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7 Things You Should Know Before You Declaw Your Cat

Cat declawing is controversial -- rightfully so. This "just the facts" guide will help you understand it.

 |  Sep 27th 2012  |   59 Contributions


Declawing is the subject of a justifiably passionate debate -- and there's a lot of shaming and personal attacks against people who have chosen to have their cats declawed. Personally, I am against declawing, but I know there are plenty of people who would consider this surgery for any number of reasons, perhaps without thinking through what's involved. Here's an explanation of declaw surgery, minus the gore and hyperbole you see on some anti-declawing pages.

Scratching is a natural behavior that allows the cat to stretch, mark territory, and groom the claws. Kitten scratching on tree branch by Shutterstock

1. Cats’ claws are not like our fingernails

Our fingernails are attached to the flesh of our fingers, but cats’ claws are actually part of the distal phalanx, the last bone of the toe. In order to remove the claws, the veterinarian has to amputate that whole bone.

2. There are two types of declaw surgeries

Traditional declawing involves using a scalpel or a clipper to remove the part of the bone that contains the claw. Laser declawing allows the veterinarian to remove the entire bone from the socket. Laser declawing produces less bleeding, and for cats that are young and not overweight, it seems that laser declawing produces less pain than the traditional method.

In declawing, the last digit of each toe is amputated. Declawing graphic (CC-BY-3.0) by Turn685 via Wikimedia Commons

A surgical alternative to declawing is a tendonectomy. Instead of removing the bones, the tendons on the underside of the paw are cut. This causes the claws to stay retracted in the paws. If a cat has a tendonectomy, the claws will still need to be trimmed regularly.

3. Postoperative care can be complex

Declawed cats need to wear bandages on their paws until the incisions heal. You’ll need to limit your cat's exercise for about one month after the surgery, and replace your cat litter with shredded newspaper to prevent litter granules from getting embedded in the healing tissue. Your veterinarian may provide you with pain medication to help your cat during his recovery. If you notice swollen paws, bleeding, reluctance to walk, or changes in behavior and appetite, contact your vet right away.

4. It has potential complications

Because cats walk on the tips of their toes, declawing changes the way the cat’s body works. Leg and back muscles can weaken over time and can potentially lead to back and joint pain. Other complications can include nerve damage, bone chips that prevent healing, postoperative hemorrhage, and, if the amputations are done improperly, regrowth of the claws inside the paw pads.

5. Many vets recommend trying other alternatives first

Because declawing is usually done to prevent or respond to destructive scratching, experts recommend redirecting your cat’s natural scratching behavior to acceptable alternatives. Even vets who do declaw surgeries often advise clients that it should be a procedure of last resort. Scratching posts, regular nail trims, making your furniture unattractive by using deterrents, and vinyl nail caps can help.

A declawed cat may experience behavior changes such as increased anxiety or aggression. Scared cat by Shutterstock

6. It can cause behavior problems

After being declawed, your cat may experience increased aggressiveness -- without her claws, she may bite when she feels cornered. And the pain associated with the procedure may result in urinating and defecating outside the litter box. She may also become more anxious and shy. On the other hand, I know declawed cats whose personalities are just fine and who don’t have any of these problems.

7. Sometimes it really is necessary

Declawing is not always a black-and-white issue. For example, one of my friends adopted a kitten that had about eight toes on each of her front feet. Several of those toes never touched the ground, but they did have claws that grew around and back into her paw pads. Her vet, who was passionately against declawing, recommended that the extra claws be removed because they would cause ongoing problems. In this case, it was in the cat’s best interest.

Have you had any experiences with declawing or living with declawed cats? Please share in the comments!

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