Friday, July 17, 2009

Declawing Cats: Is It Cruel or Caring?

I often get asked about declawing cats. People have heard all sorts of terrible things about declawing, but they feel frustrated, helpless and angry with their cats when their house is being destroyed. They ask me what to do because they feel guilty even considering a declaw, but what happens when you no longer like your own pet because of its destructive behavior? What kind of life can you have together? Is that good for either the owners or their cats? In my experience in practice as well as with the NUMEROUS cats I have kept over the years, I think I can give you a pretty good understanding of the reasons behind both sides of this debate.

Removing the cat's front claws, or onychectomy, is a procedure performed only by veterinarians. While there are various methods used (Resco, disarticulation, laser, etc), the goal is to remove the claw and the third digit of the toe. Many people opt for declawing their cats as a means to protect their furniture or even their skin!

Opponents of declawing state that it is unnatural, cruel, and causes medical and behavioral changes in the cat. Some strong opponents have even been able to ban declawing in certain cities across the United States. Many European countries, parts of Australia, New Zealand and Japan all ban declawing. The first thing we must understand is WHY do cats scratch? Cats will sink their claws into a variety of inanimate objects in order to stretch, to mark territory, to sharpen the claws and to remove the outer layer of the claw that may be flaking away slowly. Pet owners report that cats seem to prefer certain fabrics when scratching (such as the easy-to-destroy vertical weave of many draperies!). Cats, of course, will also use their claws as a defenses mechanism, swatting at opponents or raking with their rear claws. Because many juvenile cats haven't learned how to play "nice", their play swatting and raking can sometimes take a toll on the owner's skin, or, worse, the skin of a young child.

Many people turn to declawing simply because they are not aware of, nor are they told about other options. These other options include training, tendonectomy, Soft Paws and simply routine nail trimming. For a lot of cat owners, taking the time to train the cat seems futile.

Opinions vary as to the "trainability" of cats, but experts do agree that an appropriate training program can keep a cat from scratching on unacceptable objects. First, a suitable substitute must be provided - scratching post, cat condo, etc. Next, owners need to be able to provide some sort of punishment for scratching on unacceptable items without being associated with the punishment. Squirt bottles can sometimes work if the cat is unaware that the owner is doing it. Punishment as a deterrent is especially challenging if it can’t be used EVERY SINGLE TIME an undesired behavior happens. In order for it to be effective, it must be consistent and not associated with the owner, or else the cat will simply learn not to do the behavior when the owner is around. So, more often, booby traps need to be set up so that the cat is startled every time and even when the owner is not around. Owners should also encourage and praise the cat for using the appropriate objects, like a scratching post. Catnip is useful for this!

Tendonectomy is a surgical procedure that clips the tendon that extends the claw from the cat's foot. Now, the cat keeps the claws but can't extend them. Owners need to realize that the cat will still need nail trims routinely throughout its life, and that while the cats can’t fully extend their claws, they can’t fully retract them, either. My experience with this procedure has been mixed. People like the idea, but in reality, the cats still can cause damage, and the need for continuous nail trimming can become a burden for some.

Soft Paws are acrylic nail caps that are glued in place over the cat's nails. By creating a blunt tip, the Soft Paws keeps the cat from causing any damage, to furniture or people. In my experience, these worked ok, but needed replaced quite often. Eventually, most people give up on these because of the extensive maintenance required.

So...what about the opposite viewpoint? Do cats experience immense pain and exhibit behavioral changes after a declaw? To date, no scientific study (and there have been several) has been able to document behavior changes in cats after they have been declawed. According to one survey, almost three quarters of the people asked had a better relationship with their cats after the declaw.

Pain is a different story. Seeing a cat waking up from anesthetic and a declaw procedure can be a trying experience for a new veterinary employee. Thankfully we understand so much more about the control of pain, pre-operatively, peri-operatively and post operatively now! With appropriate pain relief on board, many cats wake up comfortably. When lasers are used for declaws and the surgeon is well experienced, many of these cats wake up ready to play!! Younger cats seem to bounce back more quickly, regardless of the method used, while older cats do seem uncomfortable for a little longer. On a personal note, I declawed one of our clinic cats several years ago when he was five because he was swatting clients and drawing blood. We kept him on pain medication for a full week, and after the first day, he jumped up and down off counters and acted normally. So, bottom line is...if declaws are done, pain relief must be used!

Declawed cats do lose a signficant portion of their defenses when you remove the claws...but don't consider them completely defenseless. I have seen many declawed cats climb trees and telephone poles without a second thought, and the raking motion of the rear legs will still cause some deep scratches to anyone trying to pin down a cat! That said, I have always recommended that owners of declawed cats keep them inside for their own safety!

Choosing to declaw your cat should be a decision made between you and your veterinarian. I don't believe that the government should step in (as they did in West Hollywood), and, certainly, other options should be considered, if feasible to the owner. An elderly owner with fragile skin may not have the time to go through training, SoftPaws or other options. Similarly, a family with toddlers might also have a more difficult time waiting for other options to work. I also think that you shouldn't decide to declaw a geriatric adult cat unless there are no other options. At the same time, if it’s declaw the cat or it goes to the pound, I’ll declaw it with the understanding of the owner that pain management, both in hospital and at home, is going to be an essential part of the process.

Bottom line...if declawing keeps the cat in a good loving home versus the cat having to live outside with less attention and affection, then I believe that declawing is appropriate if done by a veterinarian and the cat is given appropriate pain relief. If you are able to use other options, then you should find that you, your cat, and his claws can all live in harmony!

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