Whether or not to declaw your cat is a hotly debated topic. People can be very passionate about how they feel about declawing. Some cities, states, and and even countries have banned it. While it's a nuanced topic, here are the pros, cons, and other alternatives to declawing your cat.
What Is Cat Declawing?
Declawing is an elective procedure in which the distal phalanx (the end of the digit) is removed from a cat’s paw. Some people choose to have this procedure performed on their cats to avoid scratches on their furniture or their skin. It’s unclear when the declaw procedure first began to be taught in veterinary schools, but veterinary journals were publishing articles regarding the procedure as far back as the late 1960s.
There are three methods to declaw a cat:
In all three methods, the bone of the third phalanx is completely excised. The toes are then sutured closed to heal. Most veterinary offices will keep a cat hospitalized for at least one night post-declaw procedure. In the following weeks, it’s important to try and prevent your cat from jumping up or down from things. Jumping off of high countertops, shelves, and ledges is especially warned against as the force of landing can open those toes up.
What Are the Pros of Cat Declawing?
Cat declawing does have some obvious pros, including:
- Prevent scratches on humans, including older adults or babies with sensitive, thinner skin
- Prevent scratches on furniture, carpet, and other household surfaces
- Prevent scratches and cuts on humans taking certain medications, including blood thinners, where cuts could present more issues than just discomfort
Sometimes people declaw their cat because it's been a common procedure for years, and it's just an automatic decision. Some cat parents might also worry if a new cat in their home with claws intact could be a danger to their current cats who are declawed.
A study from an Austin, Texas, animal shelter discovered that only 11.1% of cats were surrendered because of "destructive tendencies." Although cats were more often (56.9%) surrendered due to personal reasons (moving, medical issues of the adopter, or inability to afford basic care), the fact that cats are surrendered for destructive behavior at all, on the surface, seems like a last line argument for declawing.
What Are the Cons of Cat Declawing?
Over the past few decades, there has been more and more pushback on declawing. The original belief was that there were no consequences to declawing. Unfortunately, we now know that isn’t true. Aside from the post-operative pain and complications of toes opening up, research has uncovered some longterm complications with and consequences of declawing cats.
Bits of bone left behind from the distal phalanx can lead to bony spurs within the toes. One study showed that up to 63% of cats had residual bone show up on X-ray. Another 8% had bone remodeling, or those bony spurs, evident on X-ray.
Over-Grooming and Back Pain
The study showed that declawed cats were also three times more likely to have back pain, barbering (over-grooming), and aggression as compared to non-declawed cats. It’s speculated that the back pain arises from changes in gait to accommodate for walking on painful toes. The barbering is thought to be a self-soothing mechanism, like when you massage a sore area.
Going Outside the Litter Box
Declawed cats with residual bone fragments were also almost 10 times more likely to pee and poop outside of the litter box. It's thought that cats with painful toes may not appreciate having to walk and dig in sandy, gravel-like litter, the crystal variety litter even more so. As anyone who has struggled with a house-soiling cat can tell you, it’s difficult to completely resolve this, and as any shelter volunteer will tell you, it’s difficult for a cat with house soiling issues to get adopted.
It's hypothesized that aggression is derived from guarding behavior, as cats in pain may have their fight or flight senses more cued up. Additionally, because they no longer have claws, declawed cats are potentially more likely to bite, but this has been studied with conflicting results. One study of 122 cats showed no significant difference in incidence of adverse behavior while another study of 877 cat owners purported that declawed cats were not any more likely to bite than clawed cats.
What Are Alternatives to Cat Declawing?
Folks against declawing will tout that scratching is a normal cat behavior. As such, we as cat owners should find ways our cats can "appropriately" exhibit it.
Provide Ample Scratching Surfaces
Providing your cat with ample scratching surfaces is vital. Cats are all about texture. One cat may love sisal rope while another prefers cardboard scratchers. Try a bunch of different textures and items to see what your cat prefers. Orientation of the scratcher is also important. Cats may scratch and pluck at horizontal carpeting, but they also like vertical surfaces like drapes and furniture.
The scratching surface should also be stable and stay in one spot while your cat scratches it. Those doorknob cat scratch carpet pads are good in theory, but you might find that your cat uses them more if you secure it to the wall with Command strips instead of just hanging it from a doorknob, as intended.
If you find your cat still prefers the couch over a scratching pad, they might need a little more encouragement and training. If they love the couch, try to mimic that feel with a scratching area for them. You can use a feline pheromone plug-in or spray, and talk to your vet or a cat behavioralist if you aren't making any progress.
Keep Your Cat's Nails Trimmed
Keeping your cat's nails trimmed can also help minimize destructive scratching. Most vet offices offer cat nail trims for a nominal fee if you can’t trim them yourself. There are also nail caps that you can apply to your cat’s freshly trimmed nails to prevent destructive scratching. As the nail grows out these either fall off or they can be trimmed off with the nail.
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