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The Declaw Debate

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Whether or not declawing (the surgical removal of your cat’s nails) is humane and ethical has been the subject of heated debates for as long as the procedure has been in practice.  Those for the procedure say that the cat doesn’t need its claws because it is kept indoors.  Those against declawing believe that the process is painful and unnecessary, as well as harmful to the cat’s well-being. 

Which side is right?  Many countries outside of the U.S. have taken an anti-declaw position.  In most of Europe, declawing is prohibited or illegal under animal cruelty laws.  Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Israel, Japan and Turkey also prohibit declawing, and the practice is so uncommon in the United Kingdom, that many people there have never even seen a declawed cat and certainly wouldn’t adopt one from an animal shelter. 

Some people in the U.S. have good reasons to declaw their cats when it is for medical reasons – either the cat’s or the owner’s.  To make the decision of whether or not to declaw your cat, you should learn more about why cats need their claws, understand the declawing (or onychectomy) procedure and possible complications, and then look carefully at your own situation to see if there might be some pain-free alternatives.
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Why do Cats Need Their Claws?
Cat claws are primarily instruments of self-defense and catching food.  If you declaw your cat and let him or her outside (or they escape through an open door), they are virtually defenseless.  Granted, they have their teeth and back claws, but they will still be at a serious disadvantage if attacked by an animal larger than a squirrel, like a dog or raccoon, or if they need to catch their own food. 

But cats use their claws for a lot more than just protection and hunting.  Cat claws actually act as exercise equipment; next time you see your pet scratching at his or her post, watch how your pet is using the resistance of their claws to strengthen its back and upper body.  Scratching is a whole upper-body workout for your cat and a stress-reliever besides.

Claws also act as an all-purpose tool: they work like traction-grabbing cleats when running, they provide balance when climbing or perching, and they make a great back-scratcher for those hard-to-reach itches.  Cats also communicate with their claws.  Have you ever held your cat in your lap, having a nice cuddle session, when your pet extended his or her claws a bit – not enough to hurt you, but enough to let you know they were done snuggling?

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Declawing: The Surgery
Unfortunately, there are many people who don’t understand that declawing is a major surgery for their cat and requires a lot of recuperating time and pain-management medication.  The word “declawing” sounds innocuous, like the phrase “nail trim,” and it helps to know what actually occurs during surgery.  There are three main methods used by veterinarians to declaw cats, including the following:

The Guillotine (Clipper) Method
Practiced by most veterinarians in the U.S. because of the short amount of time involved (5-15 minutes), the guillotine approach involves removing the end of the toe bone, taking the claw with it.  This approach, if not done correctly, can crush the ends of the toe bones.

Blade Excision
The blade excision is similar to the guillotine approach, except that it is performed with a surgical blade and takes much longer (25-45 minutes).  Still a painful recovery, the blade excision involves removing the claw and closing the incision with surgical glue.  The cat’s paws are then wrapped in bandages overnight.

Laser Declawing
Achieving the same results as the guillotine method and the blade excision, laser declawing is said by some to be easier on the pet, as it reduces bleeding and is thought to cut down on the pain involved in the surgery.  However, finding veterinarians that perform laser declawing is more difficult and more expensive because of the laser equipment involved.

Complications from declawing surgeries are relatively uncommon, but can include chronic pain, damage to the radial nerve, bone chips, and painful claw re-growth, and difficulty walking (especially in overweight cats).  There is a higher chance of complications in older cats that also include negative anesthetic effects, prolonged pain and limping, and psychological trauma, similar to human amputee patients who experience pain in their “ghost” appendages.

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When Should You Consider Declawing?
When considering whether to declaw your cat, be sure to weigh your options.  If your cat is destroying furniture, or you fear that he or she will scratch your children, there are options that you can try first (see Alternatives to Declawing).  In very rare cases, declawing is a health necessity for cats.  If you think that your pet is one of these cases, talk to your vet.

However, if you value your pet’s companionship, but have a compromised immune system, as a symptom of an illness like HIV or a side-effect from undergoing chemotherapy, declawing may be your only option.  In this event, consult with a trusted veterinarian about the surgery.  Make sure that you understand all risks involved for your cat, post-operative pain management methods, and what kind of follow-up care is necessary.

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Alternatives to Declawing
If you’d rather that declawing your cat be a last resort, there are several methods you can try first to solve the problem:

Scratching Posts
The idea of a scratching post being the first line of defense in protecting your furniture and drapes may seem silly.  After all, how will sharpening his or her claws prevent your pet from using them on things they aren’t supposed to?  The reality is that cats need to sharpen their claws, and they also need a human-approved, cat-friendly place to do it.  Be sure to keep the scratching post or pad (either sisal or cardboard) in a convenient place and entice your pet to it with catnip if you need to.  Your sofa will thank you.

Nail Caps
Nail covers, like those sold by Soft Paws®, are clever contraptions that fit over your cat’s nail.  They are relatively easy to apply, last from 4-6 weeks, keep your cat’s claws from digging into furniture and people, and are available in a variety of colors.

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Nail Trimming
Nail trimmers can be found at any pet store and are a good way to keep your cat’s sharp claws at a non-lethal level.  If you don’t feel comfortable with the guillotine style trimmers (with a hole that you place the cat’s nail into for clipping), you can also use toenail clippers designed for people.  Get your cat comfortable, take his or her paw, and press gently in the middle.  Your cat’s retractable claws will extend, allowing you to carefully trim the ends.

Other Options
If all else fails, talk to your vet about other alternatives to declawing.  He or she may recommend slipcovers for your furniture, cat-friendly sprays that keep your pets away from areas you don’t want them to be in (or scratching at), or even double-sided tape, which cats absolutely hate to touch.

Your cat’s claws are important to him or her and declawing, while appropriate in a few cases, is a serious surgery that should not be decided upon without serious consideration.  As a pet owner that wants the best for their cat, make sure that your pain-free alternatives to declawing are exhausted before you make the decision to declaw.

To learn more about keeping your kitty healthy,
visit our information page on Allergies

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