Cat claws

Most of us want what’s best for our family, so when considering an invasive and irreversible surgical procedure for a loved one, shouldn’t we be sure to explore the pros and cons beforehand?

Surprisingly, sometimes this doesn’t happen. Some folks say they trust their physician or veterinarian completely, and that they fear it may hurt their doctor’s feelings to ask questions or seek another opinion. Or, sometimes they just may not be given complete information.

With cats, owners who turn to declaw as a reflexive response to a torn sofa or out of fears that household items might be damaged may not fully understand that the procedure is risky, painful and potentially debilitating.

Some veterinary practices do a better job than others on disclosing what declaw procedures truly entail. Some refuse to perform it, but a common policy in many practices is to simply say that the hospital neither discourages nor encourages it — a sort of neutral position. In other cases, staff members report being actively steered away from fully explaining what the procedure entails to clients — that it is, in fact, amputation of the toes — out of fears of upsetting a client who is set on the procedure.

This was what Dana Atwood-Harvey, a sociology researcher who investigated this controversial practice, discovered. In her study, she also points out that, "Even the more common language of declawing is misleading. It is not the practice of removing a cat’s claws. Rather, if you put your hands up in front of you and look at your first knuckle — where your nails begin — think of them chopped off."

Painful Complications Can Result

Ms. Atwood’s point is that it is important to understand what physically happens to a declawed cat. Because the process involves removal of bone, joint, nerves, vessels, and tendons, "onychectomy" (meaning "nail removal") carries an exceptionally high complication rate. Half of cats experience problems after surgery.[i] Actually, a more precise term for the procedure is “phalangectomy” because the veterinarian removes parts of the digits known as “phalanges”, and not just the nail, or claw. After amputation, surgical and postsurgical complications include: pain, hemorrhage, pad laceration, swelling, limb disuse, nerve injury and/or tissue damage from inappropriate tourniquet application, lameness, infection and more.[ii] Depending on the method employed, bone fragments may be left behind, making every step for the cat feel like she is tiptoeing on sharp pebbles. Even cats without residual fragments may still look as if they are walking on glass fragments or nails due to the pain. Some cats refuse to bear weight on the paws and attempt to walk upright on the hind limbs or sit with both forepaws elevated. Many develop lifelong lameness and a condition called the "chronic pain syndrome of feline onychectomy".[iii][iv] They often become sedentary, exhibit poor appetite, and seem aggressive due to the ceaseless pain.

Although various surgical approaches for declaw exist, each can cause complications. Some veterinarians claim that cutting the tendon that protrudes the claw is more humane,[v] but American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) policy does not recommend tendonectomy or "digital flexor tenectomy." This modified approach can lead to contracture pain, nail-bed infections, and client dissatisfaction.[vi] [vii] Declaw performed by laser rather than the scalpel produces less initial discomfort[viii][ix], but the ethics and long-term quality-of-life issues remain.

Cats have claws because they help them stay happy and healthy. They scratch to stretch, exercise, and climb—to play, greet and relieve frustrations. They also scratch to communicate and send social signals to other cats through visual signs (claw marks) and scents left by glands in the paw pads on the scratched object.

First, Do No Harm

Experience and evidence has shown us that many of Hippocrates’ insights from more than 2,000 years ago remain true today. These include “Walking is a man’s best medicine” and “Prevention is preferable to cure.” In applying these concepts to cats, we should consider ways to keep cats walking well and prevent long-term suffering. This means that we should not declaw kittens as part of a bundled surgical package with neuter or spay. In fact, the AVMA advises against this practice. Their policy states, "Declawing of domestic cats should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively."

Encourage Safe Scratching

Instead of sentencing a cat to a lifetime of discomfort and missed exercise opportunities, we can enrich their environment with ample sites and means to scratch safely and productively, which will meet their needs for behavioral expression as well as yours for a happy home. Positive steps suggested by the Animal Behavior Society include:

  • Providing several well-constructed scratching posts, unlikely to topple over, in popular sleep, play or rest areas. Your cat is less likely to scratch a post or climbing gym located in a back corner of the living room or in the basement.
  • Experimenting with posts or larger climbing structures made of carpet, wound sisal rope, nubby textures or a combination of various textures, and ensuring that the post feels secure. A wobbly post may be permanently shunned. Cats are smart and picky. They don’t want to risk being injured by an unstable object.
  • Encouraging appropriate scratching by playing with dangling toys on or near the post. Scent it with catnip. Praise your cat and reward her with food when scratching occurs. You might even scratch the post yourself to model the behavior.

For more facts about feline declawing, including informational videos about declaw and paw repair surgery, visit The Paw Project website. You’ll see why even large, exotic cats need their paws and claws protected.

[i]Tobias KS. Feline onychectomy at a teaching institution: a retrospective study of 163 cases. Vet Surg. 1994;23:274-280. Cited in: Cooper MA, Laverty PH, and Soiderer EE. Bilateral flexor tendon contracture following onychectomy in 2 cats. Can Vet J. 2005;46:244-246.

[ii]Cooper MA, Laverty PH, and Soiderer EE. Bilateral flexor tendon contracture following onychectomy in 2 cats. Can Vet J. 2005;46:244-246.

[iii]Pickett L. Ask the vet’s pets: Declawed cats risk chronic pain. . Accessed on 06-10-12.

[iv]Gaynor JS. Chronic pain syndrome of feline onychectomy. NAVC Clinician’s Brief. 2005;11-13, 63.

[v]Cloutier S, Newberry NC, Cambridge AJ, et al. Behavioural signs of postoperative pain in cats following onychectomy or tenectomy surgery. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2005;92:325-355.

[vi]Branch C and Knudson D. Comments on tenectomy and onychectomy in cats. Letters to the editor. JAVMA. 1998;213(7):954.

[vii]Jankowski AJ, Brown DC, Duval J, et al. Comparison of effects of elective tenectomy or onychectomy in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1998;213:370-373.

[viii]Holmberg DL and Brisson BA. A prospective comparison of postoperative morbidity associated with the use of scalpel blades and lasers for onychectomy in cats. Can Vet J. 2006;47:162-163.

[ix]Mison MB, Bohart GH, Walshaw R, et al. Use of carbon dioxide laser for onychectomy in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2002;221:651-653.