Declawing and Humane Alternatives

Photo: Closeup of Cat Claws
Closeup of Cat Claws. ©iStock Images

The United States is way behind the rest of the civilized world in its attitude toward declawing of cats. Declawing has been illegal in England for several years. Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Wales, Finland and Brazil are among the many countries that either consider declawing illegal or inhumane, only allowing it under extreme circumstances. In the U. S., savvy cat aficionados, Cat Fancy organizations and veterinarians are mounting protests against declawing, calling it inhumane and unnecessary.

Declawing Is Not Medically Necessary

It's rare to see a veterinarian cite a common medical reason for declawing, except to repair a badly done initial job in which the claws have grown back, causing crippling pain to the cat. The closest one might come to a "medical" purpose is to prevent the owner from having the cat euthanized because of destructive scratching. Some veterinarians will reluctantly perform this procedure for that reason alone. The Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights call it a practice of being taken as "an emotional hostage." 

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, author of "The Cat Who Cried for Help," has this to say about declawing:

The inhumanity of the procedure is clearly demonstrated by the nature of cats' recovery from anesthesia following the surgery. Unlike routine recoveries, including recovery from neutering surgeries which are fairly peaceful, declawing surgery results in cats bouncing off the walls of the recovery cage because of excruciating pain. Declawing fits the dictionary definition of mutilation to a tee. Words such as deform, disfigure, disjoint and dismember all apply to this surgery. Partial digital amputation is so horrible that it has been employed for torture of prisoners of war, and in veterinary medicine, the clinical procedure serves as a model of severe pain for testing the efficacy of analgesic drugs. Even though analgesic drugs can be used postoperatively, they rarely are, and their effects are incomplete and transient anyway, so sooner or later the pain will emerge."

A cat's claws are vital to his physiology, providing protection, balance and mobility. Cats who find themselves outdoors without claws are virtually defenseless. Cats need their claws to scratch for three primary reasons:

  1. Exercise: A cat will select a surface where he can hook his claws, then pull against the resistance. This is a form of isotonic exercise which both strengthens the muscles and provides suppleness to muscles and joints.
  1. Marking Territory: Scent glands located on the cats' feet effectively mark the area as "his." You'll notice this behavior frequently with indoor-outdoor cats who will mark trees by scratching.
  2. "Anger Management": Although there is no scientific evidence for this, there tends to be an increase in scratching behavior when a cat is annoyed or upset.

Declawing Is NOT Just Trimming of the Claws

 Declawing is not merely the trimming of the claws. It is the surgical removal of the claws which are closely adhered to the bone. In order to remove the claw and prevent its regrowth (which sometimes results from incomplete removal), the entire first joint of each of the cat's toe is amputated. This procedure is often likened to amputation of all a human's fingers to the first knuckle. However, cats walk on their "fingers and toes" -- we do not.

Aside from the initial pain, other short-term effects of declawing can also lead to long-term problems, both physiological and behavioral. 

Litter Box Avoidance

 A declawed cat's toe stubs will be severely painful for days or weeks after the surgery, and "phantom limb pain" may be a lifelong legacy. Some litter box substrates are very painful to the cat's tender paws, and he may avoid the litter box entirely because of its association with pain.

Owners can help by using a softer substrate such as one of the paper-based litters.

Biting and Aggression

A cat's claws are his primary defense against other cats, dogs or humans who might harm him.  Lacking his claws, he may turn to biting, either in defense or as a "warning" to humans who can't read his body language. Other cats may choose "flight" instead of "fight" and become withdrawn and depressed.

Arthritis and Crippling

Cats are "digitigrade," which means they walk on their toes. Pain in the toes can cause changes to their normal gait, which eventually can result in stiffness and pain in their legs, hips and spine. Anyone who has ever experienced prolonged foot pain will understand this description.

Many cat owners who have had cats declawed in the past now say they would never consider it again, knowing what they now know and remembering the aftermath of the surgery.

Luckily, there are other alternatives, so they need never subject their cats to such pain. Other options include:

  • Nail Trimming - Cats cannot do serious damage to furniture, drapery and rugs with blunt nails. Trimming is a simple procedure, and if you wait until your cat is sleepy and quiet and take it one nail at a time over a period of several days, your cat will soon find out it's not to be feared. Simply lightly squeeze the cat's toe to extend the nail tip and snip the tip. You can buy inexpensive clippers for this purpose at any pet store. Be careful not to cut into the dark part on the underside of the tip--this is the quick which will cause bleeding. If you're hesitant about doing this yourself, ask your veterinarian to teach you. It's a lot less expensive than declawing and a lot easier on the cat and your conscience.
  • Scratching Posts - Invest in, or build your own, scratching post(s). Sisal-covered posts are highly favored by many cats. Most cats can be easily trained to use the post instead of your furniture. If you have any carpentry talent, you can build your own. Don't scrimp on the number of posts. Many cats enjoy having several surfaces and elevations (vertical, horizontal and plane.) One of the most popular surfaces is cardboard, and inexpensive cardboard scratching posts are readily available. If one post doesn't work, get a second one and experiment with their locations. Offer your kitty a variety of surfaces and elevations, and he will soon choose his favorites.
  • Soft Paws Soft Paws were developed by a veterinarian, and are vinyl nail caps which glue right over a cat's claws. They come in clear or colors, which can look quite fancy, and also are easy to locate if one should come off. The caps grow out with the natural growth of your cat's nails and are said to last four to six weeks, on average.
  • Feliway - Feliway is a "friendly pheromone" which mimics the scent of cats' facial glands. It has been found to be useful in combating cats' urine marking tendencies, as cats generally will not mark with urine where they have previously marked with facial glands. Although Feliway is not marketed for this purpose, some behaviorists believe it may be useful to curb undesirable scratching.

    There is no valid reason today to consider declawing as a solution for destructive scratching. Use any of these alternatives or a combination of them to end your issues with furniture damage.