The Truth About Declawing Your Cat

Currently a controversial procedure, declawing cats was at one time a common surgery in the United States.  Many owners have the procedure performed to save their furniture, or out of fear of being scratched themselves.  Few owners however, understand what the procedure actually entails.  Rather than starting a debate on whether it is “right” or “wrong” to perform a declaw, we would like to provide owners with information and educate them about the procedure. 

First off, why do cats scratch in the first place?

 The outer layer of the nail

The outer layer of the nail

Scratching is a natural behavior in cats and despite what it looks like they’re not actually trying to destroy your furniture.  Cats scratch to stretch their muscles after a long nap, to help shed the outer layers of their nails, and to mark territory.   

Cats start scratching as kittens, which is why it is so important to train cats at a young age to use scratching posts instead of furniture and to get them used to having their nails trimmed.  Contrary to how cats are portrayed, they can be trained to scratch certain things and not others.

What exactly does declawing a cat entail?

 An extended cat claw

An extended cat claw

Many people are under the misconception that a declaw is an easy surgery that removes the nails.  However, the actual procedure is more complicated than that.  What most people do not realize is that declawing the cat requires amputation of the last digit.  In a human, this would be the same as cutting off each finger at the last knuckle.  This is done to prevent any additional claw from re-growing.

There are many ways to perform a declaw.  One method requires a scalpel blade to cut through the tendons, ligaments, and other soft tissue to remove the last bone.    Another technique requires the use of a guillotine sterile nail clipper.  The claw is placed in the guillotine and is cut right at the joint to remove the bone.  The wounds are then either sutured closed or a surgical adhesive is used to keep the remaining skin together.   Other techniques involve the use of a surgical laser or electrosurgery to perform the same procedure. 

What are possible complications of the procedure?

Complications occur in 50% of patients and include pain, bleeding, damage to the foot pads, lameness, swelling, infection, and regrowth of the claw.  If the pad on the foot was cut, this can cause more pain and lameness.  If the last bone was not completely removed, the nail can regrow.   When this happens, the regrown claw is usually deformed.  Long-term pain has also been reported, manifesting in signs such as decreased appetite, lethargy, and even aggression. 

What are the alternatives to surgery?

Training your cat where to scratch is very important, especially at an early age.  Even adult cats can be taught that certain places such as furniture are not acceptable scratching areas.   Scratching posts should be provided and your cat should be encouraged to use these as an alternative.  Your cat should also have their nails trimmed regularly.  Use treats and positive reinforcement to make it into a fun and rewarding experience that your cat will tolerate on a routine basis.  There are also plastic caps available that can be glued to the nails providing a protective cover.  These need to be replaced about every 4-6 weeks.  Ask your veterinarian about any tips or for help with nail trimming. 

Again, declawing cats without an underlying medical problem such as nail bed tumors is a controversial topic.  It has been banned in some countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia.  If you have any other questions, please speak with your veterinarian. 

 

Sources:
Fossum, Theresa, et al.  Small Animal Surger.  3rd ed.  St. Louis: Mosby Elsevier, 2007.  Print. 

Revision 12/12/2015: clarification to complication percentages