The Painful Truth. Do Declawed Cats Suffer Forever?

Introduction

Declawing, also known as onychectomy, is a surgical procedure where the entire toe, including the bones, is amputated up to the first knuckle or joint. The medical term ‘onychectomy’ refers to the complete removal of the claw and the last bone of each toe. There are two main techniques for performing declawing surgery on cats – blade declawing and laser declawing.

In blade declawing, a small scalpel or scissor-like instrument is used to dissect the claw from the last toe bone. The claw is cut through the joint and the toe bone is removed. The wound is then closed with surgical glue or stitches. Laser declawing uses a laser to sever the tendons and bone before the claw and bone fragment are removed. Both procedures are usually done under general anesthesia and take less than 30 minutes per paw.

Short-Term Pain

Cats experience significant pain and complications immediately after declaw surgery. The amputation of the last bone of each toe is extremely painful, and cats feel that pain acutely as they recover from anesthesia and the effects of pain medication wear off (Why declawing is bad for your cat, 2022). Some common short-term effects include:

  • Acute pain lasting several days after surgery as anesthesia wears off
  • Bleeding and swelling around the paws
  • Infection or tissue necrosis if surgical wounds do not heal properly
  • Abnormal gait, limping, or lameness as cats adjust to the new sensation in their paws
  • Litter box avoidance due to pain when digging and burying waste

The initial surgical pain can last up to 2 weeks, and complications like infection and poor wound healing can prolong recovery. Pain management is very important after declaw surgery but is complicated by the fact that cats instinctively hide pain. Overall, declawing causes undeniable suffering and trauma in the days and weeks after the amputation procedure.

Long-Term Pain

Declawing a cat can lead to long-term chronic pain due to nerve damage. During the declawing procedure, the last bone of each toe is amputated along with the claw. This amputation severs tendons and nerves, which according to the Humane Society can “lead to long-term complications such as chronic pain syndrome or phantom limb pain” (https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/why-declawing-bad-your-cat). The PetMD article notes that while rare, “chronic, long-term pain after a declaw is rare, but can occur” due to neuropathic pain when “the nerve signals abnormally to the brain, causing discomfort or pain” (https://www.petmd.com/cat/general-health/negative-side-effects-of-declawing-cats). Anicira also points out that “declawing can have long-term health effects like nerve damage” (https://anicira.org/resources/risks-associated-with-declawing/). The severing of tendons and nerves during the amputation can clearly lead to chronic nerve pain and damage in cats.

Physical Effects

Declawing a cat can cause significant physical effects, both in the short-term and long-term. One major issue is problems with balance and mobility. Cats’ claws are an integral part of their feet and removing them impacts how they walk and move. According to PetMD, declawing changes the anatomy of a cat’s paws by removing the last bone of each toe. This alters their natural balance and causes stress on their leg joints because their weight is distributed unnaturally.

Without claws, declawed cats tend to walk more on their toes which can lead to pain and arthritis over time. Cats rely on their claws for traction and stability, so taking them away makes everyday actions like jumping, climbing, and landing from heights more difficult and precarious. Declawed cats may avoid using litter boxes with high sides because of mobility issues. There is also a greater risk of injury from falls or accidents because of their impaired coordination.

In the long-term, declawed cats are likely to develop chronic back and joint pain from compensating for their altered feet. Surgery damages their digital tendons and ligaments which can cause lifelong lameness or diminished strength in their legs. All of these problems can severely impact a cat’s quality of life and natural activities.

Psychological Effects

Declawing can have significant negative psychological impacts on cats. Without their primary defense mechanism, declawed cats often feel more vulnerable which affects their self-confidence and can make them anxious, fearful, and even aggressive (https://www.spca.com/en/psychological-impacts-of-declawing/).

Many declawed cats will increase biting behavior as their only remaining defense. They also tend to avoid litter boxes more frequently, associating them with pain. One study found declawed cats were almost 3 times more likely to avoid the litter box than non-declawed cats (https://idyllicpaws.com/the-physical-and-emotional-effects-of-declawing/). The combination of increased biting and litter box avoidance causes significant stress for the cat and frustration for the owner.

Owner Perspectives

Many cat owners choose to declaw their cats for perceived benefits like protecting furniture and avoiding scratches. According to this article, some of the main reasons owners declaw their cats include:

  • To prevent damage to household items like furniture, carpets, and drapes from scratching
  • To avoid painful scratches, especially for immunocompromised individuals or families with small children
  • To prevent the spread of disease from scratches
  • For ease of grooming and hygiene

While some owners view declawing as an acceptable preventive measure, others see it as an unnecessary cosmetic surgery. Owners must weigh the perceived benefits against the potential risks before deciding on this controversial procedure.

Veterinarian Perspectives

Many veterinarians are changing their attitudes about declawing cats. Declawing was once a common practice, but recent surveys show it is becoming less popular among vets. According to a 2016 study published in Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, only 22% of respondents said they currently perform elective declawing, down from 45% in a 1995 survey https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4982569/. The American Veterinary Medical Association now “strongly opposes” declawing as an elective procedure, citing research showing both short-term and long-term risks https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/petcare/declawing-cats-far-better-solutions.

Many vets who used to declaw cats have changed their position because of increased awareness of the potential negative effects, including pain and behavioral issues. Some veterinary schools have stopped teaching declawing procedures. There is a growing consensus that declawing should only be considered as a “last resort” for certain medical conditions when alternatives have failed.

Alternatives to Declawing

There are several humane alternatives to declawing that can help redirect scratching behaviors in cats. Some of the top recommended options include:

Regular Nail Trims – Trimming your cat’s nails every 1-2 weeks can help minimize damage from scratching. Using clippers designed for cats, trim just the sharp tip of each nail. Reward your cat with treats afterward so they associate nail trims with something positive.

According to https://www.oldfarmvet.com/dont-want-to-declaw-4-alternatives-for-your-cat/, “Regular nail trims are one of the best ways to avoid destruction from scratching.”

Scratching Posts – Provide scratching posts and boards around your home so your cat has appropriate places to scratch. Place them near furniture or areas your cat tries to scratch. Use treats and catnip to encourage your cat to use the posts.

As recommended by https://justcatsclinic.com/cats-need-their-claws-alternatives-to-declawing-your-cat/, “Scratching posts come in all shapes, sizes and materials to entice any cat.”

Soft Paws/Nail Caps – Soft plastic caps like Soft Paws can be glued over your cat’s nails to prevent damage from scratching. They fall off as the nails grow and need to be replaced every 4-6 weeks.

According to https://www.citywayanimalclinics.com/blog/alternatives-to-declawing/, “Nail caps are another great option to curb destructive scratching.”

Legality

Declawing cats is illegal in many parts of the world. According to PETA, declawing is banned in 42 countries including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and Wales.

In the United States, New York was the first state to ban declawing in 2019. Maryland became the second state to pass a ban in 2022. Several other states including California, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island have active legislation to ban or restrict the practice. However, declawing remains legal in most of the country. According to World Population Review, declawing is fully legal in 34 states as of 2023.

Conclusion

In conclusion, research shows that declawing cats causes unnecessary short-term pain from the amputation surgery. More concerning is the potential for long-term chronic pain and behavioral issues stemming from the permanent removal of their claws. While some cat owners view declawing as a simple solution to prevent scratching, it removes an integral part of a cat’s natural defenses and ability to engage in normal activities. Veterinarians increasingly view declawing as an inhumane practice with serious downsides. Thankfully, there are many effective and humane alternatives to stop unwanted scratching, such as regular nail trims, scratching posts, sticky paws, nail caps, and positive training. Educating cat owners that declawing is not just the removal of the nails, but the amputation of their toes, is critical. When armed with the facts, most cat owners will pursue other options that allow their cats to remain healthy and happy while also protecting their furniture.

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