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Should You Declaw Your Cat? An Expert Answers

As we continue to incorporate cats into our families and learn more about their health and behavior, declawing cats as a routine practice has fallen out of favor. So, should you declaw a cat?

Veterinary experts agree that elective declawing is usually unnecessary and harmful to your cat, but there are a few instances when it's recommended. Read on to learn more about the declaw procedure, when it's recommended, and why it's harmful in most cases.

What is declawing a cat?

A declaw procedure, called an onychectomy, is a surgical procedure performed on cats. Declawing involves amputating the last bone of each toe on a cat’s paws. The claw is removed by removing the entire bone, and the nail is prevented from regrowing, ensuring the cat cannot scratch. In a person, the analogous procedure would be cutting the tips of fingers and toes off at the first joint. Because amputation of the first bone of every toe would be painful for a conscious animal, this procedure is performed under general anesthesia. Pain medications are needed to reduce post-surgical pain.

Declawing

After the toe bone is removed, the skin is sutured shut. It takes around 10 days for incisions to heal. There are three common methods of declawing a cat, including:

  • Guillotine method. Use of a nail trimmer to remove the cat's claw and associated bone.
  • Scalpel method. Use of a scalpel blade to cut between the second and third bones of each of the cat's toes.
  • Laser method. Use of a laser to cut between the second and third bones of the cat's toes.
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Reasons not to declaw your cat

Following declaw procedures, around half of cats show short-term complications. These include pain associated with surgery, limping, bleeding, changes to appetite and energy, infection at the surgery site, and stress-associated urinary issues. While this may be reason enough not to declaw your cat, the long-term effects are even more concerning.

Cats who have been declawed can have lifelong complications, such as:

  • Lameness and gait changes. Some cats experience contracture (shortening) of a tendon in their toes after declawing, which causes them to be unable to extend the joints in their toes. This can affect the way a cat walks. Chronic pain and secondary arthritis may also lead to limping and hesitancy to jump or climb.
  • Chronic pain. Declawed cats have an increased risk of long-term pain in their paws and backs.
  • Claw regrowth. If the toe bone is not completely removed, meaning a bony fragment is left behind, claw regrowth can occur. Claw regrowth may lead to cysts under the skin or abnormal nail growth out of the surgical area, causing pain and infection.
  • Behavioral changes. Cats who have been declawed have an increased risk of showing aggression and biting.
  • Inappropriate elimination. Declawed cats are more likely to urinate or defecate outside of the litter box, possibly due to pain in their paws or backs.

In some cases, particularly if the guillotine method is used, a fragment of the bone can be left behind. These fragments can increase pain, increase the risk of nail regrowth, and result in chronic infection at the site.

Aside from impacts on your cat, it’s essential also to know that over half of United States veterinary schools do not have a mandatory lecture or lab for aspiring veterinarians to learn how to declaw. Formal training on the procedure isn't universally required for US veterinarians before entering clinical practice.

Why do people declaw their cats?

It's essential to distinguish medically recommended declaw procedures from those done for the owner's convenience.

When people choose to have their cat declawed, it’s usually to prevent scratching of furniture or other property. When it comes to the benefits of declawing a cat, the two main ones for elective declaws are:

  • Your cat can’t injure you with their claws.
  • Your cat can’t scratch your furniture or carpets.

Some people may consider declawing their cat due to medical concerns in a human family member, such as a bleeding disorder or suppressed immune system. However, disease specialists don’t usually recommend declawing your cat as a preventative measure.

In most cases, veterinarians don’t find these benefits reason enough to justify the welfare concerns associated with removing a cat’s claws. But there are a couple of medical reasons a veterinarian might actually recommend declawing your cat, including:

  • Cancer. A tumor growing off of the toe bone or from the nail bed would require declawing only the affected toe.
  • Self-trauma. The cat has a condition such as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, claws that can cause severe self-trauma when self-scratching. In cases like this, the veterinarian may recommend only removing the black claws since these are usually the ones cats scratch themselves with. This should only be considered if the cat has been causing self-injury and no other intervention has worked with consideration for the potential impacts on the cat’s long-term welfare.

Alternatives to declawing cats

Instead of declawing your cat, consider regular nail trimming. Most cats have clear nails, so seeing the quick (the pink area) is usually pretty straightforward. If you are struggling with cat nail trims, your veterinarian or a pet groomer may be willing to show you how to trim your cat's nails. Generally, you should check your cat's claws every two to three weeks to see if they need a trim. Although it's ideal to get cat nail trimmers, you can use human nail trimmers in a pinch provided they're sharp. Dull clippers can cause the cat's nail to splinter. Make sure to clean the nail trimmers if you'll also use them on people.

Scratching is a natural cat behavior. If you have a cat with claws, providing them with ample scratching surfaces is an excellent way to decrease damage to your furniture. Some cats like to scratch vertical surfaces, while some like horizontal scratching pads. Ideally, you should provide both. Vertical scratching surfaces should be tall enough that the cat can use the scratcher to stretch upward. If your cat has certain furniture they like to scratch, consider putting a scratcher in front of this area. Reward your cat when they scratch on the correct objects. There are also furniture guards and sprays meant to discourage scratching on furniture. Cat scratchers, cat trees, and toys can help to prevent loneliness and boredom, helping to reduce scratching in the home.

Synthetic nail caps can be glued onto your cat's nails to prevent scratching. Your cat will still perform scratching behaviors but won't cause as much damage to furniture (or people). They also won't experience the long-term negative side effects of declawing. Nail caps typically need to be replaced every four to six weeks. If you're having trouble placing these nail caps, this is another activity your veterinarian or groomer may be able to help you with.

A procedure known as a deep digital flexor tendonectomy keeps the claws retracted. However, this procedure carries the risk of nail overgrowth and long-term pain, and the nails require more claw care. The procedure is not recommended.

Legality of declawing cats

Many countries have made medically unnecessary declaws illegal, including Brazil, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and more.

Two U.S. states, Maryland and New York, have made the procedure illegal. Some cities, such as Denver, CO, and Los Angeles, CA, have followed suit. Multiple states are currently considering bans on medically unnecessary declawing procedures. Eight out of ten Canadian provinces have made declawing illegal.

Pet insurance and declaws

Your pet insurance plan is unlikely to cover a declaw performed to prevent scratching of furniture or people. In this case, the procedure isn't performed for the cat's health and may cause further health issues. Pet insurance may cover a declaw if it's deemed medically necessary and the condition wasn't pre-existing. Medically recommended declaws are more likely to be covered by a comprehensive (accident and illness) plan than an accident-only or wellness plan.

Pet owners want to do what's best for their pets. Declawing is no longer considered a beneficial practice for most cats. Speak with your veterinarian if you have further questions about the impacts of cat declawing.

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