Declawing has been quite a controversial subject lately even among veterinarians and their associations. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) “encourages client education prior to considering declawing”. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) reports “onychectomy causes a higher level of pain than spays and neuters” (not sure how they determined this as one who has had a C-section, I can attest to the fact that it was much worse than losing toenails from a horse stepping on my foot-not quite the same but close!). The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) is “opposed to declawing domestic cats unless all other attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively or when clawing presents a significant health risk for people within the household”. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) opposes declawing unless it is medically necessary (such as nail bed tumors).
What Animals Can Be Declawed
First, I will say that this procedure can or should only by performed on an animal that has retractable claws (can be drawn into a sort of pocket) which includes those within the cat family including domestic cats, lions and tigers (although most zoos will not accept any wild cat that has been declawed). Dogs and other wild pets such as skunks, opossums, rabbits and raccoons do not have retractable claws (neither do humans). I have unfortunately seen a skunk and a dog that had this procedure performed on them and personally feel that it was an act of malpractice on the veterinarian that did these services.
Actual Surgical Procedure
Declawing, officially known as onychectomy, is the removal of “enough” of the third/end digit bone on the foot so that the claw or nail does not regrow. As this is a surgical procedure that requires general anesthesia, there are inherent risks as with any surgical procedure. These include hemorrhage, infection and pain, both acute and chronic. As far as I am concerned, there are three surgical approaches for declawing. The first is by using a guillotine action (usually with a Resco nail trimmer) which cuts through the third digit bone, which sounds painful, but leaves a part of this bone that has a tendon attached which allows the “kneading” action of flexing the toes to remain intact. The second approach uses a curved scalpel blade which removes the whole digit bone by cutting through the last joint. This approach severs the tendon mentioned above and results in what I call “flippy” feet or as you may have seen cats walking like they are on eggshells (very cautiously). The third approach, and what a lot of veterinarians use now, makes use of the surgical laser which minimizes bleeding but also removes the whole digit bone. While I have not seen nor performed the last procedure, I still feel that the first approach is the most humane and least painful in the long run. I also feel that the younger kittens do better than the older or larger cats. Good post-operative (post op) pain control is a must.
Cost and Problems Associated with Declawing
The cost of declawing depends upon where you live and what approach is performed (generally laser procedures cost more due to the cost of the equipment). The internet lists $100.00- $500.00, but my clinic charges $85.00 and I have heard quotes as high as $900.00! In my clinic, I perform my surgeries in the morning and keep them overnight to be discharged after the bandages are removed and no problems are evident. I have seen very few initial or long term problem with my patients. The larger the cat is, the harder it is on them, therefore I prefer to do the procedure on kittens. More bleeding may be seen with larger patients and more pain may be evident when the bandages are removed. Nail regrowth can be seen if not enough tissue is removed (I’ve only had a couple in more than twenty years of practice). At home problems can arise if the foot is stepped on or caught in a door (both of which I’ve seen). Bleeding occurs for a few hours and all have recovered with no problems.
Alternatives to Declawing
There are a variety of alternatives to try before deciding on declawing your cat. These include frequent nail trims (some cats will readily accept this if started at a young age), using scratching posts, cardboard boxes, logs/tree limbs (I actually had a client have my husband cut a rather large tree limb to put in her cat room!), deterrent sprays, deterrent tape for furniture edges, pheromone sprays and plug-ins and soft paws (nail caps).
Cats claw to mark territory and keep their claws healthy (they do shed them routinely). Many clinics have started using the soft paws product on kittens. The following is a couple of websites that I feel provides good information on this topic: https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Pages/Declawing-of-Domestic-Cats.aspx and https://www.avma.org/PracticeManagement/ClientMaterials/Documents/Cat_Declawing_Flyer.pdf
In conclusion, deciding to declaw your cat should not be taken lightly. This reminds me of what my surgery professor in veterinary school used to preach to us: Never ever get in a hurry to cut/do surgery because you can always decide to cut, but once it’s done you cannot undo it-no going back!
Over the years, I have tried to educate my clients on what to try on their kittens prior to any surgical procedure being performed. Some have had good luck with scratching posts and tree limbs, but some cats simply are determined to destroy your furniture, walls and may even attack you at times. This is the point at which some decide to put the cat outside or simply take it to a shelter.
As this debate started heating up over the last few years, I began to be curious. Although I have performed dozens of these procedures over the years, I never really experienced the after care or how these cats were afterwards firsthand. And yes, my household has been home to several cats over the years and my walls, carpet and furniture shows the toll that claws can take. Some cats I have had were not destructive at all-they are quite individual in their personalities as well as clawing habits. The last three cats I have taken in (I don’t usually get to choose my pets-they get thrust upon me!), I have declawed to access for myself as to the cruelty of this procedure. The first cat was actually quite the climber-especially up anyone’s legs she could get close to and I couldn’t have this with my clients. Of the three (all females), only one had any type of pain reaction when bandages were removed and needed pain medications for another day. The other two never showed any signs of pain and were running and jumping within 24-36 hours after the surgery. These were also done at 3-4 months of age and were spayed at the same time. I generally give injectable pain medications post-op before the anesthesia has worn off. More pain medications are given as needed on an individual basis.
Therefore, in my personal experience, if done correctly and with proper pain control, I feel that this surgical procedure is no worse than spaying or neutering your cat. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen more problems post-op with older and larger cats being spayed than declawed! And for those who want to empathize with their cat-given a choice, I doubt any of them would want any type of surgery performed on them especially the tom cats! But in the long run, if it saves a cat’s life, I feel it is an acceptable alternative.