Declawing: Harmless Procedure to Owners, But Severe Torture to Cats


Story at-a-glance

  • For many years, declawing was considered a routine procedure that was neither painful nor harmful for cats. In fact, many well-meaning cat owners and veterinarians viewed declawing as nothing more than a permanent nail trim.
  • Today, however, a growing number of vets, pet owners and other animal advocates are working to help the general public understand what declawing, or onychectomy, really involves and how it can negatively affect a cat’s life. The procedure is against the law in many countries outside the U.S.
  • Declawing is more accurately described as “de-toeing.” It isn’t a nail trim – it’s an amputation. And the pain to the cat is categorized as “severe,” surpassing the pain of neutering and even spaying.
  • What most cat lovers don’t realize is that the majority of declawed cats have at least one complication resulting from the surgery, and over a third develop behavior problems afterwards.
  • There are many steps cat owners can take to prevent inappropriate clawing, including providing kitties with approved scratching surfaces, and using safe, effective deterrents to redirect cats away from inappropriate surfaces.

By Dr. Becker

For decades, declawing, or onychectomy of cats was almost as routine as spaying or neutering. The term “declawing” sounds nonthreatening, and most well-intentioned cat owners believed the procedure was a permanent nail trim.

Fortunately, a growing number of veterinarians, pet owners and cat advocates are working to educate the public about what declawing really involves.

It’s Not Declawing – It’s 'De-toeing'

Denver veterinarian Aubrey Lavizzo, who is leading an effort to make the procedure illegal in Colorado, tells the Denver Post, “They should call it ‘de-toeing,’ because that’s really what it is – an amputation of the third phalanx.”

According to Dr. Lavizzo, who like so many veterinarians has performed declawing procedures at the insistence of cat-owning clients:

"As veterinarians, we take an oath that we will use our knowledge and skills to benefit society through the relief of pain in our animal clients. When you talk about pain in cats, it's classified as mild, moderate and severe. Mild is a neuter. Moderate is a spay. And severe is a declaw."

Since the majority of pet owners believe declawing is a harmless, acceptable procedure, opinions like Lavizzo’s are often not well received. It’s estimated that 20 to 25 percent of pet cats in the U.S. have been declawed.

According to Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, another Colorado veterinarian:

“Today, if declawing a cat is the only way I can save that animal from being put to sleep, then I’ll declaw it. But veterinarians really struggle with this. It’s gut-wrenching.”

According the Denver Post, both the ASPCA and the Cat Fanciers Association oppose declawing. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) takes the position that declawing should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively or when its clawing presents a zoonotic risk for its owner(s).

80 Percent of Declawed Cats Develop Complications

Onychectomy is illegal in Australia, Brazil, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Slovenia and most of the European Union. However, it remains legal in most of the U.S.

The procedure was banned in West Hollywood a decade ago after Jennifer Conrad, an exotic animal veterinarian, developed a surgery that lessens the effects or reverses declawing and tendonectomies in lions, tigers and other big cats. Conrad was also instrumental in the USDA’s 2006 ban on declawing wild and exotic animals cared for by USDA-licensed owners.

To date, no procedure exists that can remedy a bungled declaw of a pet cat. Advocates of outlawing onychectomy for house cats believe they suffer the same pain as their wild cousins.

The feline claw grows right out of the bone. During declawing, it’s common for the practitioner to miss a tiny piece of bone that subsequently grows back as a partial nail or bone fragment. The missed piece can continue to grow either under the skin, pressing into tissue and nerves, or it can grow right through the skin.

Dr. Lavizzo is conducting a study of declawed cats to record bone fragments and bone spurs left behind after declawing procedures. He believes the pain caused by those missed pieces of bone may result in behavior changes like biting and eliminating outside the litter box. "We always see the same thing, because it's so hard to do this procedure perfectly," Lavizzo said. "You can't predict a successful outcome, and if you can't predict a successful outcome, then you shouldn't do the procedure."

It is estimated the vast majority (80 percent) of declawed cats have at least one complication resulting from the surgery, and over a third develop behavior problems after undergoing the procedure.

Alternatives to Declawing

The humane solution to unwanted clawing and scratching is to provide sensible, appealing options for your cat. Felines have claws for a reason, and as long as they have them, they'll use them. Just as most humans need to trim their nails weekly, it may be necessary to trim your cat's nails weekly or at least every couple of weeks.

In addition to regular nail trims, I also recommend cat owners provide at least two different scratching surfaces, including a tall, sturdy scratching post and a horizontal scratching mat. My cats prefer floor mats, as well as a log I drug in from outside. They also love a cardboard paper scratcher I bought for them.

In addition to providing your kitty with appropriate surfaces to scratch, you must also take steps to protect any off-limits areas your cat is scratching. Depending on what surfaces you want to protect, consider using one or a combination of kitty scratching deterrents, including aluminum foil, double-sided tape, plastic sheeting, plastic carpet runners, car or chair mats with the spiky sides up, or inflated balloons.  

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.

There are also herbal sprays available that are designed to replace your pet's paw pad scent markers on furniture or other surfaces with an odor that will discourage him from returning to that spot.

If you're still seeing your cat scratch inappropriate surfaces, try associating an unpleasant sensation or sound to the event. As long as she can't see the person behind the bottle, spray her with water when you catch her in the act. You can also make a loud, startling sound from around the corner or behind the wall. The goal is to connect scratching in the wrong place with an unpleasant consequence like a spray of water or the noise of a whistle, for example.

What you don't want is to have your pet make a connection between you and the unpleasant consequence, because she'll come to believe it's safe to scratch when you're not around.

You can also consider covering your cat's nails with a commercially available nail cap, which will protect both you and your belongings from kitty's sharp claws.


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