FAQs On Declawing and Feline Scratching Behavior

Declawing - Know the Truth!!

Declawing is a very violent, invasive surgical procedure

There are many myths, misunderstandings, and misinformation concerning declawing. If you are considering having this surgery done on your cat, or if your veterinarian has suggested it, please take a few minutes to learn about this major surgical procedure before you make a decision.

The CFA (Cat Fanciers Association) perceives the declawing of cats (onychectomy) and the severing of digital tendons (tendonectomy) to be elective surgical procedures which are without benefit to the cat. Because of postoperative discomfort or pain, and potential future behavioral or physical effects, CFA disapproves of declawing or tendonectomy surgery."

The term "declawing" implies the removal of the claws, but it is a misnomer. Declawing is not merely the removal of the claws. Rather, it is a series of amputations. The last bone of each of the ten front toes is removed, and tendons, nerves, and muscles that allow for normal function of the paw are severed. An analogy in human terms would be cutting off each finger at the last joint.

Declawing, also known as onychectomy, is not a minor procedure, but a potentially crippling one that robs an animal of integral means of movement and defense. Declawed animals may be at increased risk of injury or death if attacked by other animals. They are deprived of satisfying their instinctual behavioral impulses to climb, exercise, and mark territory. They are subject to the risks of general anesthesia and surgery, which include bleeding, infection, lameness, nerve damage, gangrene, extensive tissue damage, and death. A report in the January 1, 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) by Yeon, et al., states that 33% of cats suffer at least one behavioral problem after declaw or tendonectomy surgery. Jankowski, in JAVMA (August 1, 1998), reports that acute complications "develop in up to a half of onychectomized cats. Long term complications of the procedure (are) reported for about a fifth of onychectomized cats." Martinez, in Veterinary Medicine (June 1993), reports 11% lameness, 17% wound breakdown, and 10% nail regrowth post-operatively in cats having declaw surgery.

Declawing is very painful and is NOT recommended

Declawing is actually a very painful procedure. In DVM Best Practices, August 2002, veterinarian Kip Lemke illustrates typical levels of post-surgical pain using common surgical procedures. Declawing is associated with "severe pain," compared to spaying ("moderate pain") and neutering ("mild pain"). Pollari states in JAVMA (June 1, 1996), "Because these procedures are so routine, they are often trivialized by clients as well as veterinarians." "Declawing is very painful - there's no question about that." says Dr. Katherine Houpt, professor and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Carroll, et al., in JAVMA (July 15, 1998) report, "Typically, cats undergoing onychectomy (declawing) are not given any analgesics (pain medication) or are only given a single dose of analgesic before or after surgery. There is a physiological cost associated with uncontrolled pain. Thus, provision of adequate analgesia would be of benefit." However, the investigators go on to report that veterinarians often have misconceptions regarding the degree and duration of pain following declawing as well as the safety of analgesic use in cats despite the abundance of published data documenting the efficacy of these drugs. The article also points out the challenges in assessing pain in cats, who instinctively hide signs of pain. The difficulties of clinically recognizing pain in cats is reported by a number of other authors, including Winkler (J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 1997), Franks (JAVMA 2000) Cambridge (JAVMA 2000), and Gellasch (JAVMA 2002). Though cats are typically sent home one to two days after declawing surgery without pain medication, Carroll points out that "the optimal duration of post-operative analgesic treatment for cats is unknown." A cat's behavior may be misinterpreted since not all cats show outward signs of pain - crying, whining, or licking at a paw, for example -- after surgery. "What they'll often do is curl up and go to sleep in the back of the cage," says Dr. Karen Tobias, an associate professor in small animal surgery at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, who conducted a study on pain in cats after declawing surgery. "Owners or veterinarians may think they're sleeping comfortably and not in any pain."

It appears that under-medicating cats after declawing is the norm. A survey of over 1000 veterinarians by Wagner and Hellyer (JAVMA Dec. 1, 2002) found that 44% administered no pain medication after declaw surgery. For those animals receiving pain medication there are potential problems. Some veterinarians have proposed the use of fentanyl patches. The patches, which are placed on the skin, contain a powerful narcotic. Their use in humans for post-operative pain was abandoned after several deaths occurred from accidental overdose.

There is ample evidence that declawing does result in increased biting and litter box avoidance, the behaviors that scientific researchers and shelter workers agree are the most common behavioral problems cited as reasons for relinquishment.

Since 1966 there have been only six articles in the US veterinary literature, including one by a Canadian veterinarian, that examined the behavioral effects of declawing. The first (Bennett, et al.), looked at only 25 declawed cats, but reported that declawed cats were 18.5% more likely than non-declawed cat to bite and 15.6% more likely to avoid the litter box. Morgan and Houpt found that the 24 declawed cats in their internet survey had a 40% higher incidence of house soiling than non-declawed cats. Borchelt and Voith, looking only at aggressive behavior in a retrospective survey of pet owners, found declawed cats bit family members more often than did non-declawed cats. In a retrospective phone survey, Patronek found that among 218 cats relinquished to a shelter, 52.4% of declawed cats versus 29.1% of non-clawed cats were reported to have inappropriate elimination. The Canadian article, by Landsberg, reported that about 5% of cats developed either biting or litterbox avoidance problems after declaw surgery. These figures were obtained by means of a written retrospective owner satisfaction questionnaire, approximately half of which were distributed by veterinarians other than the investigator.

The most recent article (Yeon, JAVMA 2001) found that 33% of cats suffer at least one behavioral problem after declaw or tendonectomy surgery. The study showed that 17.9% had an increase in biting frequency or intensity and that 15.4% would not use a litter box. Interestingly, the study made little note of these findings, choosing rather to compare owner satisfaction with declawing and tendonectomy.

In a commentary of the Yeon article, Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine Professor Nicholas Dodman, DVM, MRCVS, DACVB writes, "It is amazing that none of the studies to date on declawing has addressed the right questions to the right persons and drawn the right conclusions. This study is no exception. Owners are an unreliable source of information about their pets, especially months or years after the fact. Almost one-half of the cats in the study required post-operative opioids to control pain following surgery, and the remainder would have probably benefited from it. The owners reported that one-half to two-thirds of the cats in this study showed signs of pain after surgery, likely only the tip of the iceberg. In addition, though the authors were more interested in comparison of the two techniques, it is notable that about 30% of all cats developed a behavior problem after surgery, either house soiling or increased biting. Whatever the owners may have assessed, this was not a good outcome. And, to top it all, 42 of 57 cats (74%) had at least one medical complication following surgery. In light of such findings, it is hard to see why veterinarians don't spend more time and effort recommending alternatives to declawing than these painful and sometimes debilitating procedures. Instead, we seem to keep finding ways of justifying declawing as an essential component of feline practice."

In the December 2003 issue of Cat Fancy magazine, Karen Overall, DVM, PhD, DACVB, a board-certified animal behaviorist, writes that declawing is a complex behavior that "behavioral biologists have been almost wholly uninterested in" and that "fewer and fewer people favor declawing." She observes that "cats do not scratch to annoy us; they scratch to communicate something and the cues are physical and olfactory. This is one aspect of declawing that has never been investigated, and until we understand how much these elective surgeries affect normal feline behavior, we could do best to avoid them."

The National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy published "The Top Ten Reasons for Pet Relinquishment to Shelters in the United States" in 2000. The report showed house soiling, followed by aggression, as the most common behavioral reasons for pet relinquishment. Destructive scratching did not make the list. It is noteworthy that only 3.3% of cat owners, according to Scarlett, et al. (JAVMA 2002) claim destruction of furniture as the unwanted behavior that led them to relinquish their pets. This figure is similar to the 3% of cats that, according to the study, were relinquished for being "unfriendly and disobedient."

Despite their reputation for independence, cats can readily be trained to use a scratching post instead of the sofa, curtains, or rugs. Using surgery to prevent or correct a behavioral problem is expedient, but it is not the wisest, kindest, or best solution for your cat. Cats can be trained not to scratch furniture or other objects. Amazingly, many people do not even know that they should provide a scratching post for their cats. Because scratching is a deeply ingrained instinct in cats, if there is no appropriate spot, they will be forced to substitute furniture or other objects.

Use of a scratching post.  A vertical scratching post should be at least 28-36" high to allow the cat to stretch to his full height. Many cats prefer natural soft wood, such as a cedar or redwood plank, or posts covered with sisal rope. Some cats like to scratch on a horizontal surface; inexpensive cardboard scratchers are popular with these cats. Rubbing the surface with catnip, or using a catnip spray, may enhance the attractiveness of the post. For the more adventurous types, there are cat trees in dozens of sizes and colors, with features such as hidey-holes, lounging platforms, hanging toys, and other creative amenities.

There are many other options as well, such as clear, sticky strips to apply to the furniture, and other deterrents, as well as a multitude of climbing trees, mats, and other distractions that will protect your possessions. Adequate exercise, especially interactive play sessions, will also help channel kitty energy. For aggressive scratching, conscientious nail-trimming or soft plastic caps for the claws, Soft Paws, are a good beginning. Remember, never play or roughhouse with your kitten or cat using your bare hands. You don't want her to get the idea that biting or scratching human skin is okay. And while it's fun to watch the kitten attack your wiggling toes under a blanket, when he's 15 pounds with inch-long canine teeth, it's not nearly as amusing. Serious aggression problems require assistance from your veterinarian or a professional behavior consultant.


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