Counting Down to Claw-Free. How Long Until Your Cat’s Declawing Heals

What is Cat Declawing?

Cat declawing is a surgical procedure where the entire claw and end bone of each toe is amputated (1). It involves completely removing the third phalanx, or P3, bone of each toe. Declawing goes beyond just trimming a cat’s claws – it is the permanent, surgical removal of claws (2). During the procedure, a portion of bone is taken out to prevent the nail from growing back. This differs from regular nail trims, which only cut off the dead nail tip and do not impact the bone.

Declawing removes the entire claw down to its base between the toe pads. It is an elective and irreversible surgery, so many vets recommend considering alternatives before choosing this permanent option (1).

Why Do People Declaw Cats?

The most common reason cat owners choose to declaw their cats is to prevent scratching of furniture, carpeting, and other household items. Scratching is a natural behavior for cats, allowing them to remove dead sheaths from their claws and mark their territory. However, this can be destructive in a home environment. Declawing removes the claws so cats can no longer damage furnishings with scratching. According to the AVMA, 78% of cat owners surveyed cited destruction of property as the primary reason for declawing.

Another reason some cat owners opt to declaw is for easier maintenance. With the claws removed, owners don’t have to trim nails regularly. Cats who are declawed are also less likely to become snagged on fabrics and carpets. However, the AVMA does not recommend routine declawing and says it should only be considered if less invasive alternatives have failed.

The Declawing Procedure

The declawing procedure, also called onychectomy, involves amputating the end bone of each toe. This removes the claw and prevents regrowth. It is typically performed under general anesthesia.

There are two main techniques for the surgery. The more traditional method uses a scalpel or guillotine clippers to sever the last toe bone. More modern techniques use a laser to remove the bone (Clark, 2014). With either method, the claw, bone, ligaments, and tendons are completely removed.

After amputation, the open wounds are closed with tissue glue or bandages. The paws are then wrapped to reduce bleeding and prevent infection. Most cats remain at the vet clinic overnight after the procedure for monitoring and pain management.

Healing Stages

Cats will go through several stages of healing after declaw surgery. Here’s what to expect:

Immediate: Right after surgery, cats will be groggy from anesthesia. They may seem withdrawn and sleepy. Expect bandages on their paws and bleeding for the first few hours. Give pain medication as directed by your veterinarian. Restrict activity and keep cats confined in a small space.1

Days 1-3: The first few days are the most painful stage of recovery. Cats tend to be lethargic, eat and drink less, and isolate themselves during this time. Keep bandages clean, dry and changed regularly. Apply antibiotic ointment to incisions. Watch for signs of infection like discharge or swelling. Give all medications as prescribed. Litter should be soft and non-irritating like shredded paper. Confine cats to a small space to restrict movement.2

Week 1: Pain and swelling should be decreasing but not fully resolved after the first week. Cats may start bearing some weight on their paws. Change outer bandages daily if needed while inner stitches dissolve. Continue applying antibiotic ointment and giving pain medication. At the end of the first week, cats can transition to clay litter.3

Weeks 2-4: Incisions should be healed and bandages removed by this point. Cats will begin walking normally again. Some residual tenderness, stiffness or lameness may remain. Activities can be increased gradually. Call your vet if limping persists more than a month after surgery.3

Pain Management

It is critical to manage pain after declawing surgery to ensure proper healing and prevent chronic pain issues. Vets will administer pain medication before, during and after the declawing procedure. Common medications include opioids like buprenorphine, NSAIDs like meloxicam, and sedative analgesics like butorphanol. Studies show that butorphanol provided effective short-term pain relief for 8-12 hours after surgery.[1] However, pain medication is typically needed for longer, around 4-6 days at minimum.[2]

At home care is also critical for managing pain after declawing. Your vet will prescribe oral pain medications to give your cat for several days. It’s important to carefully follow dosage instructions. Signs your cat is still in pain include reduced activity, not eating normally, excessive licking of paws, and vocalizing when touched. Alert your vet if pain is not adequately controlled. Soft bedding, litter mats, and food/water close to resting areas can help reduce discomfort during recovery.

Potential Complications

Declawing surgery can lead to both short and long-term complications for cats. Some of the most common issues that may arise include:

Infection – Like any surgery, infection is a risk after declawing. The toes are bandaged after surgery, which can trap bacteria and lead to infection. Signs of infection include swelling, redness, oozing, and fever. Infections should be treated promptly with antibiotics. [1]

Pain – Most cats experience some degree of pain after declawing surgery. The pain can range from mild to severe, and may last for several days or weeks. Declawed cats may avoid bearing weight on their feet or show signs of lameness. Pain medication is important for managing post-surgical discomfort. [2]

Inappropriate urination – Without claws for scraping, some declawed cats may start urinating or defecating outside the litter box. The rough texture of litter can irritate their sore toes. Inappropriate elimination is a leading cause for relinquishment of declawed cats to shelters. [3]

Behavior changes – Declawing may cause cats to become stressed, anxious, or more aggressive. Some cats start biting more often after being declawed. The procedure takes away their primary defense mechanism, which can impact their behavior and temperament. Monitoring cats closely after surgery is important. [1]

Rehabilitation and Aftercare

Proper aftercare is critical for your cat’s recovery following declawing surgery. Here are some tips for rehabilitation and aftercare during the healing process:

During the first 1-2 weeks after the procedure, your cat will need restricted activity to allow for the incision sites to heal. Limit their access to furniture and stairs to reduce risk of trauma to the paws. Confine them to a small room or crate when unattended.

Elevated food and water bowls can make eating and drinking more comfortable. Place bowls on a step stool or small table to minimize stretching and reaching that could irritate the incision sites.

Your vet may recommend special paper-based litter to avoid pain when scratching in the litter box. Paper litter is soft and puts less pressure on healing paws. Look for paper litters made from newspaper, recycled paper, or wood pulp.

Follow your veterinarian’s instructions for medications, bandage changes, and restrictions on activity. Call your vet if you notice signs of complications like excessive swelling, bleeding, or changes in litter box habits.

Long-Term Effects

Declawing a cat can lead to chronic long-term pain and health issues. The declawing procedure removes the entire last bone of each toe, so cats suffer permanent partial digit amputations. This can cause prolonged or chronic pain from nerve damage and improper foot structure (PetMD).

Without claws, cats bear weight differently on their feet which can lead to back pain and arthritis over time. Studies show that declawed cats are more prone to lameness years after the procedure as their joints deteriorate (The Humane Society). The tendons and muscles in the toes also weaken after declawing, making it painful to walk or jump.

Phantom limb pain, where the cat feels sensations from the amputated toe bone, can be an issue for the lifetime of the cat after declawing. This chronic pain negatively impacts quality of life. Many cats exhibit unwelcome behaviors like increased biting or avoiding the litterbox due to this lingering discomfort (Saint Iowa).

Alternatives to Declawing

There are several humane alternatives to declawing that can help redirect a cat’s scratching behavior.

Regular Nail Trimming

Trimming your cat’s nails on a regular basis (every 1-2 weeks) can minimize damage from scratching. Use clippers designed specifically for cats, and avoid cutting into the pink quick of the nail which can be painful and cause bleeding. Reward your cat with treats after each nail trimming session.

According to City Way Animal Clinics, trimming nails regularly is an effective way to discourage destructive scratching.

Scratching Posts

Provide your cat with sturdy scratching posts and boards around your home. Place them next to furniture or areas your cat tries to scratch. Scratching is a natural behavior for cats to mark territory and remove dead layers from their claws. Having appropriate scratching surfaces will satisfy this need.

The scratching posts should be tall enough for your cat to fully stretch, stable, and have a rough texture they can really dig their claws into. Reward your cat with praise and treats for using their scratching posts.

According to Just Cats Clinic, scratching posts are one of the most effective declawing alternatives.

Soft Paws Nail Caps

Nail caps like Soft Paws are plastic covers that fit over your cat’s nails secured with adhesive. They blunt the nails to prevent damage to furniture and skin. The caps fall off as your cat’s nails grow and need to be replaced every 4-6 weeks.

According to Old Farm Vet, nail caps are a safe and effective alternative to declawing.

When to Call the Vet

It’s crucial to monitor your cat closely in the weeks following declawing surgery and contact your veterinarian if you notice any signs of complications. Here are some key indications that your cat may be having issues healing and needs medical attention:

  • Excessive bleeding from the paws
  • Discharge or foul odor coming from the incision sites
  • Swelling that gets worse over time
  • Difficulty bearing weight on the paws
  • Loss of appetite or refusal to eat
  • Lethargy, weakness, or depression
  • Fever
  • Vomiting or diarrhea

According to veterinary sources, signs of infection typically emerge within the first week after surgery. However, other complications like chronic pain or arthritis may take longer to appear. Contact your vet promptly if your cat seems unable to heal properly or experiences any abnormal symptoms in the weeks following the procedure. Your vet can assess the situation and provide any medications or treatment needed for your cat’s recovery.

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