Declawing or partial toe amputation is a highly debated topic. In fact, many cat owners have an instant reaction when they hear the word, prepared to adamantly defend their stance, one way or the other.
Over recent years, veterinarians, behaviorists, pet owners, and animal rights advocates have learned more about how declawing is performed and the long-term implications it can have in cats.
I’ll explain all those reasons in this article, but first, it’s important to look at why cats scratch and exactly what happens during a declawing procedure. Then we’ll debunk common misconceptions – all with the goal educate and inform.
First: The Scratching Behavior
Scratching is a natural and normal behavior for every cat. Contrary to popular belief, its main purpose of scratching isn’t to sharpen their claws, but to 1) remove dead pieces of nail 2) spread their scent, and 3) stretch. Cats can be vertical, horizontal, or vertical and horizontal scratchers. They’ll often pick items in places where they spend a lot of time or objects that are along common routes they take in the home (or outside).
What exactly is declawing? For a long time, many pet owners believed it was just the permanent removal of the nail. In actuality, declawing or onychectomy is a partial toe amputation.
A bone called the third phalanx is removed. It houses the claw and toe bed at the end of each toe. The flexor tendon, which is responsible for retracting the claw, is also severed during the procedure.
Declawing is typically not medically necessary unless there is a damaged claw or nail bed cancer is involved. It’s seen as a mostly voluntary procedure for human benefit.
There are three different cutting tools a vet may use: guillotine nail clippers, surgical scalpel, or laser. The guillotine and scalpel methods require stitches or glue along with bandages while the cat heals. The laser technique cauterizes everything, so no closures or bandages are needed.
Regardless of the cutting tool used, it is a major surgery for cats, and short- and long-term side effects have been reported and studied.
It’s unclear exactly when vets started declawing domestic cats, but the literature on the procedure began popping up in veterinary journals in the 60s and 70s. It’s always been primarily U.S./Canada procedure, with many countries viewing it as animal mutilation.
Declawing Is Illegal in …
- 42 countries, including most of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil
- New York State
- U.S. cities: Berkeley, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Culver City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Denver, and St. Louis
- 7 out of 10 provinces in Canada
Also of note:
- 13 U.S. states introduced bills to ban declawing
- VCA U.S. and VCA Canada have banned declawing
- Banfield Pet Hospitals have banned declawing
Short-Term Side Effects
Some declawed cats can have complications immediately following surgery, like pain, swelling, lameness, limping, hemorrhaging, cystitis or UTI, and even wound infections.
Although the laser technique is associated with less short-term side effects, a recent study showed that long-term side effects exist regardless of the cutting tool used.
Long-Term Side Effects
The most recent study on long-term side effects was published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery in 2017 and was entitled Pain and Adverse Behavior in Declawed Cats. It compared 137 declawed cats to 137 non-declawed cats. One of the most shocking parts of the study was that 63% of declawed cats still had fragments of the third phalanx (bone) left behind. This means that more than half the time, the surgery is performed incorrectly. Fragments of the bone cause an increase in long-term side effects.
The study also found that declawed cats are:
- 7x more likely to pee outside the litter box, which increases to 10x more like if there are any remnants of the third phalanx left behind. Hard, grainy materials will not feel good on the joint that’s now at the tip of their toe.
- 4x more likely to bite people. Without claws to swat, their best defense becomes their mouth.
- 3x more likely to have back or chronic paw pain. It’s also possible that declawing puts cats at an increased risk of arthritis.
- 3x more likely to be aggressive. This could be related to pain or feeling defenseless.
- 3x more likely to overgroom, which is often a sign of stress or pain.
These Paws Were Made for Walking
Another side effect the study discussed was that declawed cats are more likely to have difficulty walking since toes are a major part of how a cat walks, runs, jumps, etc. Cats bear most of their weight on their third and fourth toes. Removing the third phalanx causes the cat to walk on the second phalanx, which is a joint.
As humans, we walk with our heels and then roll our foot, finishing with our toes. Our toes are involved in balance, but for cats, their toes are sort of like what our heels are to us.
Although many say declawing is the equivalent of cutting your fingertips off at the top knuckle, I like to think of it as cutting off your toes at the top knuckle. Even though we lead with our heels, imagine how difficult it would be to walk, run, jump, and figure out how to redistribute your body weight without the tips of our toes.
And, just think about having that surgery on both feet at one time? It’s also well known in orthopedics that injuries to the legs and feet can cause back pain in humans. It’s not a stretch to understand those same issues could also appear in an animal that walks on four legs and uses its toes more than we do to walk.
Declawed a Cat Without Knowing the Facts? That’s Okay.
I think it’s important to acknowledge pet owners who feel guilty about a past declaw. Declawing used to be an extremely common practice, especially in the United States, with vets offering a spay/neuter and declaw as a packaged deal. Many vets didn’t know the impact or didn’t fully explain to pet owners what was involved in the procedure.
We know more now because of research, as well as patterns of behavior that surfaced in declawed cats. You can only make decisions on the facts you have. Let go of your guilt, and forgive yourself.
Reasons to Declaw: Debunked
#1 I don’t want my cat scratching my furniture.
As mentioned earlier, scratching is a natural behavior for a cat. It’s the owner’s responsibility to train the cat on the appropriate surfaces to scratch. A few techniques to help accomplish this goal include:
- Trim your cat’s nails frequently.
- Provide a variety of scratchers of different directions and materials to find out what the cat likes.
- Position scratchers in areas where the cat likes to spend time, and especially along routes the cat naturally takes when walking through the home.
- Rub catnip on all scratchers to encourage use.
- Feed and play with the cat by the scratcher to help the cat associate positive activities with it.
- Reward your cat for scratching the appropriate objects.
- Using calming collars, pheromone diffusers, or even scratch deterrent spray.
- Apply double-sided tape on furniture.
- Apply plastic nail caps to nails.
#2 I will need to surrender ownership of my cat if they keep scratching.
Studies show the top behavioral reasons for the surrendering of ownership are inappropriate elimination and aggression (toward humans or other pets). You’ll increase the odds of both of these behaviors with a declaw.
#3 I know a declawed cat and it’s fine.
I like to make the comparison to smoking. You can smoke all your life and not get lung cancer. That doesn’t mean smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. Also, it’s very difficult to know if a cat is in pain. They are masters of disguise. This true for all types of conditions, and it’s even made it hard for scientists to study pain in cats, regardless of the condition they’re researching.
#4 I have a compromised immune system.
The best way to prevent infections remains proper hygiene and parasite control.
Cat scratches are not a common cause for infection, but cat bites come with an increased risk of infection, especially if they are on the hands. By declawing a cat, you’re increasing the chance of a more dangerous cat bite.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the HIV Medicine Association of the Infectious Diseases Society of America all agree that “declawing is not advised” to prevent the diseases. They suggest avoiding rough play with cats.
Contrary to the name, cat scratch fever is actually caused by fleas and other biting insects, not by cats (and it’s actually more commonly spread by dogs). It’s transmitted most often by flea dirt (flea poop) getting into an open wound or eye. Treat your cat with year-round flea prevention to avoid this, and always clean and disinfect any scratches or scrapes in case your cat has flea dirt under their claws.
#5. My cat stays indoors and doesn’t need its claws.
In addition to shedding pieces of dead nail, spreading scent, and stretching, all claws, but especially the 3rd and 4th digits, are involved in balance for walking, running, jumping, and so much more. Removing the bone throws all of this off, which will impact the life of your indoor cat during any movement.
Cats use their claws to defend themselves, catch prey, and climb. If a declawed indoor cat accidentally gets outside, they have no way to defend themselves or hunt, but most importantly, they can’t climb to get away from predators. Their immediate survival is at risk.
What You Can Do
One of the biggest problems with the declaw debate is misinformation. Instead of meeting opposing views with judgment, clearly explain the benefits of a cat keeping their claws as outlined above. Remember, it’s normal and natural, and just part of a cat being a cat.
CatWatch, Declawing: Then and Now
Humane Society, Indoor Cats: Scratching, and the Debate Over Declawing
Wag!, Digit Amputation in Cats
Paw Project, Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, Pain and Adverse Behavior in Declawed Cats
The Pet Professional Guild, The Pet Professional Guild Position Statement on Cat Declawing
Associated Press, Why Pets Are Surrendered
City the Kitty, Declawing Facts vs Myths & Humane Options
Article by Elizabeth Ann 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist