Declawing Cats. Should This Controversial Practice Be Banned?

Introduction

Declawing is a controversial procedure that involves the amputation of a cat’s claws by removing the end bones of the cat’s toes. This procedure, also called onychectomy, prevents the cat from being able to scratch. While some pet owners consider declawing to stop unwanted scratching, many vets and animal welfare advocates strongly oppose the practice as inhumane.

History of Declawing

The practice of declawing cats first became popular in the United States and Canada in the 1970s and 1980s. According to Catster, declawing was recommended by many veterinarians at the time as a way to protect furniture and property from scratch damage. There was a view that declawing was an acceptable trade-off to prevent unwanted behaviors and allow cats to remain in their homes. At that time, very little research had been conducted on the effects of the surgery on cats. Declawing was seen as a simple preventative measure and the possible negative consequences were not fully recognized.

Initially, declawing was performed as an amputation of the entire first digit of a cat’s paws, similar to removing a human finger at the last knuckle. By the 1990s, a less radical procedure called onychectomy became more common, removing only the last bone of the toe along with the claw. According to The Paw Project, onychectomy was marketed by veterinarians as a more humane form of declawing with fewer side effects. However, research gradually revealed the many negative impacts it still caused for cats.

Ethical Concerns

Many animal welfare organizations, veterinarians, and cat owners view declawing as an inhumane procedure that removes an integral means of defense and expression for cats. Declawing involves amputating the last bone in each toe, which removes the claw completely. This is equivalent to cutting off a human’s finger at the last knuckle. Most people would consider removing a person’s fingertips to prevent scratching unethical. Likewise, removing a cat’s claws solely for human convenience raises ethical concerns about infringing upon the animal’s natural behaviors and abilities.

Cats use their claws for balance, exercise, marking territory, and self-defense. Removing this vital aspect of their anatomy denies them of natural behaviors that are important for cats’ physical and psychological health. Declawed cats must relearn to walk and can experience chronic pain from the surgery. Many say declawing compromises a cat’s quality of life and inflicts unnecessary suffering solely for human benefit.

There are also concerns around performing an elective amputation procedure that provides no medical benefit to the animal. Veterinarians take an oath to first do no harm to their animal patients. Declawing poses surgical risks including infection, chronic pain, and other complications not present when claws are left intact. According to many vets and ethicists, performing declawing surgery conflicts with a veterinarian’s professional duty to prioritize animal welfare.

Physical Consequences

Declawing a cat can lead to a number of physical health issues. One of the most common is chronic pain in the paws. According to the Humane Society of the United States, declawing can cause “paw pain, back pain, infection, tissue necrosis (tissue death) and lameness” (source). Removing a cat’s claws changes the way their feet meet the ground while walking, which can put added stress on joints and tendons leading to arthritis over time.

Declawed cats are also at higher risk for back and joint problems later in life since scratching and clawing help strengthen muscles and tendons. One study found that 33% of declawed cats developed back pain, sprain or tendon contracture post-surgery compared to only 7% of non-declawed cats (Yakimicki 2021). The unnatural posture declawed cats are forced to adopt can exacerbate these issues.

In addition to chronic pain, declawing increases the risk of infection, abscesses, and other complications since it is an amputation surgery. If too much of the last bone is removed, it can expose sensitive tissue leading to long-term pain from nerve damage. Declawed cats may also experience issues using the litterbox from altered paw sensation and adopt inappropriate elimination habits as a result (source).

Behavioral Changes

Some studies indicate that declawing can lead to undesirable behaviors in cats. According to research from the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, declawed cats were significantly more likely to bite than clawed cats. The removal of claws alters a cat’s balance and mechanics for stretching or scratching, which can cause frustration. Declawed cats may resort to biting as an alternative defense mechanism.

Litter box avoidance is another problematic behavior that may arise after declawing. According to PAWS, declawed cats experience pain in their paws which can cause negative associations with litter that aggravate their declaw wounds. The discomfort of scratching in litter can lead declawed cats to seek out softer places to urinate or defecate.

In general, declawed cats tend to exhibit more anxious and unpredictable behavior. Groomers, veterinarians, and shelter workers report declawed cats being more irritable and difficult to handle. The pain and distress from the amputation procedure appears to affect some cats’ temperaments long-term.

Surgical Risks

Declawing a cat is not a simple or routine surgery, and it carries significant risks of complications. According to the Humane Society of the United States, complications from the surgery may include:

Bleeding – There can be hemorrhaging if the bandages are too tight or become displaced. Excessive bleeding and blood loss can lead to hypovolemic shock, a life-threatening medical emergency.

Infection – The declawing surgery requires the use of scalpels and other instruments that can introduce bacteria and cause infections in the surgical site, bones, or joints. Infections may be mild or severe.

Nerve damage – The declawing procedure involves amputating through nerves and tendons, which can lead to accidental severing and nerve damage. This causes chronic pain, numbness, and sensitive paws.

Other surgical complications – Issues like damage to adjoining tissue, bone fragments left inside the paw, and improper healing can occur. Declawed cats are also at risk for regrowth of deformed claw inside the paw.

Given the invasive nature of the surgery, blood loss, pain, and vulnerability to complications, declawing poses substantial surgical risks that vets must seriously weigh before proceeding.

Alternatives to Declawing

There are humane alternatives to declawing that can help redirect a cat’s scratching behavior. Some options cat owners can consider include:

Trimming Claws

Regularly trimming a cat’s claws can help blunt the sharp tips and reduce damage from scratching. Claws should be trimmed every 1-2 weeks. Only the sharp tip of the nail should be removed, taking care not to cut into the quick, which is the pink part of the nail containing blood vessels and nerves.1

Providing Scratching Posts

Providing appropriate scratching posts and surfaces can satisfy a cat’s natural urge to scratch. Posts should be sturdy, tall enough for the cat to fully stretch, and covered with a material they like to scratch such as sisal, cardboard, or carpet. Placing them near furniture or areas the cat tries to scratch can redirect the behavior.

Plastic Caps for Claws

Plastic caps like Soft Paws can be glued to the cat’s claws to prevent damage to household items. These need to be replaced every 4-6 weeks as the nails grow out. It’s important to monitor the cat’s claws and ensure proper nail health.2

Training Cats to Scratch Appropriate Objects

With positive reinforcement training using treats and praise, cats can be trained to scratch acceptable surfaces instead of furniture. Anytime the cat scratches the right object, they should be rewarded. Water spray bottles or other deterrents can also be used to discourage unwanted scratching.

Veterinary Positions

Major veterinary organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), discourage routine declawing and view it as an ethically controversial procedure that should only be considered after trying behavioral modifications or alternatives (AVMA, Kogan 2016).

The AVMA policy states that declawing “should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively or when its clawing presents an above average health risk for its owner(s)” (AVMA). They recommend veterinarians educate clients on alternatives and only perform declawing after medical or behavioral indications.

However, some individual veterinarians still perform routine declawing procedures. Surveys indicate declawing remains common in North America, with around 25% of pet cats declawed, though the practice is decreasing (Kogan 2016). Those who support declawing often view it as a preventative measure to protect furniture. But others argue declawing leads to more behavioral problems and is an inhumane procedure.

Legal Status

Declawing cats is banned in many countries around the world, where it is considered inhumane. Countries such as England, Scotland, Wales, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Portugal, Belgium, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have all banned the practice of declawing cats. The European Union also prohibits any alterations to an animal that are carried out for non-therapeutic reasons, including declawing.

In the United States, there is a growing movement to ban declawing at the state and local level. As of 2023, declawing has been banned in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. States that have prohibited declawing include New York, Maryland, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Washington D.C. also recently banned declawing in 2023. Efforts are underway in other states like Michigan to enact bans.

According to https://www.peta.org/blog/where-declawing-is-illegal/, some of the specific cities in the U.S. that have banned declawing include Austin, Berkeley, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Culver City, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Pittsburgh.

Conclusion

Declawing cats is a controversial procedure that continues to be debated within the veterinary community and in the general public. While some vets still perform declawing, many argue it should only be considered as a last resort when all other alternatives have failed. Overall, a growing number of veterinarians consider declawing unnecessary, unethical, and inhumane given the potential lifelong physical complications and negative behavioral changes it can cause cats.

The main points to understand are that declawing removes a core component of a cat’s natural abilities to exhibit normal behaviors. It can lead to pain while walking, inappropriate urination habits, and increased aggression or anxiety in some cats. The surgery itself also poses risks of complications. There are far better alternatives available today like scratching posts, nail trims, or vinyl caps that protect furniture but allow the cat to keep its claws.

In summary, while individual vets hold a range of views, the prevailing opinion in the veterinary community has shifted decisively against routine declawing. Most vets agree declawing should never be considered for human convenience, but only as a last resort when all else fails. Even then, declawing may do more harm than good for the cat’s quality of life. The consensus is clear – healthy cats should be allowed to keep their claws.

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