Cat Declawing: The Painful Truth

Cat declawing
Cats are born with claws just as humans are born with fingernails. Declawing is an often unnecessary and painful procedure that can have lasting and harmful consequences for a cat. Wikimedia Commons

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Does it look as if Jack the Ripper went dog day afternoon on your couch? Does it seem as if Edward Scissorhands continually carves your doorjambs? If you answer yes to these questions, chances are you have a cat.

Cats are notorious for scratching. Some scratch furniture. Some pick at carpets. A few slice human sinew. They use chair legs as scratching posts and shred drapes and tablecloths into rags. Cats scratch. That's what they do. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), says "scratching is a normal behavior of cats." Conversely, "destructive scratching represents approximately 15 to 42 percent of feline behavior complaints."

They don't do it for malevolent reasons, but mainly to mark their territory, sharpen their nails, stretch their tiny cat muscles, protect themselves or remove dead husks from their claws. All of this is natural and instinctive. But because such activities can be destructive, many cat owners resort to declawing their felines, a painful, and many would say, barbaric remedy.

But now, the cats of New York state can now purr a bit louder thanks to a new bill passed by the state legislature in June 2019 that outlaws cat declawing. Pet owners who declaw their cats can face a stiff $1,000 fine. If signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is rumored to be a dog lover, New York will become the first state to make declawing cats illegal.

"This bill will ban declawing of cats except when necessary for therapeutic purposes," Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal told lawmakers just before the vote was taken in the New York Assembly. "There is no reason other than medical necessity, to remove or amputate the bone up to the first knuckle of a cat."

Make No Mistake, Declawing Causes Pain

Yet, declawing still happens, despite it being complicated and actually quite a brutal practice. The procedure involves, according to the Humane Society, a veterinarian amputating the last bone of each cat toe, sometimes with a scalpel or with a guillotine-like clipper. The vet then has to stitch each cut or bind them with surgical glue. The cat is later forced to walk with bandaged paws. Vets can also use lasers to slice off Fluffy's toes. The intense beam of hot light cuts through the cat's tissue like a light saber. "If performed on a human being," the Human Society says, "declawing would be like cutting of each finger at the last knuckle."

The third way is to severe the tendon in each toe that controls each claw. That option allows the claw to remain, although the cat can't use it. The claw will continue to grow, which means cat owners still have to trim the cat's nails.

Make no mistake, declawing is a painful procedure, "although," the AVMA says, "there is debate about the degree of pain experienced under ideal or typical conditions." In other words, because cats can't talk, they can't tell anyone how much pain they are in.

Possible Complications of Declawing

Yet, the AVMA says, "clinical signs of pain following declawing include a 'guarding' posture, reluctance to bear weight on the declawed limb(s), and reluctance to move." After reviewing one study, the AVMA says 61 of 163 cats exhibited signs of pain for one to 42 days after declawing, while 26 percent of cats went lame for one to 54 days. "The risk of lameness increased with longer surgical time and the use of a scalpel blade for disarticulation of the third phalanx."

There can also be complications. Elignor Molbegott, legal counsel of the Humane Society of New York who has been working for years to pass the ban, says declawed cats can have litter box issues. "As a result, cats get turned into shelters," she said in an interview, recalling the time she had found a home for an abandoned cat. The woman who took the cat had the feline declawed. A few weeks later, she wanted to get rid of it, because, Molbegott says, "it was too affectionate." Molbegott took the cat back. They were companions for 20 years. "It's not a benign thing to do," Molbegott says.

With the passage of the measure, the Empire State joins several U.S. cities, including Los Angeles and Denver in banning declawing. While similar bills are being considered elsewhere, Kitty Block, president of the Humane Society of the United States, hopes more communities will make declawing illegal.

Block, in an email, says the procedure is an "unnecessary convenience" surgery. "Complications from declawing include an increase in biting and litter box avoidance, which often results in the cat being surrendered to an animal shelter," she says.

Block says the Humane Society is partnering with the Paw Project and "ethical" veterinarians to educate lawmakers around the country about the issue in the hopes of expanding the ban.

Why Do People Do It?

If declawing is so painful for cats, why do people choose this option? The reasons vary. Some do it because they love their furniture. Declawing may protect older cat owners, especially those with diabetes or compromised immune systems from suffering life-threatening complications from cat scratches. But let's be real: Instances of cats killing people through infection are rare. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 12,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with cat scratch fever, resulting in 500 hospitalizations each year. Yet for most people the disease is mild with low-grade fever, fatigue and headaches.

For Assemblywoman Rosenthal and the majority of New York state lawmakers, there is "never any good reason" to declaw a cat, unless the feline suffers from cancer or "other medical necessities."

There are ways to change a cat's scratching behavior. Here are a few from our friends at PetMD:

  • Invest in a scratching post, or several, and place them strategically around the house. When your cat starts to scratch, don't yell or scold. Pick her up and put her near the post.
  • Sprinkle cat nip on your cat's scratching post to make it more inviting.
  • Tack a toy to the post (or buy a scratching post with one). When the cat swipes, she might scratch at the post.
  • Cover your cat's favorite scratching sites with double-sided sticky tape to deter future scratching.
  • Spray furniture with herbal sprays that cats will avoid.

Here's another idea: Why not just trim your cat's nails? If your cat isn't a fan of nail trims, consider buyinh plastic colored caps to place around the claws. Not only will the caps save your furniture, but your cat will be stylin'.