By Kate Hughes
There are few subjects related to cat ownership as hotly debated as declawing. There are passionate arguments on each side of the issue, with some veterinarians so staunchly against declawing that they refuse to perform the procedure. Declawing is illegal in the United Kingdom and throughout much of Europe, and many U.S. states are considering legislation to ban the procedure. (It’s banned in several California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, and most recently in Denver, Colorado.)
Most people on the anti-declawing side of the spectrum are there because they consider the procedure cruel, but ethics are not the only reason cat owners should think long and hard before declawing their pets. In some cases, the procedure is known to have negative long-term side effects. While most pet owners don’t take the decision to declaw their cats lightly, they should do some deep research into these side effects before making this irreversible decision.
Dr. Michael Moss, a veterinarian at Central Pennsylvania Veterinary Emergency Treatment Services in State College, Pennsylvania, says that pet owners must first be aware that negative side effects are typically the result of a poorly performed declawing procedure. “Poor surgical techniques are responsible for most of the negative side effects seen after a cat is declawed,” he says. “If a surgeon amputates too much or too little, or is careless when closing the surgical site, the healing process will not go smoothly and could lead to long-term complications.”
Whenever there is a surgical procedure, infection is always a possible side effect. Moss recommends that veterinarians prescribe antibiotics following a declawing procedure to mitigate the chances of infection. “Regardless of how well you clean it or how it is bandaged, we’re still talking about a foot,” he says. “It’ll be walking on the floor [not to mention the litter box!]. It’s very appropriate to use antibiotics post operatively to help with the healing, or at least enable healing without infection.”
Dr. Ryane E. Englar, assistant professor and clinical education coordinator at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, warns that owners should keep a sharp eye out for any signs of infection following declawing, as infections that go unchecked can become very serious. “There are cases in which the infection gets deeply rooted into the bone and/or travels through the body,” she says. Treatment for these types of serious complications can include hospitalization, aggressive antibiotic therapy, and even additional surgeries.
Refusal to Use the Litterbox
After being declawed, a cat may refuse to relieve himself in the litter box. Englar says there could be several reasons for this behavior. “The first is, simply, that the cat has wounds on his feet,” she says. “When cats use the litter box, they tend to dig, or at least cover up their leavings. If cat litter gets in those wounds, it hurts. So a cat may avoid going in the litter box, thinking their feet may hurt less if they go somewhere else.”
She also notes that to reduce the chance that litter will get stuck in the incisions, some people switch to paper litter right after a declawing procedure, but this could backfire. “If paper litter isn’t what the cat is used to, he may choose to go somewhere else because he doesn’t recognize that the paper litter is supposed to take the place of his regular litter,” Englar says.
Paw Pain and Nerve Damage
Paw pain and nerve damage can be caused by a number of issues, but Moss notes that many are related to either overzealous or overly cautious surgeons. Declawing involves the removal of everything down to the first knuckle on each of a cat’s toes, he explains. “Sometimes, a surgeon doesn’t remove the first knuckle entirely and some claw tissue remains. This tissue tries to grow a new claw, which in some cases will form a deformed claw under the skin, which in turn leads to an abscess. That can be extremely painful and lead to long-term pain if not dealt with properly.”
The opposite might also be true—the surgeon removes too much toe without intending to. “There’s a digital pad next to the claw, and if this is damaged, it can cause scar tissue that leads to a lot of paw pain,” Moss says.
Englar adds that nerve damage may result when a surgeon chooses the wrong surgical technique or is lacking in skill. “Not all cats are exactly the same, anatomically,” she explains. “There are always slight variations. If a surgeon doesn’t realize that anatomy may vary from the way it’s presented in a textbook, there could be issues.”
Lameness, or abnormal gait, can be temporary or permanent following declawing. It can be another side effect of those overzealous surgeons who remove too much tissue. “If you damage that second bone, it’s permanently damaged,” Englar says. “It could become a long-term issue. It could always hurt when your kitty walks.”
She adds that a good surgeon will let owners know if something happens during their cat’s declawing procedure. “There’s nothing that can be done to reverse it, so vets should communicate issues with their clients.”
Back pain may be caused by lameness, as a changed gait means Fluffy is not carrying her weight like she should. “I’ve mostly seen this in heavier cats after they’ve been declawed. It changes their posture and the way they walk,” Englar describes. “They’re shifting from their typical weight distribution because their feet are painful, like we might walk differently if we have a blister on our foot. But this just puts a strain on our other muscles, and causes pain.”
Englar is of the opinion that if an owner must declaw her cat, it should be done when the cat is very young or the owner risks behavioral changes. “Clawing is an instinctive behavior that doesn’t just wear down claws, it also acts a means for cats to mark their territory,” she says. “If you take an adult cat that’s already fixated on this behavior and remove her claws, it could be very stressful for her. Kittens, on the other hand, are more malleable than adult cats and more able to adjust to a major change like declawing.”
Alternatives to Declawing
One surgical alternative to traditional declawing is a tendonectomy, during which the veterinarian severs the tendons that allow a cat to extend her claws. The procedure is initially less invasive than a true declaw, but Englar does not recommend this procedure, because it may lead to more long-term problems than declawing. “Scratching is an ingrained behavior in cats, and, as I said earlier, they’ll still go through the motions if they don’t have claws. But with a tendonectomy, cats physically can’t scratch.”
More importantly, they also have no way to wear down their claws. This means that owners must be diligent about clipping claws, lest they keep growing and grow into Fluffy’s paw pads. “They also get thick and kind of gnarly and curly,” Englar notes. “This is because when cats are scratching appropriately, outer layers of the claws flake off. If they can’t scratch, that natural process can’t happen.” She adds that if claws aren’t properly maintained following a tendonectomy, pet owners will be dealing with problems like lameness, pain, and behavioral changes—just like with a botched declawing.
There are other alternatives to declawing that do not involve surgery. One of the most popular is plastic claw caps. “Of course, you have to catch your cat and individually cap each claw, so the cat has to be cooperative for this method to work,” Moss says. Veterinarians can perform the procedure every few weeks with the cat sedated, if necessary. Training methods can also be used to redirect your cat’s scratching to acceptable items, such as scratching posts. Finally, keeping your cat’s nails short and blunt by trimming them every week or so will mitigate much of the damage associated with scratching.
Discuss Declawing with Your Vet
Both Moss and Englar agree that any cat owner thinking about declawing their cat should talk to their vet about the procedure at length. “I think transparency is important,” Englar says. “Cat owners should know about declawing. They should know what surgical method their vet will use, how often the vet does declawing procedures, and how the vet manages cats’ pain. These are all important facts that should influence the decision-making process.”