Should you declaw your cat?
Not that many years ago, the decision about whether to have the family cat declawed was more likely to focus on the couch than the cat. These days, however, more veterinarians are encouraging cat owners to consider nonsurgical strategies to prevent flayed furniture and flesh.
Declawing has become increasingly controversial, with some animal advocates decrying the practice as the cruel and unnecessary partial amputation of a cat’s toes. Meanwhile, vet organizations have taken positions that declawing of feline forefeet should occur only after cat owners have tried scratching posts, nail trimming and other ways to manage a cat’s need to scratch.
“There are some clients who are under the false assumption that declawing is just something you do, like you would get oil changed in your car,” says Dr. Greg Magnusson, owner of Leo’s Pet Care in Carmel, Ind. “That is not the case.”
Like Magnusson, Dr. Wendy Simpson, owner of Morrisville Cat Hospital in Morrisville, N.C., makes sure that clients inquiring about declawing understand that it’s a painful procedure involving surgical removal of all or part of the last toe bone, to which the claw is attached. The surgery requires general anesthesia and, in Simpson's opinion, pain medication during recuperation, which may take about two weeks. Problems, while rare, can include anesthetic complications, hemorrhage, infection, pain and side effects of pain medication.
Both vets inform pet owners that surgery isn't the only way to prevent scratching problems. The main alternative is training a cat, especially during kittenhood, to use designated scratching pads and posts, and to trim claws every week or two.
Vets' approaches to declawing differ
“Declawing, in my opinion, should be a last resort after behavioral modification techniques are not working,” says Simpson. Her stance on declawing echoes the position of the American Veterinary Medical Association and several other vet and animal welfare organizations, but does not go so far as some groups that label declawing as an inhumane mutilation that should be outlawed in most cases, as it already is in some countries.
Magnusson says that when a client asks about declawing, he refers them to his blog post on the topic, which describes alternatives to surgically removing the claw, which is attached to the last bone of each toe. But he will provide the surgery if a cat owner wants it. “I make sure there’s a rational reason, but I don’t push ‘last resort’ as much as ‘informed choice,’" he says. "As long as my clients understand there might be complications and there are alternatives, and it’s not a requirement that every cat be declawed, I don’t add guilt.”
Magnusson says there are three main methods vets use to remove claws, and that many horror stories stem from what he considers the outmoded technique of using guillotine-style clippers. “Twenty years ago, when vets used those trimmers, there was mutilation and infection and (claw) regrowth,” Magnusson says. He and Simpson believe that steel-blade scalpel and laser scalpel techniques are better methods to, as Magnusson calls it, “dissect out the bone instead of going through it.” After the claw is removed, the wounds are closed with stitches or surgical glue and the cat's feet are bandaged.
Declawing may be on the decline
Statistics on declawing are hard to come by, but veterinarians estimate that about 25 percent of U.S. house cats are declawed, at an average cost of $300 to $550. Simpson, as well as AVMA spokesman David Kirkpatrick, believe education efforts are reducing demand for declawing. “While we don’t have actual quantitative data, it’s our impression, based on feedback from AVMA members, breeders, animal control and shelter personnel, and the public, that the number of declawing procedures being performed is in decline," Kirkpatrick says. "We believe this is because of increased awareness about viable alternatives.”
Angie’s List members reflect the varying, and sometimes strong, opinions cat owners have about the procedure, which experts say should be limited to cats that are kept indoors, since loss of front claws limits a cat’s ability to defend itself.
“I would never subject any animal in my care to this horrible, inhumane procedure,” says Lynn Newbill, an Angie’s List member in Alexandria, Va., who owns and fosters several cats. “I always clip claws, which isn't difficult with practice and patience. I keep scratching pads and posts through the house and near furniture targets. I bait these with catnip and reward appropriate scratching with treats and praise. I also have squirt guns available near target furniture, and I use them if needed.”
Cat owner's opposite experience
Another Angie’s List member, Kimberly Armstrong of Tuscaloosa, Ala., says she resorted to surgery after trying to train her cat, Lucca, to use scratching posts. “I even bought a cat feeder that has a scratcher on it: you scratch on this and you get food. But he destroyed two leather chairs. He scratched my kids and there were infections.” She says she paid about $300 last year to have Lucca declawed, arranging online to have the procedure done as soon as she and her family returned to the U.S. from military assignment in Italy, where declawing is illegal.
“It’s a very personal decision and I would not recommend it automatically,” Armstrong says. “It’s well worth it to try to train the animal. If you do it, don’t feel guilty because you love your pet and you’re not going to get rid of your pet. But I’m not willing to live with destroyed furniture.”
Me-ow! 7 cat owners speak out on declawing
A sample of opinions from a recent informal survey of Angie’s List members, in which 70 of 190 cat owners said they’d had a cat declawed:
- “I believe providing well made, sturdy scratching posts, and giving weekly nail trims is a much more humane way to go. No piece of furniture is worth the cruelty of declawing.”
- “I have seven indoor cats and they all have their front paws declawed for our safety. I have an awesome vet who gives them pain meds mixed with antibiotic for a week after the surgery.”
- “I feel it’s cruel and not necessary. I have two cats and they both have claws. I just provide them with cardboard-type scratching pads, put some catnip on them and that's it.”
- “For a feral kitten like ours, (declawing) was necessary because she started out so mean and was quite the climber. The damage to small children, furniture, flooring, etc., is worth the precaution.”
- “Prior to having my cat declawed, I was unaware that amputation was involved. I did not declaw my second cat.”
- “I chose not to declaw my indoor cat because I thought it was cruel; after hundreds of dollars in damage to my furniture and bedding … I'm rethinking things.”
- “I would adopt a cat that is already declawed, but I refuse to declaw any future cat pets.”