Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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This is the Question: To Declaw or Not Declaw?

Pet Column for the week of December 5, 2005

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

Many cat owners have made declawing part of the "new kitten" routine, along with vaccines and spaying or neutering. However, a large portion of the cat-loving community is opposed to this practice.

According to Dr. Tobin Eshelman, surgery resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, declawing is a procedure that, like any elective surgery, has pros and cons.

Because this is a procedure that requires general anesthesia, many pet owners choose to have it done at the same time as a spay or neuter. The procedure itself involves the removal of the cat's nail and, with it, amputation of the third phalanx (last of three bones) in each digit of the animal's forepaw.

Many cat enthusiasts are opposed to the practice. Some pet lovers, including some veterinarians, maintain that a cat may have permanent trouble walking or balancing after a declaw procedure, and that a cat's personality may change since its claws, which are a natural defense, are removed.

Dr. Eshelman explains that there is a small incidence of complications associated with the procedure surgery, such as infection of the surgery site, recurrent lameness, or incomplete removal of the third phalanx, which can be a source of pain and, rarely, nail regrowth.

As with most surgeries, there's also the issue of post-operative pain. It's difficult to assess how painful a cats forepaws feel after the procedure, since cats are unable to verbally describe their discomfort. Determining pain levels for animals is a matter of human interpretation, and many people feel that a declaw procedure is more painful than other elective surgeries.

"The veterinary community has come a long way in the past ten years in improving our pain assessment and pain management techniques," Dr. Eshelman points out, "so post-operative pain associated with the declaw procedure can be recognized and managed more effectively than it used to be." Clinical research has shown that new combinations of trans-dermal patches, local nerve blocks, oral anti-inflammatory drugs, and injectable drugs can significantly reduce signs of pain in cats when used in combination with the traditional injectable and oral pain medications.

Some cat lovers believe that declawing cats can also affect their demeanor and behavior, since scratching is a natural behavior that provides exercise, a natural form of defense, and enjoyment.

Dr. Eshelman says, "Some cats look at their paws and bat them around shortly after surgery; it is difficult to tell whether they are painful or simply resenting the thick boxing-glove bandaging around the paws. In my experience, once the bandages are removed, few owners report emotional trauma or abnormal behavior in their cats. Also, declawing is not recommended for cats that will spend any time outdoors, since they lose the defensive function of their nails."

Once a cat is declawed, it's important to provide it with plenty of toys and activities that mimic their predatory chasing behavior. This may offset boredom or inactivity if it stops scratching.

Dr. Eshelman understands the many reasons people may oppose declawing, but he explains that a declaw procedure can improve the human-pet relationship if a cat constantly destroys furniture or harms family members with its claws.

Another veterinarian at the University of Illinois Teaching Hospital, whose cats were declawed past the kitten stage, did not witness a change in their demeanor. "I used to feel that declawing was cruel, but I when I finally had it done to two of my cats, I found that it really improved my mood and my relationship with them. I didn't realize how much their scratching behavior was stressing me out, making me a cranky, bad pet owner."

Both veterinarians recommend that if a pet owner decides to have their cat declawed, that they get the procedure done while the cat is young, since a younger cat may adapt better to the change.

If a pet owner believes that declawing isn't right for their cats, there are several alternatives, both surgical and non-surgical, to minimize destructive scratching behaviors. Another surgery option is deep digital flexor tendonectomy, a less invasive procedure in which the tendon that extends the claws outward are cut, so the cat still has its full digits but cannot extend its claws. Regular nail trimming is still required after this procedure, but most cats are not able to be as destructive with permanently retracted claws.

Simply trimming a cat's nails regularly can minimize the damage those nails can cause. Training your cat to use a scratching post can deter your cat from scratching furniture and provides exercise and enjoyment. Other play activities, such as chasing toys or laser pointers, can also exercise a cat's predatory instincts.

Dr. Eshelman also likes a product on the market called "Soft Paws," soft-tipped plastic covers that slip over a cat's nails. They simply glue on and last several weeks. Cats may take a few days to get used to them, but once they do, they can scratch as they normally would without damaging furniture or harming family members.

Dr. Eshelman sums up, "When it comes down to a pet owner getting stressed out and frustrated with his cats' scratching, I'd rather see the cat without front claws than see the cat without a home."

For more information about declawing and alternatives, consult your veterinarian.