Declawing and Alternatives


Declawing and Alternatives

Declawing or not

Question: Hi Dr. Mike,

Quick question. If you remember my cat Armand past away in December. You had helped me. We finally got another cat, a kitten named Cosette (we call her Cozy). Anyway, she is getting spayed on Sat. We might also have the front claws taken out because our other cat, Rajah, does not have them. Cozy is very gentle with her front claws and we are not 100% sure we want to have them taken out. What our your feelings on having one cat with front claws and another without in the same house? Is it fair if they are play fighting? Should things be equal or it does not matter as long as she is not destroying the furniture. Let me know. We have to make this decision by Saturday. One other reason, Cozy is very attached to us. She follows us all over the house and sleeps on our pillows at night. We are concerned the stay of three days at the vet would be hard on her.

Let us know and thanks again, Michael

Answer: Michael-

Until very recently, we had one declawed cat and three cats who were not declawed, in our household. If the others ever realized that Gabby was not declawed, we could not tell. We have had a number of cats over the years and I was determined not to declaw any of them, but over that time two of my cats were so destructive that we really had to make a choice between finding another home for them (we lived on a main highway -- outdoors was not an option) and declawing. Both of our declawed cats did well with the other cats and I do not think that having claws had much to do with their status in the house. So my experience has been that it is OK to have some declawed and some intact cats in the same household. I have had a couple of clients who had problems with fighting and felt that the declawed cats were getting the worst end of it during fighting at their homes. However, even if that were to happen, I think that waiting until it does is a reasonable choice. That's just my opinion. You have to think this all through carefully, since if there were future problems Cozy would have to be anesthetized a second time and have a second hospital visit/stay for the claw removal.

I hope this helps, rather than making the whole decision more confusing.

Mike Richards, DVM 9/23/2000


Q: My daughter has two wonderful "mutt" kitties and has had them for a couple of years. After giving away her clawed up couches and buying new (expensive) ones, she wants to declaw them.

They do not leave the house (indoor cats). Is there any risk to declawing mature cats? Is it true that it is not simply a matter of removing claws, but that part of the digits are amputated?

Your advice is appreciated.

A: M-

Older cats have a harder time post-surgically when they are declawed. They tend to weigh more and they have had time to get things like joint pain that change their gait. So it is much more important to use pain-relievers (it's important, anyway) in older cats. There is good evidence to show that recovery time significantly shorter if pain relief is started prior to surgery and continued for at least two to three days.

When cats are declawed the last digit of the toe is removed. If it is not removed, the nail regrows. This is the reason it is painful and that there can be complications due to bleeding, bandaging complications and anesthesia, all of which are usually part of the surgery.

This is a surgery that every vet I know would like to avoid but that most of us do, anyway. Why? --- because for a lot of cats this surgery is the difference between having a home and not having one and for other cats it is the difference between a happy home and one in which their owners are inexplicably angry with them for hours on end. The improvement in the relationship between cat and owner is often huge. That doesn't justify this surgery for everyone but in a world in which cats are discarded because they don't match the carpet it seems reasonable to try to do what is necessary to keep cats in their homes.

Mike Richards, DVM 9/8/99

Declawing - pros and cons

Q: We have a feral cat and she is slowly getting used to us. We are going to get her neutered within a month or so and have been considering getting her declawed as the vet says we should do it at the same time because this would require only one time with anesthesia.

We caught her in November and she has been in our basement ever since but she has ventured upstairs a couple of times.

I read in your web site that you have a couple of feral cats along with your domestic cats & I was wondering if you had them declawed.

What are your thoughts on declawing a feral cat? I would appreciate it if you could relay the pros and cons of this issue. (I have read the information on declawing at your web site but no mention was made regarding feral cats.)

Thank you, S

A: S

We have not declawed our cats who were originally feral because they live outside most of the time, still. We are fortunate enough to live in a place where this is possible without much risk to them. Not everyone is this lucky. Outside, they can scratch on anything they want without upsetting me or upsetting anyone in my family.

My position on declawing is that it is better to declaw a cat when it is clear that the cat will have to leave the household, otherwise. While some people feel that it is not ever reasonable to give up a pet it is undeniable that it happens a lot -- just look at all the cats left at shelters. Some day it may be possible for us to give out easy advice to follow that will result in cats stopping behaviors that humans find objectionable but we are not there yet when it comes to declawing. So I feel that declawing falls into the category of being a "necessary evil" in some circumstances.

Given that, there are still pros and cons to the procedure. There are also a lot of myths about the procedure and its consequences.

I personally am convinced that cats that are declawed succeed as outside cats nearly as well as cats with claws. A dog that is determined to kill a cat will usually succeed even if the cat has claws, if it catches the cat. Cats survive by being smart enough not to put themselves in a position of vulnerability and most cats are very good at this. There may be a small amount of protection in having front claws but most cats appear to be able to climb well enough to get away from predators with or without front claws. It is also possible to provide protective enclosures if there is a serious risk to the cat, like a nearby road. Cats that are killed by cars will be killed with or without claws. Cats are obviously safer if they are housecats and for many people the desirability of keeping their cat indoors increases if it is declawed.

Cats that know how to hunt can do so very well despite being declawed. During the time I have been in practice I have examined several cats who were fending for themselves when adopted by people that were declawed. I have worked on several parakeets and cockatiels that were caught by indoor cats without front claws as they flew around the house.

There is a feeling, even among veterinarians, that cats that are declawed are a little more likely to bite. So far, reviews of cat behavior, including declawed cats, do not support this belief.

Declawing does not always stop destruction in the house. Some cats will use their back claws to tear up furniture and other cats have habits like knocking things off of shelves or chewing on objects that are also annoying to their owners.

To sort of sum things up here, I think that the advantages and disadvantages of declawing pretty much are the same for feral cats being introduced to a household as they are for cats that are raised as pets. I can't remember what is on the website right now, so I'll cover the pros and cons again.

Most cats are probably better off being indoor cats. They are just safer indoors. If they are destructive about clawing on furniture and if reasonable efforts to control the behavior, such as providing adequate scratching posts and making sure they are in places cats find desirable and encouraging cats to use them (a new approach I have seen recommended is to spray them with Feliway (TM)) doesn't work, then declawing as a last resort seems reasonable to me.

Declawing is unquestionably painful for a few days. It is the same as removing the end of a finger at the first joint, essentially. Cats have a protective sheath, which helps, but it is still a significant loss. In many cats bandages must be applied to control hemorrhage post-surgically. Prior to this year, we had never had a serious complication from bandaging but I just had a cat in my practice in which the bandage twisted and cut off the circulation to one foot long enough to cause serious damage and potentially to require amputation of the foot. This has caused me to seriously rethink declawing procedures and even declawing itself but after a lot of soul searching I still come to the conclusion that it is a fact of life that declawing is the difference between having a home and not having a home for a number of cats. In any surgery, there are potential risks and this is one of the risks of declawing.

Declawing must be done under anesthesia. We have had one anesthetic death during a declaw procedure in our practice. This was a long time ago and anesthetic protocols for cats are safer now than they were then but it is still a risk. We try to combine declawing with spaying or neutering so that we only anesthetize the cat once, too. To be honest, I am not sure that this is all that much safer since our experience has been that if a cat survives one anesthetic procedure it will probably survive subsequent ones, but it is less expensive and probably very slightly safer.

Some cats are lame after declawing, sometimes for several weeks. We have had three or four cats in our practice have extended periods of lameness after declawing. In most of those cases we really couldn't identify a cause of the lameness such as infection, inflammation, loss of a toe pad or anything else. Infection occurred in at least one of the cats and we are pretty sure that a reaction to surgical glue bothered another one.

We have not found an ideal way to deal with the risk of hemorrhage post-operatively. Laser surgery is supposed to have less hemorrhage but our practice is small enough that I sincerely doubt I'll be able to afford to use this technique any time soon. Gluing the sheaths incurs a risk of reaction to the glue and that is reported to be a problem often enough to worry me. Suturing the sheaths seems to result in a lot more inflammation and more cats are temporarily lame. Bandaging alone was the best method of hemorrhage control in a recently published review of declawing procedures but we just had our bad experience with bandaging, so that is worrisome, too. Unfortunately, I don't know of any other options.

Some cats are easier to handle after declawing. If they don't have a tendency to bite but did swipe at people with their front claws it will be easier to handle them after declawing. I am occasionally grateful during examinations for the fact that the cat I am working on doesn't have front claws after a foot rakes across my hand a couple of times before I can retract it. This may be an advantage when dealing with a cat that has been feral but it would depend on the cat's personality how important it might be.

My take on all of this is simple. Don't declaw your cat unless you really are at the end of your rope with scratching behavior. When it becomes clear that a choice has to be made between keeping a cat and declawing in order to keep peace in the household, then it is better than abandoning your cat. It causes pain and it involves significant risks, so the decision shouldn't be made lightly.

That's a long summary of how I feel about this procedure. I hope that it helps.

Mike Richards, DVM

Tendonectomy - Declaw alternative

Q: Dear Dr. Mike:

I am a RVT in NC, and find this site to be extremely helpful in understanding better how clients think. Thank you for this site!!!

After browsing the site this a.m., I thought of something that might be useful to suggest to cat owners. A great alternative to declawing is a tendonectomy. It is similar to declaw, but much less painful and cats recovery faster. A tourniquet is applied, pads are shaved and prepped, incision made and tendon in cut, glue applied. Bandaging is not necessary. Two problems - owners must stay on top of trimming nails, or they will grow into pads; if tendon is not cut well enough, it will grow back. You may already be aware of this procedure, and I am not trying to overstep my boundary, but I thought it might be useful if you were not already aware. If you have any questions, feel free to email me.

Sincerely, Christine

A: Dear Christine,

I have often wondered why veterinarians and veterinary technicians failed to see the value in reading the correspondence on a site such as ours. There is a lot to be learned about the patterns of misconception that are common and the difficulties people have with understanding what is and isn't science. I thought it was really perceptive of you to recognize the value in studying that aspect of our site.

I should cover tendonectomy. The problem is that I have no personal experience with this surgery and have been hesitant to start doing it because I haven't seen much written about the long term effects. I am assuming that you are not seeing any long term problems other than the one mentioned, the need to cut the nails frequently? I have seen at least one anecdotal reference to arthritis associated with this procedure but nothing written in journals except for short term comparisons of post-surgical pain, in which the tendonectomy is reported to be less painful.

Thanks for your suggestion and your comments.

Mike Richards, DVM


Question: Sir,

In one of your articles on the effects of declawing, you mention that scratching is one of the most common reasons cats are surrendered to animals shelters. I would be interested in knowing where you got this information. I have worked in several shelters over the past few years, and spoken with employees at many other shelters, and it have been my experience that very, very few cats are surrendered to shelters because of scratching. Thank you, Adam

Answer: Dear Adam

Behavioral problems are cited as the major reason for surrender of pets to animal shelters in several references on this subject in the veterinary literature. The most recent example of this was a review by Dr. Karen Overall in the February issue of Veterinary Medicine. Scratching behaviors are invariably mentioned in these articles. However, in reviewing these carefully it appears that even though these behaviors appear to rank among the top six to ten behavioral reasons for surrendering pets, they may in fact be a small percentage of the actual number of cats who are disposed of by their owners through animal shelters, because there are other reasons, such as economic factors, unexpected litters and convenience that constitute a large number of the relinquished pets, as well. In addition, the percentage of cats who are placed in shelters by specific behavioral problem is not usually mentioned and it is likely based on surveys of pet owners who seek behavioral counseling that house-soiling behaviors are by far the most likely behavioral problem to result in loss of the home for a cat and aggression is the next most likely reason. So, despite the fact that there are several references to declawing as a common reason for cats to show up in animal shelters it is likely that it may not appear to be a major factor when all the kittens and puppies from unwanted litters and all the young dogs and cats from mismatched homes are added in. Your experience may well be the same as that of most shelter workers.

In surveys of pet owners in Ontario, Canada, reported by Dr. Gary Landsberg in the March 1991 issue of the Veterinary Clinics of North America, about 4% of cat owners said they would not keep their cats if they were not declawed. Veterinarians surveyed thought the number was higher, perhaps 10% or more.

Differences in perspective between shelter employees and veterinarians often are present over issues such as this. Veterinarians are often dealing with pet owners who are at least committed enough to the pet to consider the cost of a declaw surgery as acceptable, even if they are not committed enough to attempt behavioral modification for a problem. They are more likely to mention their concerns about scratching behavior in the effort to find a solution than a person who is not considering alternatives but just wants to be rid of the burden of the pet.

It is difficult to determine just how significant the concerns of cat owners over destructive scratching are. This problem is illustrated by a report by Drs. Morgan and Houpt reported in Dr. Overall's book Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals in which 60% of owners of cats who were not presented for behavioral problems reported that their cats scratched furniture. There is no way of knowing how many of these people were eventually annoyed enough to seek behavioral counseling, to relegate their cats to an outside only existence or to rid themselves of their cats. I know that in our practice the latter two "solutions" are more common than a desire to aggressively pursue behavioral modification. Given this, declawing is a reasonable alternative considering that the cat retains its home and tensions between it and its owner are reduced.

I reviewed the information at the site you referenced. It seems possible, although unlikely, that the reported 100% success rate in altering cat scratching behaviors among people who seek help is real. There is still a large population of pet owners who will not seek behavioral advice and will not put the time into behavioral modification. These pet owners may provide a good environment in other ways. I have serious questions about some of the claims made regarding the consequences of declawing, however. The most recent studies I can find in the veterinary literature strongly suggest that there are no identifiable behavioral consequences of declawing. There is a review article on these studies in the Feb. 15th 1996 Journal of the AVMA. Nearly all declawed cats can still climb trees (especially if only declawed in the front) and defend themselves in other ways despite the lack of claws. Scratching is not a major defense against attack by animals capable of killing a cat such as a larger dog. Escape is the most successful defense and claws are probably rarely necessary for that defense. Biting behaviors are not exaggerated by declawing based on the most recent studies.

It is unquestionable that cats experience pain during the post-operative period. The painfulness appears to last between 5 and 14 days in most cats. A small percentage of cats experience pain for a longer time. Whether this is some sort of "phantom pain" associated with the amputation of the last digit or whether it is the result of something else is not clear. Some cats do seem to develop aversions to clay litter if they are exposed to it prior to healing. These cats may then develop elimination behavioral problems. This is best avoided by not allowing access to clay litter until healing is satisfactory, or about one week. There is some irony in the observation by many vets that cats do better the younger they are declawed, because it seems obvious that it is better to wait until a cat exhibits objectionable behavior, to try to prevent that behavior and to consider declawing as a last resort only.

Unfortunately, the situation boils down to an ethical choice. Is it acceptable to alter a cat's normal anatomy and inflict short-term pain in an effort to resolve conflict with the owners of its home or to prevent euthanasia? For many cat owners the answer is yes. For many cat owners the answer is no. I can not say with certainty who is more morally correct. I can say that I consider declawing to be preferable to an outside only existence, in which a greatly reduced lifespan is the norm, or to euthanasia.

Mike Richards, DVM

Earliest age to declaw

Q: Dear Dr. Mike, I have searched through the information on cat declawing on your site, but have not found an answer to my question. So, here it is. We are considering getting a kitten, and would like to know what the earliest age is for declawing a cat. We had a cat for many years. He was declawed, and as far as we could tell, he didn't even know the difference. Thanks for your help. Ronda

A: Rhonda- I have seen a description of a procedure for declawing kittens as early as 3 weeks of age. I do not think that the age of the kitten or cat has much bearing on the success of the surgery, although it is harder on older cats (greater than a year or two of age). I usually recommend waiting to see if the kitten will be destructive before declawing, since not all cats engage in destructive clawing behavior. It is generally a little less expensive to combine declawing with spaying and that is a choice many people make, as well.

So the bottom line is that declawing can be done at any age over a few weeks of age.

Mike Richards, DVM

Declawing complications

Q: Dear Dr. Mike: I had my 6 month old cat spayed and declawed at the local Humane Society last week. They kept her over night and I brough her home the next day. Her bandages came off, so I brought her back to to vet immediately. She was not chewing them, but I bet she just wanted them off! Well, this has happened 2 times now (the first, they restitched a paw, the second, they reglued 3 paws and sent me home with a cone for her head). That cone has been on her head all day yesterday and today, and tonite, she again started limping and I knew she must have popped open her paw again. I unwrapped her bandage, and lo and behold, it's open. I taped it shut tight and rebandaged her up. She will go back to the vet tomorrow morning. I feel TERRIBLE about this whole thing now! I was told that the declaw should be done during the spay so that the cat would recover better at the age of 6 months, and under anethesia only one time. Yeah right! My cats are clawing up my leather couch, dining chairs, under my bed, and have recently gotten up on our brand new pool table. A kitty tree, and squirt gun didn't help. This was my last resort. My husband didn't really want me to do this, and now I am feeling VERY guilty because of her complications. Did the humane society do the declaw wrong? Is this a common side effect that the paw keeps opening? She is on antibiotics, but shouldn't she be on pain medication too? (that vet said it is not necessary). My male cat is only 4 months old, I don't think I could put HIM through this too, (yes neuter, though), but how will my female react to him having claws and her not? How do I keep him from clawing up the furniture? Soft paws? NO, too much to keep up and I hear the cats chew them off and may choke of them! I am open to advice! Thank you very much! Michelle

A: Michelle- Once in a while there are complications to declawing even when the surgery seems to go well. The experience of the surgeon and the technique used can have a bearing on surgical success. If a portion of the pad of the toe is removed during surgery it is harder to keep the sheath closed post-surgically. This usually happens when declawing is done with a toenail clipper but can happen with surgical dissection techniques, especially when the surgeon is relatively inexperienced. There is obviously no way for me to know what happened but those would be the most common causes of problems. I usually don't worry much over the sheath opening up post-surgically as long as it isn't bleeding but that may be a cavalier attitude (although I can't remember a complication resulting from not resealing a sheath other than bleeding).

I definitely believe that pain relief is worthwhile and we routinely offer pain-relief medications with declawing. We did not always do this because prior to fairly recently good pain relievers for cats were not as easily available. I am very glad we can now offer these. In older cats (usually over a year) we have even used the fentanyl (Duragesic Rx) patches that provide continuous pain relief for several days, since they seem more bothered than younger cats.

I would prefer to combine this procedure with spaying to enable both to be done with one anesthetic but I can see advantages to other approaches. Particularly in cats who show strong tendencies towards destructive clawing behavior early in life, since declawing at younger ages seems to be less painful to the cat.

Mike Richards, DVM

Distal phalanx (digit) removal

Q: Hi Dr. Richards, I would appreciate it if you could answer a question I have. Many of the anti-declaw people state that performing an onychectomy is akin to removing the last digit of a human's fingers. Do you find this statement to be true? Why or why not? Thank you for your comments and assiatance. I look forward to hearing from you.

A: When a declaw procedure is done, the entire distal phalanx (digit) is removed. So the statement is correct.

It does not have the same effect that removing the last digit from a human has, however. The presence of the protective sheath over the digit, rather than skin tightly adhered to the phalanx gives a natural protective closure after a declaw rather than a sensitive "stub" end. Since the cat uses its feet for walking, orientation and use of the digit is much different, as well. If the footpads aren't disturbed by the declaw procedure (they should not be) the weight distribution on the remaining portion of the toe is essentially the same. Cats tend to use their foot as a unit for manipulation of objects rather than grasping it with individual "fingers" as a human does. This makes for less disturbance in their typical lifestyle than would occur in a human with the loss of a digit.

Without being able to ask them, it is impossible to determine if cats have problems with things like phantom pain or minor discomfort chronically after declawing. These things do not appear to be a problem but there is no way to be sure.

I am not sure this is relevant but I asked one of the Mississippi river barge workers if he worried about losing a finger since so many of these guys experience that problem while working the barges. He told me that he made a good living and if it cost him a finger or two it was worth it. While I personally could not ascribe to that philosophy, it was right for him.

There is not an easy answer to the declaw debate. That's why it makes a good subject for debate in college courses.

Mike Richards, DVM

Declawing -- does it cause other behavioral problems

Q: Dear Dr. Mike, First of all, thank you so much for making your expert vet advice accessible to so many through the internet. The world needs more people like you who really care about animals.

Now my question: My fiancee is moving in with me and much to my dismay, she has a cat which is a real scratcher. Her apartment is filled with totally scraped up couches, table legs, drapes, etc. I want her to bring the cat with her when she moves in with me, so we are considering declawing. The cat is 2.5 years old, already spayed, healthy except for a messy but controllable digestive condition. So here's my question: Is is true that older cats will urinate all over the place to mark their territory if declawed, or is that a myth spread by animal rights people?

A: I can't say whether or not the animal right's people are spreading rumors, but I do think that it is unlikely that a declawed cat will develop urine marking habits as a result of the declawing surgery. There was a very large study done of the behavioral traits of cats after declawing and no significant changes in behavior were found. For a long time many vets felt that declawed cats were more likely to bite as a first defense, since they could no longer use claws as a defense, but even this did not appear to be true in the study.

Cats that are declawed when mature do have more pain after the surgery than younger cats (or at least they show it more). Ask your vet about using pain relief medications post-surgically if you do elect to have her declawed. In general, I think the stress relief for everyone in the family, including the cat, seems to be enough to justify the discomfort. This is especially true if steps are taken to relieve any post-surgical pain. Mike Richards, DVM

Declawing Study

Q: I was trying to locate studies showing the effects of declawing on cats and your site turned up in the search. In the behavior section (in response to a question) you said: "There was a very large study done of the behavioral traits of cats after declawing and no significant changes in behavior were found." Do you know which study that was and whether the report, itself, is available on-line?

A: I am out of town right now and can not provide the exact reference but the article I was referring to was from a Clinics of North America issue on Behavioral Advances or something similar to that in title. I will try to look up the exact reference when I get back to the clinic on Monday or Tuesday. If I remember correctly, the study was done in Canada.

In the meantime, I found a bibliographic reference on the Veterinary Information Network database to the following article which you may be able to find:

"Effects of declawing on feline behavior", Comp Anim Prac 2[12] : 7-9,12 Dec'88 5 Refs 1M. Bennett, BS; K. A. Houpt, VMD, PhD; H. N. Erb, DVM, PhD

This was a study of about 70 cats, 25 declawed, 25 not, and the rest with behavioral problems of some sort. The authors felt that there was no effect on behavior from declawing.

Your vet may get the Clinics of North America journal. Since these are hardbound quarterly journals, many vets keep all the back issues.

Mike Richards, DVM


Q: I have a question I was hoping some vets or others could provide some insight into. If there are many serious side effects associated with declaw, and because it provides little, if any, medical benefit... why is this surgery still being performed? Especially in light of other humane alternatives? Besides trying to keep a destructive cat from harming others, or perhaps a monetary motivation to perform this procedure (especially on a normal cat), it's difficult for me to see why some people are for declawing. It's easy for me to see why people are against declaw, but hard for me to see over the other side of the fence. If anybody has any input or comments, it would be appreciated. Arthur-

A: Arthur, Destructive clawing of furniture, walls and other items is one of the most common reasons cats are abandoned, end up in humane shelters or are euthanized. While there are alternatives such as 'Soft Paws' application or behavioral therapy these are too time consuming for many clients and not effective in all cats. While that is hard to understand for dedicated cat lovers it is just a fact of life. Many cats die in the United States because they claw furniture and their owners will not consider declawing surgery for moral or more commonly for financial reasons.

Even owners who are committed to trying to deal with scratching often find themselves coming home and dealing with a lot of anger and frustration over new damage to their house or possessions. This interferes badly with their relationship with their cat.

We discourage people from routinely declawing cats "just because" but we do declaw cats when destruction is a problem. I think that the loss of the claws, even though it is painful for several days to a week is a small price to pay for harmony in the household and a greatly increased chance for continuing to have a home.

If you know of simple alternatives to declawing, I'd be interested in knowing about them because I have not found an easy, consistently effective treatment for destructive clawing behaviors.

Mike Richards, DVM

Last edited 02/01/05


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...