Recently, a pretty gray cat named Trinity underwent surgery to repair her paws. At only 6 years old, she limped when she walked and could barely put weight on her front right foot. According to Facebook updates from Cats Cradle, the shelter in Fargo, ND, which rescued her, she was “suffering terribly.”
The reason for this young cat’s pain? A botched declaw surgery.
The veterinarian who treated Trinity said she was one of the worst cases he had seen in the three years he’s been repairing botched declaws. Once she recovers from her corrective surgery, Trinity will be flat-footed, but she will be able to walk on all fours. Most important, she will no longer be in pain.
But all of her suffering could have been avoided had she not been declawed in the first place.
Despite its many risks, countless veterinarians still consider declawing a routine procedure, and it is sometimes even offered as a package deal with a spay or neuter. But outcomes like Trinity’s are more common than a lot of people think. That’s why the Paw Project, a Santa Monica nonprofit, has been repairing cats’ paws and advocating against declawing for more than 12 years.
According to the Paw Project’s founder, Jennifer Conrad, DVM, the group’s ultimate goal is to abolish declawing in the United States. This may seem extreme, but declawing is already banned in more than 20 countries, including most of western Europe and Australia, and neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the National Institutes of Health recommends it. And considering the ill effects the common procedure has on the lives of so many cats, it makes even more sense to do away with it.
The Paw Project website lists complications resulting from the practice, including permanent lameness, arthritis, difficulty walking due to displaced bone fragments, regrowth of the claw deep within the foot, and, “in more severe and particularly heartbreaking cases,” excruciating pain, which forces the animal to walk on its elbows.
And declawing is not only limited to domestic cats — Conrad’s first paw-repair patient was a 550-pound tiger.
“I was taking care of probably 40 big cats who had been declawed, and all of them had varying problems of lameness,” Conrad says. “I thought, I can’t let them suffer like this. I bet there’s something that can be done. “
Conrad researched methods that have been used to treat injured Greyhounds and humans who suffer from loss of sensation in their extremities. Then she teamed up with veterinarian surgeon Kirk Wendelburg. With their combined expertise, they developed a procedure that involves removing any bone fragments before attaching the digital flexor (which allows you to curl your fingers into your palm) to the digital extensor tendon (which allows you to hold your hand flat and straight). Ultimately, the cats are left with shorter toes, but their paws can once again support their body weight.
When that first tiger woke up from surgery, Conrad was amazed with the results. “What was remarkable was the cat stood up after surgery like a regular cat, whereas before he had been slumping down and flat-pawed,” she says. “It became something that I wanted to do for any cat I knew of who had problems with their feet.”
But the problems associated with declawing are not merely physical. Many people declaw their cats to prevent scratching and protect furniture, children, or individuals who are immunocompromised, but according to Conrad, common behavioral problems associated with declawing negate any desired benefits. For example, cats claw furniture primarily to mark their territory, so when they are robbed of this option, they are more likely to pee and poop outside the litter box. They also might stop using the box because it is painful.
“They’re going to trade scratching for peeing or pooping all over the house, which I think is really not a good trade,” Conrad says.
Additionally, having been robbed of their primary defense, declawed cats are more likely to bite, which is even more dangerous for babies or immunocompromised individuals. As a result of these behavioral problems, declawed cats are twice as likely as clawed cats to be relinquished to shelters.
“Cats already have a hard time at the shelter, but if they’re declawed, they have an even harder time,” Conrad says.
Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives to declawing that can keep cats from destroying the furniture or scratching the baby. Conrad recommends getting a scratching post made of a material the cat likes, which might take some trial and error, and placing that scratching post in a prominent location in the house.
“It can’t be in the garage next to the dryer, because the cat is using it to mark territory,” Conrad says. “So if it’s next to the dryer, and nobody goes there, it’s not going to be used like if it’s in the center of the living room next to the TV. That’s why they like the couches — because that’s where everybody is all the time.”
She also recommends trimming cats’ nails and using treats as a reward, or trying Soft Paws, which are vinyl sheaths that cover the claws.
Conrad believes the key to stopping declawing is education, thinking that people would not want to do it if they were adequately informed about declawing, that “it is an amputation of that last bone in the cat’s paw, and not just a fancy manicure.”
In order to continue to spread the truth about declawing and hopefully to get other states to consider anti-declawing legislation similar to California’s, which makes it illegal for a landlord to require declawing or debarking as a condition of tenancy, The Paw Project documentary will be released later this year. The film chronicles the Paw Project’s journey and shares the stories of the big and domestic cats it has helped, as well as its struggles against veterinary associations and practitioners who still recommend the surgery.
“I’m hoping the documentary makes people realize there is no good reason to declaw a cat,” Conrad says. “People love their cats, and they wouldn’t do it if they knew what it was. It’s just a matter of education.”
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