Onychietomy (part II of Why Cats Scratch)

For years and years, cats have been misunderstood for their natural behavior of scratching. People may think their furry friends are being purposefully destructive or acting out, and if they happen to scratch their human family members, it hurts! Speaking as one who still has a scar from a family cat from a scratch ten years ago, there’s no objection that it hurts. So many times, pet parents will resort to the declaw procedure. This is an amputation surgery to remove your cat’s toes.

Because cats naturally walk on their toes, taking their toes away will of course change their mobility, and over time they have to constantly compensate for their missing toes. In atypical settings (where the procedure may not be necessarily done properly or with the best tools, medicine, or skill) this can eventually lead to health complications like arthritis, lumbar-spine pain, avoidance of stepping into the litter box due to pain, aggression due to pain, bony protrusions, calluses, cysts, growths, inflammation, cutaneous horns, lacerations, plantigrade stance, swollen fingers, or tendon contracture. These examples are not necessarily what will happen, more so what has been seen in past non-accredited, non-cat friendly practice hospitals, but important to take into account when you are thinking about this particular procedure. “But my cat was just fine after their declaw” you say? Cats are notorious for hiding pain. And the majority of cat owners aren’t trained to notice the subtle signs of discomfort and health problems. It is important to keep a dialogue with your veterinarian if your cat has recently been declawed, so you can monitor your cat for early signs of pain or abnormalities. I encourage you to search the x-rays of a cat before and after declawing, investigate both sides of the debate, read testimonies from pet parents that have had it done and declaws that ended in good and bad results so you will know all aspects of it.

Disadvantages to take into account:

  • Cats can no longer engage in their natural behavior of scratching.
  • Declawing a cat is not a guarantee that a cat will stay in its home (meaning it’s not a guarantee that the pet parent and pet relationship will necessarily be kept intact), the cat may still wind up at the shelter if the pet parent finds irreconcilable differences and then you have a declawed cat in the shelter.
  • Letting your declawed cat outdoors leaves them at a severe disadvantage as you have removed their main means of self-defense against dogs, other cats, or other predatory animals. Please keep in mind an indoor-only lifestyle is not inhumane for your kitty.
  • Declawing your new cat just because the cat you already have is already declawed is not necessarily beneficial to the cat you already have.
  • The older or heavier the newly declawed cat is, the more weight and strain they are putting on their altered, currently healing feet.
  • Resorting to declaw as a behavior modification will not necessarily give you the results you are looking for, the cat may still practice other behaviors like trying to scratch (the declawed cat does not necessarily know he’s declawed), or biting if they are young and already inclined to rough play.
  • Some non-accredited, non-cat friendly clinics may not employ the most up to date methods of declaw and after care.

Alternatives to declawing:

  • Use scratching posts or scratching pads, either sisal or corrugated cardboard, either a vertical or horizontal post.
  • You can make the scratching post more desirable by putting cat nip around it or treats.
  • You can make the leg of your couch or chair (or other object that you don’t want your cat to scratch) undesirable by wrapping it with plastic (to create an unpleasant feel to scratch), or, as Veterinary Partner suggests, you can tape little balloons to the surfaces so when the cat goes to scratch they will cause a loud pop sound. Loud startling noises are the key here!
  • Use cone shaped scratching posts that you can put on either side for your couch, guarding the arms of the couch or chair.
  • Make the things they like to scratch an unpleasant experience to scratch: you can use double-sided tape on surfaces they like to scratch, you can put crinkled up aluminum foil on chair arms to make it have an unpleasant sound and feel to scratch.
  • Be sure to trim your cat’s claws regularly.
  • Utilize synthetic nail caps like the Pretty Claws brand soft nail caps. But just be aware these caps must be replaced as the claws grow and sometimes it will not deter the scratching.

The key here is training: it can take time to redirect your cat’s interest to something you’d prefer them to scratch and direct them away from your furniture or your arms, but if over time, you ARE successful and now you don’t have to consider a permanently altering procedure, isn’t that worth the time and effort?

I have a firm personal stance but it is not my place to say what is right and wrong for your cat, but I do feel it’s important that cat parents learn all the facts about this procedure and exhaust all alternatives first so they can make an informed decision with their veterinarian. Anything invasive should always be discussed with your vet (preferably an accredited, cat friendly vet who knows all the nuances of cat behavior and their wellbeing). A declaw is a permanently altering procedure, it is not something to take lightly. The important take away from all this discussion about such a hot-button subject that I want to convey is to remember to have patience with your cat. They love you and they are just doing what all cats do when they scratch. And to please please please make sure you are informed and make decisions regarding your cat’s wellbeing with the guidance of your veterinarian.

Image credit for above anatomic changes illustration: https://littlebigcat.com/physical-consequences-of-declawing/

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