral problems so the procedure may be avoided.
Declawing is an elective and ethically controversial procedure, which is not medically necessary for cats in most instances. Declawing involves the amputation of the third phalanx of each digit. This is a painful procedure and maintains the potential for short and long term pain and lameness following the procedure.
Declawing is not merely the removal of the claws, as the term “declawing” implies. In humans, fingernails grow from the skin, but in animals that hunt prey, the claws grow from the bone; therefore, the last bone is amputated so the claw cannot re-grow. The last bone of each of the ten front toes of a cat’s paw is amputated. Also, the tendons, nerves, and ligaments that enable normal function and movement of the paw are severed. An analogous procedure applied to humans would be cutting off each finger at the last joint.
Medical drawbacks to declawing include pain in the paw, infection, tissue necrosis (tissue death), permanent or temporary lameness, and back pain. Removing claws changes the way a cat’s foot meets the ground and can cause pain similar to wearing an uncomfortable pair of shoes. There can also be a regrowth of improperly removed claws, nerve damage, and bone spurs.
Psychological and behavioral implications to this procedure can be long-lasting. Some cats are so traumatized by declawing that their personalities change. Cats that were once lively and friendly may become withdrawn and introverted after declawing. Others, because they are deprived of their primary means of defense, become nervous, fearful, and/or aggressive and will resort to their only means of defense, their teeth. The constant state of stress caused by the feelings of defenselessness may make some cats more prone to disease. Stress often leads to physical and psychological disorders including the suppression of the immune system, cystitis and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Sometimes when declawed cats use the litter box after surgery, their feet are so tender that they associate the new pain with the litter box. They may permanently make this association which can result in a life-long aversion to the litter box. Other cats, because they cannot mark with their claws will mark with urine. This may result in inappropriate elimination problems that can further result in the relinquishment of the cat to a shelter and subsequent euthanasia. Many declawed cats become so traumatized by such a painful mutilation that they spend their days perched on doors or refrigerators, out of reach of real and imaginary predators who they no longer have any defenses against.
It’s important to understand that scratching is a normal feline behavior. It is a means for cats to mark their territory both visually and with scent. Scratching also assists with nail conditioning, whole body stretching and maintenance of necessary claw motion used in hunting, climbing and defense. A cat’s primary means of defense is their claws. Non-declawed cats will use their front paw claws to stave off a threat by swiping. Without these claws, declawed cats have to resort to biting to protect themselves.
There is a wide variety of approaches available to help minimize unwanted scratching, including scratching posts, artificial nail caps, regular nail trimming, calming pheromones and appropriate environmental enrichment. Providing acceptable (to the cat) scratching surfaces and areas may require some trial and error. Various methods can be employed to make unacceptable scratching surfaces more undesirable to the cat. Minimizing rough play and cat proofing certain areas may also help. If the behavior is anxiety driven; it is important to determine the root cause. Most cats are sensitive to changes in the home or routine. In all of these cases, education is required to assist people in becoming familiar with techniques to positively reinforce desirable behaviors and minimize unwanted scratching behaviors.
Declawing for routine purposes is strongly discouraged by both the American Veterinary Association (AVMA) and the Canadian Veterinary Association (CVMA). This procedure is either banned or considered extremely inhumane and only performed under extreme circumstances in almost 30 countries worldwide, and many US cities.
References and Resources:
- Patronek GJ. Assessment of claims of short- and long-term complications associated with onychectomy in cats. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Assoc 2001;219:932-937.