What is declawing?
Also known as 'onychectomy', the term declawing is somewhat of a misnomer as not only is the claw removed but also the third (distal) phalanx (bone). The procedure is usually performed on the front feet only.
It is almost unheard of outside of the United States and Canada, and even there it is declining in popularity with many veterinarians refusing to declaw cats unless absolutely medically necessary. In 2003, declawing was banned in parts of Los Angeles. It is illegal in almost every other country.
There are three methods of declawing cats, all three will be performed under general anaesthesia. Most veterinarians recommend declawing at the same time as your cat is spayed or neutered.
Resco clipper method (guillotine method) - This is the most common method of declawing and involves the use of a guillotine nail trimmer to cut through the bone. The problem with this method is that the nail grows from the last phalanx and if it isn't removed in its entirety, there is a possibility that the claw will re-grow, when this occurs, the regrowth is usually deformed and will require surgical removal.
Disarticulation method - This involves the separation of the third phalanx by carefully disconnecting the tendons attaching the third phalanx to the second phalanx. It is more intensive than the Resco clipper method, however as the bone is completely removed, there is zero chance of the claws growing back.
Laser method- The method used for laser declawing is the same as the disarticulation method, however, a laser replaces the scalpel. Advantages are that there is less bleeding, however, it is a more expensive surgery. Advantages of this type of surgery include less pain and a faster recovery time.
Tendonectomy - This procedure doesn't fall under the category of declawing as the claw isn't removed, instead, the ligament underneath your cat's toe is cut, preventing him from protracting his claws. Weekly nail trimming is necessary on cats who have undergone this surgery as they are no longer able to scratch their claws.
After declawing, the open site is either stitched or glued closed and then bandaged. All of these procedures will require a 1-2 day stay in the hospital along with analgesics postoperatively. Once your cat is discharged, he will need to have shredded paper in his litter tray until his feet are healed.
What is the purpose of declawing?
Declawing is generally performed to prevent cats from scratching and damaging furniture or family members (both pet and human). Cats do scratch, this helps to remove the loose, outer layer of the claw as well as keeping the claws sharp, it gives the cat an opportunity to stretch his forelegs, shoulders and back (a bit like a stretch when we wake up), and cats have scent glands in their paw pads which release pheromones which calm your cat.
Some people with compromised immune systems such as those with AIDS, diabetics, organ recipients or those undergoing chemotherapy may opt for declawing to reduce the risk of infection resulting from a scratch.
Are there any side effects to declawing?
Yes, declawing doesn't come without risks. The most common being:
- Pain (both post surgery and in some cases lifelong).
- Post surgical infection.
- Post-surgical bleeding. This is the most common complication of declawing.
- Wound reopening post surgery.
- Regrowth of the claw can occur if the entire bone isn't removed, as has been described above.
- Cats walk on their toes, and declawing leads to changes in gait due to weight now being placed on the second phalanx. Furthermore, over time, the severed tendons may shrink, result in the bone curling down, giving a clawed appearance to the foot. Immediately after declawing, more weight is shifted to the back feet, altering the cat's gait. Over time, the weight is re-distributed between the four feet, however, the second phalanx was not designed to be a weight bearing bone, resulting in an altered gait and the possible development of arthritis in later years.
- As some cats can experience long-term pain after declawing, behavioural issues may arise, most commonly inappropriate toileting as using a litter tray can cause pain and discomfort when scratching around in cat litter.
- Claws serve several functions including digging, climbing, self-defence and holding onto prey. Declawed cats are more likely to develop biting habits as a result of the loss of their claws as a defence mechanism.
Are there any alternatives to declawing?
There are several alternatives to declawing but the main goal is to prevent your cat clawing and damaging furniture.
- Providing your cat with a scratching post and working with the cat to encourage it to use that instead of your furniture. If space is a problem, you can buy small scratching posts that you hang over door handles that take up no room at all. For more information on training your cat to use a scratching post, read here. Watch how your cat scratches, is he scratching on horizontal or vertical surfaces? Each cat has his own preference and it is wise to purchase the appropriate cat tree or scratching post to suit his preferences.
- Using Soft Paws. These are vinyl covers which are glued over the cat's claw, lasting between two and four weeks. They are easy to apply. First, you place a small amount of clue into the cap, and then it is slid over the claw.
- Trimming your cat's claws regularly. See here on how to trim your cat's claws.
Are there any medical reasons to declaw a cat?
Occasionally there are medical reasons in which it will be of benefit to the cat to declaw but these are few and far between. Medical reasons may include a tumour, irreversible damage to the claw, claws that can't retract and paronychia (nail bed infections). Usually, this would result in only one digit being declawed and not all.
If you must declaw your cat or adopt a cat who has already been declawed then please keep him indoors.
While not medical, in some cases it is a choice between declawing a cat or surrendering him to a shelter or euthanasia.