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Stop! Read This Before Declawing Your Kitty

In a move designed to stem the rising tide of legislation passed by individual California cities outlawing medical procedures the state views as legal, the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) sponsored SB 762, which took effect on January 1, 2010.

Specifically, SB 762 makes it illegal for local jurisdictions within the state “to prohibit a healing arts licensee from engaging in any act or performing any procedure that falls within the professionally recognized scope of practice of that licensee.”

According to the CVMA, the bill is designed “to ensure that approved medical procedures performed by all licensed health care practitioners, including physicians, dentists, and veterinarians, are consistent throughout the state of California.”

Although the scope of the bill is somewhat broad, the immediate purpose behind it was to halt city-by-city bans on declawing of domesticated cats.

The CVMA’s position:

“Veterinarians must be allowed to make qualified medical decisions in consultation with their clients and upon a proper exam and understanding of the pet’s home environment. This is the only way to provide the best course of treatment and assist the owner in making the best decision for their family pet.

That may include removing a cat’s claws in a humane manner with proper pain management to prevent that animal from being abandoned at a shelter, tossed out on the street or euthanized. Several cities have now criminalized appropriate medical treatment; an action that will end with the enactment of SB 762.”

Dr. Becker's Comments:

In a perfect world, every kitty would instinctively know which surfaces to scratch, and which are off limits.

In a perfect world, cat owners (or people owned by cats, depending on your viewpoint) could easily train their felines to sharpen their claws “here” but not “there.”

In this not so perfect world we inhabit, where humans share living space with animals not designed by nature to treat expensive furniture, drapes or carpet any different than outdoor surfaces, accommodations must be made so man and beast can live together in harmony.

The Controversy

Declawing of domesticated cats is a hotly debated topic here in the U.S. and in other countries as well.

A procedure once thought by cat owners to be simple, painless and without negative consequences, is now widely criticized as an unnecessary and cruel mutilation that undermines the quality of a cat’s life.

As is the case with any polarizing subject that generates extreme opinions on both sides of the argument, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Scratching to a Cat is as Natural as Breathing

Scratching is a normal behavior for your cat. It conditions and sharpens his claws, allows him to get in a good stretch, and it’s also how he marks his territory -- which is why cats return to the same place again and again to do their scratching.

Since scratching is a natural instinct, if you haven’t provided your cat with his own scratching surface and convinced him to use it, telling him “no” will not put a stop to the damage he’s doing to your couch.

If you’ve just adopted a very young kitten (under about eight weeks of age) or are planning to, don’t make the mistake of waiting to see if he’s a scratcher. He is! Forewarned is forearmed -- get your living space set up ahead of time so you’re ready the first time your kitty extends his claws.

Whether you hope to train an older cat or a kitten to use an appropriate scratching surface, prepare to make an investment of time and patience.

How to Convince Your Kitty to Use a Scratching Post

Invest in or build a good quality scratching post or climbing tree, one that is heavy and very stable. Depending on its size, your cat should be able to run up and down it, jump on and off it, sit or lie on it, and pull on it without causing it to tip, move, or even wobble. Any amount of movement of the tree, especially when your cat is first getting used to it, could scare her away for good.

If your floors are carpeted, choose a post covered with a different texture carpet than what’s on your floor, so your cat can easily distinguish between the two surfaces.

Another option is to buy a post covered with sisal, a rough-textured material made of rope that cats like to dig their claws into. A third alternative is to cover the post in a fabric that provides resistance as your kitty pulls down on it.

Make sure you place the post or climbing tree in the area where your cat is most likely to use it. Depending on whether your kitty is sociable or shy, that could be your busy family room or a quiet corner of a spare bedroom.

If you’re training an older cat that is already scratching a surface in your home, his territory has been “marked.” In this case, you’ll want to put the post close to the surface he’s begun scratching.

Cover the surface you want to protect with deterrents (more about that shortly) and reward your kitty for switching to the post. Once he’s using the post, you can move it a few inches at a time over several days to a location you prefer.

Once you’ve got your post or climbing tree ready to go, encourage your cat to explore it using a cat toy or some catnip rubbed on it as an enticement. Offer praise and treats each time she uses the post and especially when she digs her claws into it.

Pet her while she’s using the post, and give her any other kinds of positive reinforcement she responds to. The idea is to make it an appealing experience each time she uses her post or tree.

Preventing Destruction of Your Valuable Belongings

Especially if you’re retraining a cat that is already scratching around your house, you’ll need to make the surfaces you want to protect unattractive to him.

Depending on what surface you want to protect, consider using some or a combination of the following kitty scratching deterrents:

  • Aluminum foil
  • Double-sided tape (your kitty cannot stand the feel of sticky tape on his paws)
  • Plastic sheeting
  • Plastic carpet runners, car or chair mats with the spiky sides up

If you’re covering surfaces you need to use frequently, like furniture, you can attach the foil, tape or plastic to pieces of cardboard and easily move them in and out of position.

You can also buy an herbal spray deterrent that, when applied to your furniture or other surfaces your cat likes to scratch, will replace his territory scent markers with an odor that will discourage him from returning. If you catch your kitty scratching anything other than her post, take the following steps:

  1. Hold your temper
  2. Stay out of sight of your cat
  3. Squirt her with water from a spray bottle

You want her to associate scratching that patch of carpet or couch corner with the unpleasant sensation of the spray of water. You don’t want her to connect you with the water, because that will only encourage her to scratch when she thinks you’re not around.

Another trick you can try is to blow a whistle or make some other loud, startling noise from around the corner or another room when you catch your cat scratching where he shouldn’t.

If your kitty is scratching when no one’s home, you can inflate balloons and attach them to the surfaces you want to protect. The presence of the balloons may be enough to deter your cat. If not, he’ll likely get the message the first time he pops a balloon with his claws.

Clipping or Covering Your Cat’s Claws

Clipping the tips of your cat’s front claws once or twice a month will make them less destructive when she scratches.

It’s best to get your cat used to having her paws handled while she’s still a kitten, but no matter your cat’s age, start the process by simply stroking your kitty’s paws regularly to desensitize her. I strongly recommend incorporating paw massages into your daily routine to keep your cat feeling comfortable about nail trims.

Purchase a set of claw trimmers from your veterinarian or a pet supply store, or just use a regular sharp (human) nail clipper. Small mammal (guinea pig) nail trimmers can be used with kittens and small cats. Do the following:

  • With your cat in a calm, relaxed mood, take one of her paws and gently press a toe pad to extend the claw. You’ll see the nail on the end (clear or white) attached to pink tissue called the quick (which contains the nail’s blood supply). Cutting into the quick will cause pain and bleeding, so you want to avoid this area of the claw.
  • Holding the clipper in a vertical position, cut each nail about halfway between the sharp tip and the point where the quick begins. Avoid cutting at a right angle across the nail, as this may cause splitting.
  • If you do happen to cut into the quick, don’t panic. Just focus on soothing and reassuring your kitty. Any bleeding should stop on its own very quickly with a little pressure or you can also use Kwit Stop styptic powder.
  • If your cat is fearful, impatient or uncooperative, try trimming just a nail or two each time. You’ll get to them all eventually.

If you want to take the trimming one step further, there’s a product available called Soft Paws. These are nail caps you can glue over your kitty’s trimmed tips, virtually eliminating the damage she can do when she scratches. Drawbacks are they are tricky to apply, have a tendency to fall off or be pulled off by your kitty, and need to be replaced frequently.

The Decision to Declaw

The decision to have your cat declawed should never be taken lightly. It should always be a measure of last resort to eliminate destructive scratching (of belongings, humans and/or other household pets), and should be arrived at only after careful consideration of all the facts.

Your veterinarian’s view of declawing should complement your own. If your vet sees declawing as “no big deal” or worse yet, promotes or markets the procedure as a pre-emptive move, I recommend you find another vet.

Surgery of any kind carries inherent risks. And removing something nature supplied, whether it’s an internal organ or an external appendage like a dog’s tail or a cat’s claws, has an effect, however subtle.

Declawing, also known as onychectomy, involves the amputation, either by scalpel or laser, of a digit on each of a cat’s front toes. The procedure is often compared to cutting off a person’s fingertip at the first joint (knuckle). The skin is then pulled over the exposed joint and fixed in place with either glue or stitches.

An alternative procedure is to sever the tendons that allow the cat to extend his claws. With this method, the claws continue to grow and must be kept trimmed to prevent them from penetrating the skin and pads of the cat’s feet, which can cause pain and become infected.

Opponents cite as some of the reasons not to declaw, the pain of the procedure, the risk of infection and the possibility of long-term consequences such as lameness, back and shoulder problems, litter box aversion and depression.

The results of surveys of cat owners who opted to declaw their pets, however, point to an overall high level of satisfaction in the outcome. Current surgical techniques and modern anesthetic and pain medications have greatly reduced the pain and discomfort associated with cat declawing.

If you choose to declaw your cat, follow your vet’s aftercare instructions very carefully, including switching to shredded newspaper in the litter box until your kitty’s paws are completely healed.

After the procedure, you will have a special responsibility to your cat for the rest of your lives together to ensure she’s never in a situation where she needs her claws to protect or defend herself.

Living indoors is safer for all cats, but it’s critically important for a declawed one. A cat without claws is in grave danger outdoors.

The Lesser of Two Evils

Cats are banished to the outdoors, abandoned or relinquished to shelters most often for behavioral reasons, among them, destructive scratching.

The number of cats turned in to shelters is escalating. Over half the cats in animal shelters never find a new home and are euthanized.

I agree with Gail Golab, AVMA director of animal welfare, who says, “I don’t think there’s any comparison between cats enjoying a life in a household and putting them in a shelter to avoid declawing.”i

I hope you never face a situation in which your only choice is to declaw your cat or drop him off at a shelter. But if you do, please choose your cat over his claws. With appropriate trimming and training, I believe declawing can and should become a thing of the past.


1Cat Owners Face Declawing Dilemma

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