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Alternatives to declawing

Declawing (Onychectomy): risks, consequences and alternatives

Why talk about declawing?

Certainly, this is a very common practice in Quebec. It often seems as though bringing your cat to the vet to be declawed is as natural as going to the hairdresser for a haircut. Veterinary clinics, in which we place our trust, offer this service, and often agree to perform it without offering reasons why it should not be done. Few people know that onychectomy is much more than a manicure or a simple removal of the claws, however.

It is actually a major operation that is traumatizing for the cat and carries several series risks for the cat’s physical and emotional health. There are many people, particularly in Europe, that understand the seriousness of this operation. Did you know that onychectomy is illegal in many countries, including England, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and Belgium, and is considered to be a cruel and inhumane practice in many others? It has also recently been outlawed in a small part of California, something which many Americans hope will become a national policy. Shocked? In order to better understand this question, let’s take a closer look at the details of what onychectomy involves.

Details of the operation

Onychectomy is a surgical procedure performed solely for the benefit of human beings.

The operation consists in amputating the last phalanx of each of the cat’s toes in order to eliminate his or her claws. In human terms, this is the equivalent of amputating the last third of each of our fingers. However, performing this procedure on a cat is more complicated than it would be to perform it on us; because cats’ claws are retractable, the anatomy surrounding them is very complex. To remove a cat’s claws, the veterinarian must cut the tendons, ligaments, and bones attached to them. Declawing a cat’s front paws alone represents ten separate amputations that he or she must endure. It is better to not even think of the number of amputations involved if the back paws are declawed as well!

The complications that can result from the operation include infection and hemorrhaging. Another possible complication is the abnormal regrowth of the cat’s claws, requiring the cat to undergo even more surgery in order to correct the problem. In order for the onychectomy to be performed, the cat must be given a rather long-lasting general anesthetic, and in order to control the pain, the cat must be given powerful painkillers once he or she wakes up, with good reason!

The following link provides diagrams of the declawing procedure: the parts removed during the operation, as well as examples of possible post-operation complications. The images are taken from a veterinary textbook: Maxshouse.com


The cat’s early convalescence is slow and extremely painful, and is often accompanied by trauma, which cats are experts at hiding. Because cats instinctively hide any weakness that would make them appear vulnerable in a natural, non-domestic environment, it is very difficult for humans to notice when they are suffering.

If a human being had undergone such an operation, he or she would at least be able to make use of a wheelchair or crutches while convalescing. However, these options do not exist for cats, who must continue to use their feet to walk, jump, and use the litter box in spite of the pain they are experiencing.

As if this was not bad enough, unfortunately, the cat’s pain does not end once he or she has recovered from the operation. Because the last phalanges of the cat’s toes are missing, the cat must alter his or her natural gait. To compensate for the missing phalanges, the cat must put his or her weight on the preceding phalanges, which eventually weakens the cat’s legs, shoulders, and back. The cat could suffer from chronic muscle pain for the rest of his or her life as a result, without us even realizing it.

Behavioral problems

True, many declawed cats do not develop behavioral problems as a result of having had the operation, but this is not always the case. Here are the most commonly reported behavioral problems in declawed cats:

The cat develops an aversion to the litter box. He or she associates the litter box with the pain he or she feels when scratching the litter, so he or she avoids it. Instead, the cat will choose smoother surfaces on which to relieve his or herself, like your favorite rug, which you had hoped to protect from damage by having the cat declawed!

The cat is always anxious and on alert because it has lost its primary defense mechanism. As a result, the cat will not hesitate to bite when he or she feels intimidated, and will often bite without warning, which is not very safe for your children.

Unable to recover from the trauma he or she experienced as a result of the operation, the cat becomes hostile and suspicious of those around him or her. The cat’s personality will change, and he or she will become sad and difficult to approach?quite a difference from the happy and playful kitten he or she once was.

You may be thinking “Yes, but my friend so-and-so had his cat declawed, and the cat did not develop any of these behavioral problems.” Certainly, it is true that these problems do not develop in every cat, but when they do, they are not easy to resolve. Not every owner of a declawed cat is ready to invest the energy, patience, and time necessary to resolve behavioral problems that develop. However, people seldom hesitate to have their cats declawed because few veterinarians make people aware of the risks of the operation before performing it. This is because onychectomy represents a large part of the revenues of veterinarians, both in Quebec and the United States. Veterinarians often justify performing onychectomies by arguing that the procedure will increase a cat’s chances of being adopted. However, cats who do not respond well to the surgery often end up either being returned to the shelter, or being euthanized. For those who care about these fragile animals, this is a very sad thought.

Why do cats need their claws?

We all know that claws are a cat’s primary defense mechanism. Most people who have their cats declawed have the intention of keeping them indoors, but the cat could always sneak outside undetected. This happens rather frequently, actually. It is also not unusual for people to eventually give in to the urge to let their cats go outside, particularly if they move to an area with a more interesting landscape. If a cat is outside, they need their claws in order to escape dangerous situations, such as an encounter with an aggressive dog. Having claws gives cats better traction, and enables them to run faster and to climb trees in order to escape danger. If a cat comes face to face with an aggressor, their claws are their best chance of protecting themselves, because their bite is much less powerful than that of a dog.

A cat can also run away and get lost. Just because a pet has disappeared from our lives does not mean that we no longer care what happens to it. In addition to needing to be able to defend themselves, when they are lost cats also need their claws in order to find food, to be able to trap prey, like mice. A declawed cat that is lost is extremely vulnerable, and doomed to meet a tragic fate.

Cats need their claws in order to be able to stretch their legs properly, ensuring that they are in optimal physical condition. Having their paws intact also gives them the perfect agility they need in order to run and jump, and to play with and catch their toys. Cats also use their claws as a means of communication: they often express their happiness by kneading while purring. In short, having claws is important for a cat’s protection, physical health, and happiness.

A mutilation!

To sum up, to declaw a cat is to mutilate the cat. The surgery does not have any benefit for the cat. Instead, it brings the cat a great deal of pain, and imposes risks on his or her physical and emotional health, which has unpleasant consequences for their owners as well. From an ethical point of view, is it acceptable to subject an animal that is in perfect health, one that trusts you unconditionally, to a drastic, risky, and painful operation just for your personal convenience? If we really want the company of a cat, wouldn’t it make more sense to accept the cat as is, and to help him or her adapt to living in our home in a more humane way than by giving him or her a permanent handicap?

You need to ask yourself whether a cat is the ideal companion for you and your home, particularly if you have nice furniture that you want to protect from damage. Only you can answer this question. However, you should know that with patience, time, and love, it is possible to have both.

The alternatives

It is important to understand that it is impossible to prevent a cat from sharpening his or her claws. This constitutes natural behavior for cats, and enables them to:

Mark their territory. Cats have odor-secreting glands in their paws which enable them to leave their scent, or in other words, their identity, on the things on which they sharpen their claws. This is why cats often choose the most prominent furniture in the house for this purpose.

Break off the old, outer shell of their claws in order to expose the fresh, new claws that have grown underneath.

Exercise and stretch their front paws muscles.

Enjoy themselves: sharpening their claws feels good to cats.

It is up to us to train the cat only to carry out this activity in certain places. In order to do this, we have to provide the cat with the necessary accessories.

● Trimming your cat’s claws
Trimming your cat’s claws can greatly reduce the damage they can do to your furniture. However, it is still a good idea to have a scratching post and to encourage good behavior in your cat. Veterinarians trim cats’ claws on a regular basis. During your first visit to the vet, ask the veterinarian to show you how to trim your cat’s claws. It is a good idea to gradually get your cat used to having his or her paws manipulated by you before you try to trim their claws for the first time, because he or she will almost certainly try to resist your efforts. It is very important to cut only the very tips of the cat’s claws, avoiding the more opaque and pink parts of the claws, otherwise you will hurt the cat. Pet stores sell special claw-clippers, but ordinary nail-clippers work just as well.

● The scratching post
These can be purchased in pet stores. However, you can also make one yourself, which would give you the opportunity to choose the kind of material you want to cover it with. The base must be large and solid to prevent the scratching post from rocking back and forth when it is used, otherwise the cat will not want to use it. The post must be high enough to enable the cat to stretch the entire length of his or her body while using it. Pine and cedar are both good choices.

Try to observe what type of material your cat likes best. The ideal material with which to cover a scratching post is sisal cord. In order for it to be attractive to your cat, whatever material you choose must be durable and rough. You could use a piece of old carpet, which you could even attach to the post with the more rigid underneath side facing out, or you could use a durable material meant for upholstering furniture, or you could use a combination of these materials. Uncovered natural wood could also be just the thing for your cat.

Because the cat will want to attract your attention when using the scratching post, it must be kept in a frequently used area of your home and not hidden away in a corner. If you do not yet have a cat but are planning to get one, try to have the scratching post ready before the cat’s arrival. If you already have a cat, and the cat has already tried to sharpen his or her claws on a certain piece of furniture, place the scratching post near that piece of furniture.

Once you have chosen a spot for the scratching post, you must train the cat to use it: he or she might not guess what the scratching post is for on their own. While you are training the cat to use the scratching post, you can protect your furniture by covering it with old sheets or double-sided tape, both of which will make your furniture less attractive to the cat. If you have a kitten that likes to climb things, you should tie up your curtains so they are out of reach. In order to attract the cat to the scratching post, shake a toy or string above it until the cat climbs the post to catch it. Do this often for several days, rewarding the cat with a treat every time he or she digs their claws into the scratching post, tries to climb it, or sharpens their nails on it. Always make the scratching post the center of your games with the cat, and sprinkle it with catnip or valerian to attract the cat to it even more. By making the cat associate the scratching post with pleasure, you will stimulate his or her desire to use it.

If the cat continues to sharpen his or her claws on things other than the scratching post, here are a few methods of discouraging this behavior. Spray the item with a repulsive spray, which you can purchase in a pet store. You can also spray the item with a fabric freshener that has a strong citrus scent, as this smell is generally repulsive to cats. The idea behind this is to eliminate the territory-marking scent that the cat has left behind by sharpening his or her claws on the piece of furniture.

As soon as the cat puts his or her claws into a piece of furniture that he or she is not allowed to scratch, make a loud sound that is disagreeable to the cat. For instance, you can say “No!” in a clear and authoritarian manner, or you can shake an aluminium can with some change in it. You can also keep a spray bottle filled with water at hand, and spray the cat whenever he or she tries to sharpen their claws on the furniture.

What not to do: When the cat breaks the rules, you must avoid dragging the cat to the scratching post in order to “explain” to him or her where they are allowed to sharpen their claws. Don’t forget that you want the cat to associate the scratching post with pleasure, an association that you will destroy if you angrily bring the cat to it. It is much better to wait for the cat to use the scratching post on their own, and reward them when they do.

Cats are naturally independent animals. Unlike dogs, they do not live within a social hierarchy in the wild. Therefore, cats do not understand physical punishments. If you try to punish your cat by hitting him or her, the cat will learn to fear you, and to sharpen his or her claws on the furniture when you aren’t looking.

Training a cat to use a scratching post can take time and patience, much like training a puppy to relieve his or herself outside does. You must persist in your efforts until they meet with success.

Other options

The cat tree. This is a multi-level piece of furniture with numerous poles and platforms, designed specifically for cats. This is a dream item for cats (and especially kittens), and it will make them forget all about your furniture. To give you an idea of what a cat tree looks like, visit the following American website that offers a huge selection of furniture for cats, as well as scratching posts. Visiting this site can also give you some ideas on how to build a cat tree yourself.

Cat trees are not in the way at all. What is more, your guests will enjoy watching your cats amuse themselves in their own private condo!

Nail caps. Yes, there are false nails for cats, too! They are small caps made of vinyl that you can glue to your cat’s claws in order to limit the damage the cat can do with them. They do have one disadvantage: they are not permanent, and must be replaced when they fall off. Please note, this is not an option for cats that go outside.

To learn more about declawing, visit the website of S. Drapeau: Le Maître chat (French only).

Other interesting websites: for further information please visit this page, which repertories of all the major sites offering information in declawing and its alternatives: Amby.com.

Source: Chakashiva. Without modifying its content, please feel free and encouraged to share this article with others.