For cats, scratching is an instinctual activity. It helps them sharpen and condition their claws, as well as mark their territory. But when your purring pet chooses to mark your carpet and furniture, the resulting frustration may interfere with your bond. To remedy the situation, some pet parents choose to have their cats declawed.
The procedure known as “declawing” is technically a partial digit amputation, during which the first joint of each toe is actually amputated. It is a very painful procedure with significant recovery periods and potential for post-operative complications. Declawing is not a routine surgery and should never be done as a preventative.
Declawing is a controversial subject, and the procedure is illegal in most of Europe, parts of Asia and in several U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica. The American Veterinary Medical Association discourages declawing unless all other options to discourage scratching have been truly exhausted. Some adoption agencies will not adopt a cat to a person who intends to have her declawed.
Throughout the United States, declawing is often performed along with spay and neuter procedures, when cats are between four and six months old, before proper training to discourage scratching has taken place. Declawed cats should remain hospitalized for several days after surgery to receive appropriate pain medications and have surgery sites monitored. At Animal General we require hospitalization before surgery in order to start IV pain management. Once the cat is ready to go home, she will need additional pain medications, special litter, and weeks of restricted activity.
What are the potential complications of declawing?
- Post-surgical complications: Lameness, abscesses, and claw regrowth can occur days or weeks or many years after surgery.
- Pain: It is impossible to know how much chronic pain and suffering declawing causes. However, we can look at similar procedures in people. Almost all human amputees report “phantom” sensations from the amputated part, ranging from merely strange to extremely painful. Because declawing involves ten separate amputations, it is virtually certain that all declawed cats experience phantom pain in one or more toes.
- Joint stiffness: In declawed (and tenectomized) cats, the tendons that control the toe joints retract after the surgery, and over time these joints become essentially “frozen.” The toes can no longer be extended, but remain fully contracted for the lifetime of the cat.
- Arthritis: Researchers have shown that, in the immediate post-operative period, newly declawed cats shift their body weight backward onto the large central pad of the front feet and off the toes. This effect was significant even when strong pain medication was given, and remained apparent for the duration of the study (up to 40 hours after surgery). If this altered gait persists over time, it would cause stress on the leg joints and spine, and could lead to damage and arthritic changes in multiple joints.
- Litterbox problems: Experts say that declawed cats have more litterbox problems than clawed cats. Not many people would choose urine-soaked carpeting (or floorboards, sofa cushions, drywall, bedding or mattresses) over scratch marks, but this is a distressingly common outcome. In one survey, 95% of calls about declawed cats related to litterbox problems, while only 46% of clawed cats had such problems — and most of those were older cats, many with physical ailments that accounted for the behavior.
- Biting: Some experts believe that naturally aggressive cats who are declawed are likely to become biters.
Luckily, you can avoid putting your cat through a painful procedure but still nix his itch to scratch:
- Clip kitty’s claws. The easiest (and most inexpensive) option is to keep your cat’s claws short. Trimming every other week won’t prevent scratching behaviors, but it will minimize the damage done to your home. Animal General offers free nail trims to current patients on Wednesdays from 2-4 p.m. Just call that morning to let us know you are coming.
- Consider covers. Soft Paws® are plastic nail caps that are designed to fit over each nail, covering their sharp points and preventing damage. They will need to be reapplied every 4 to 6 weeks. They can be put on at home, but many pet parents choose to have their veterinarian apply them.
- Tricks for training. Teach your cat to distinguish “good” scratch surfaces from the family furniture. Provide BOTH vertical and horizontal surfaces like scratching posts and corrugated cardboard scratchers, then entice your cat with catnip. Be sure the vertical scratchers are made with sisal rope, not carpet, and are tall enough for the adult cat to stretch his entire body length. Reward appropriate behavior with treats. Use Sticky Paws® or double-sided tap to cover inappropriate items.
If your cat can’t seem to stop scratching, please talk to your vet. You may find trimming and training are the right solutions, rather than surgery.