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Still Common in the US, yet Banned in Several Countries - Why Is This Happening?

declawing cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Declawing of cats is still legal in the U.S., and sadly, it’s still somewhat common
  • It’s important to understand that declawing is not nail removal, it’s the permanent amputation of bones in each of your cat’s toes
  • A recent study concluded that declawed cats have more pain and behavior issues than non-declawed cats
  • The study’s authors hope their results will encourage veterinarians to reconsider declawing cats
  • There are many alternatives to declawing your cat, starting with providing appropriate scratching surfaces and training kitty to use them

By Dr. Becker

I’ve written many articles here at Healthy Pets about the inhumane practice of declawing cats, a procedure called an onychectomy. The surgery has been banned in several countries, but continues to be commonly and legally performed in many others, including the U.S.

It’s Not Declawing, It’s ‘De-Toeing’

Cats use their claws for balance, exercise and stretching and toning the muscles of their legs, back, shoulders and paws. They also use them to hunt and capture prey, to escape or defend against predators and as part of their marking behavior when they live outdoors. What many people don’t realize is that declawing isn't a nail trim, or even nail removal. It's not even declawing, it's "de-toeing." The procedure removes not just the claws, but also the bones, nerves, joint capsule, collateral ligaments and the extensor or flexor tendons.

Cats are digitigrades, meaning they walk on their toes. Most other mammals, including humans, walk on the soles of their feet. Cats have three bones in each of their toes, just as we have three bones in each of our fingers — two joints and three bones. A kitty's claw actually grows out of the last bone. This is very different from human fingernails, which grow out of flesh. Since a cat's nail grows from the bone, it’s the bone that must be amputated to prevent the claw from growing back.

cat claw

The declawing procedure involves cutting between the second and third bones, and amputating the last bone that contains the claw. This severs everything in the way — nerves, tendons and blood vessels. A front-paw declaw requires 10 separate amputations. If the hind paws are also done, that's eight more separate amputations. Thankfully, hind paw declawing is much less common, but also much more painful for the cat.

Past research into the effects of declawing has primarily focused on short-term, post-operative changes. But recently, a small team of researchers from the U.S. and Canada published the results of a study to determine whether declawing increases the risk of long-term pain and unwanted behaviors in cats.1

Pain is actually very often the root cause of undesirable behaviors such as eliminating outside the litterbox and aggression, including biting. This situation is obviously harmful for the cat who’s in constant pain, and it’s risky for human family members who may be bitten. In addition, litterbox avoidance and aggression are two very common reasons pet parents give for relinquishing their cats to shelters.

63 Percent of Declawed Study Cats Had Residual Bone Fragments

For the retrospective study, the researchers looked at 137 non-declawed cats and 137 declawed cats, 33 of which were declawed on both the front and back paws. Of the 274 kitties, 176 were privately owned (88 declawed, 88 non-declawed) and 98 were shelter cats (49 declawed and 49 non-declawed).

All the cats underwent physical exams to check for signs of pain and “barbering,” which is excessive licking and/or chewing of fur. In addition, their medical records for the previous two years were reviewed for reported unwanted behaviors such as inappropriate elimination, aggression and biting with minimal provocation.

X-rays of the declawed cats were also taken to check for distal limb abnormalities, including P3 (third phalanx) bone fragments. Sadly, well over half (86 or 63 percent) of these kitties showed radiographic evidence of residual P3 fragments.

Declawed Cats Had Significantly More Pain and Behavior Issues Than Non-Declawed Cats

The research team discovered that inappropriate elimination, biting, aggression and over-grooming occurred much more often in the declawed than the non-declawed kitties. The declawed cats had seven times the litterbox issues, four times the biting behavior and three times the aggressive and over-grooming behaviors as their non-declawed counterparts.

The declawed kitties also had almost three times the back pain of the non-declawed cats, which the researchers theorized could be the result of altered gait due to the shortening of the declawed limbs, and/or persistent pain at the surgery site, which causes compensatory weight shift to the pelvic limbs.

When an onychectomy is performed, the veterinarian is supposed to remove the entire third phalanx (P3) bone per the surgical guidelines set forth by the Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons. The fact that 86 of the 137 declawed cats were walking around with P3 bone fragments means a significant number of vets aren’t performing declawing procedures up to standard.

These cats had even more back pain and undesirable behaviors than the remaining declawed cats, but the researchers also make the point that even when onychectomy is performed to standard, it doesn’t eliminate the risks. Residual pain in the declawed toes prompts many cats to look for soft surfaces rather than litter for purposes of elimination.

The researchers also explained that painful declawed cats may resort to biting when touched because their first line of defense, their claws, has been taken from them. Lead study author Nicole Martell-Moran, a veterinarian at a cat-only clinic in Houston, told EurekAlert:

“The result of this research reinforces my opinion that declawed cats with unwanted behaviors may not be ‘bad cats,’ they may simply need pain management. We now have scientific evidence that declawing is more detrimental to our feline patients than we originally thought and I hope this study becomes one of many that will lead veterinarians to reconsider declawing cats.”2

5 Ways to Minimize Cat Claw Damage Around Your Home

Scratching is a normal behavior for your cat. It conditions and sharpens his claws, allows him to get in a good back 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. To avoid the damage those sharp little claws can do to both you and your belongings:

1. Supply your cat with appropriate scratching surfaces. Kitties vary in the way they scratch and the surfaces they prefer. Observe your cat’s scratching behavior and try to match your scratcher purchase to it.

Some kitties scratch horizontally. Some reach high overhead vertically for a good backstretch. Some lie on their backs and scratch a surface above them. Also observe what types of surface your cat prefers to scratch. Some cats prefer soft fabric while others like wood flooring.

If possible, buy or make cat scratchers that will satisfy both your kitty's preferred scratching position and surface. This might involve more than one scratcher design.

Your kitty's scratchers must be placed where they'll be used. Clawing is in part a marking behavior for your cat, so she'll probably return to the same place to scratch. Sticking the scratchers in out-of-the-way spots your cat doesn't frequent is unlikely to encourage her to use them.

Once you've got your scratchers in position, encourage kitty to explore the scratcher using a lure like a feather toy or a toy with some organic catnip rubbed on it. 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 plenty of positive reinforcement.

2. Trim your cat's nails weekly or at least every couple of weeks.

3. Protect any off-limits areas your cat is scratching. Use a combination of kitty scratching deterrents, including aluminum foil, double-sided tape, plastic sheeting, plastic carpet runners or car 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.

4. Use herbal sprays 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. I use citrus essential oils on the corners of my couch to deter scratching.

5. 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.