Why is this procedure so controversial?
People have fingers that are super dexterous: used to grip objects, give high fives, type, play instruments, write, mould/sculpt/draw/paint art, play video games, tactile senses etc. Cats have paws with only basic functions of ambulation, digging/covering their excrement, playing with toys, catching prey, and defense. Their toes are very important for each of these functions. Removing the nails actually removes the last bone of each toe because they are fused together. Imagine going through life without the tips of your fingers. Now imagine having to bear your body weight on the tips of your stubs.
Cats are considered digitigrade, meaning they walk on their toes versus people who are plantigrade, we walk on the whole foot. Taking away the tips of cats toes changes the way they walk. Their digital pad is resting right underneath the 3rd (distal) phalanx, the one that would be removed with an onychectomy. Cats need to still be able to walk, so they learn how to distribute their weight unnaturally on their 2nd phalanx. This change in stance can cause arthritis and joint pain which is a chronic condition, often progressing as they get older. As housecats can lead sedentary lives, they are more prone to obesity, further perpetuating the pain.
If a cat associates pain when performing a certain activity, they will try to change the way they do that activity to relieve or minimize that pain. The pain in the toes can lead to not wanting to touch kitty litter to cover up their excrement thus creating inappropriate elimination habits. Immediately after the procedure when they have holes in their toes, a larger size litter is best (Yesterday’s News, shredded newspaper) so as to not get small granules stuck inside the incision and cause an infection. Many cats get too stressed if the litter is changed from what they’re used to and can be prone to inappropriate elimination from that as well.
One of the stipulations of owning a declawed cat is they are now limited to living indoors only. If by some unforeseen circumstance where someone leaves a door open, a storm comes through and damages the house, you get into a car accident while transporting the cat, or the cat expertly sneaks through when someone is coming or going, that cat is pretty much defenseless outside. They have no way to catch prey, let alone their inability to defend themselves or even climb a tree out of danger’s reach. Even inside a building, other household pets, children, and other people with poor handling will be bitten instead of scratched as their only remaining form of defending themselves. This can lead to nasty bite wound infections, very stressed out cats and owners, and severe aggression when in stressful circumstances such as a trip to the vet.
With all the cons, why do people still declaw their cats?
One reason is people would rather not have to spend money to replace a couch after a cat does its scratching rounds on it over and over thereby tearing it to shreds. Cats scratch objects as a natural behavior, to stretch, climb, release energy, sharpen their claws, and for the health of the nail. This behavior can be trained (yes, it is possible to train a cat!) to be done in a specific place or with a specific object instead of on furniture.
Another reason is they don’t want their cat to injure their baby/infant/child. If you’re afraid the cat is going to scratch your child, assess the situation! Is the cat trying to get away from grabby hands, hands that pat too hard, a child that thinks the way to hold a cat is by its back legs or with a death grip, or a child that always has its face and hands too close for the cats comfort? Children should ALWAYS be supervised around pets until they know how to properly handle and read a cat’s warning signs. If the cat feels trapped or cornered, remove the child from the situation, allow the cat to escape unimpeded, and teach the child what appropriate handling should be.
Finally, they’ve always done it to their cats and haven’t encountered a noticeable problem yet. While it's true that not every single patient will have a problem, studies have shown immediate post-op complications (non-healing, bleeding, pain, infection) in 50% of patients. Long term-complications (inappropriate urination, arthritis, behavior changes, biting, etc) are still possible even if the short-term complications did not occur.
Surgical techniques of onychectomy
There have been some advances in knowledge and technology in the way declaws are performed so some veterinarians perform them differently than others. An older technique is with a guillotine. The nail with P3 is pulled through the center then a guillotine blade is used to quickly cut through the skin, tendons, blood vessels, etc all at once. Using this technique, sometimes it is easy to miss a section of P3 which would need to be retrieved and removed. If the nail bed remains, there can be painful regrowth of the bone and nail.
Another, more time consuming technique is with a surgical blade. The nail itself is clamped with hemostats for a good hold then a blade is used to cut along P3. There is usually less error in leaving a piece of P3, however this technique can cause a lot of bleeding which can make visualization difficult.
A more recent development uses surgical laser to cut and cauterize at the same time. This greatly reduces bleeding, however the laser can easily cut through bone running the risk of not fully taking all of P3, with some accidental burning/cutting of the digital pad. This technique may decrease some short-term complications, but long term problems can still occur.
In general, a tourniquet is placed for each procedure to reduce blood flow to the area prior to the amputation. Carpal or digital nerve blocks can also be performed to temporarily numb the area. The incision is then closed with either suture or tissue glue. After the surgery, the paws should be bandaged for 24 hours and a special, larger/thicker litter should be used during the 2 week recovery. The patient should be restricted from running and jumping excessively during that time as well. Most veterinarians require the patient to stay overnight to ensure the pet is kept quiet, contained, the pain meds administered, and the bandages stay on.
It is a natural behavior for cats to scratch so giving them appropriate places to scratch is a must. Outdoor cats often use trees or wooden posts. Indoor cats should be provided with scratching posts, towers for climbing and scratching, sisal boards, mats, etc. Even a piece of cardboard can do the trick! Each cat may have a different preference to whether the scratching material is vertical or horizontal, so give them options. If even after providing appropriate places to scratch, they still use inappropriate surfaces, techniques such as a water squirt bottle, double sided tape or other deterrant may help stop the unwanted behavior.
Especially when taught from a young age, it’s possible to train a cat to allow nail trims. A simple pair of human nail clippers will do the job, as well as special “kitty” nail clippers. When cutting the nails, it is important to cut off just the tip of the nail, thereby avoiding the tender quick which is the nail’s blood supply. Trimming the nails on a regular basis will help the quick recede for less chances of it growing too long and getting cut.
Plastic covers can be applied with adhesive to the nails themselves to prevent scratching as well. They come in many different colors and sizes and will need to be reapplied as the nails grow out and need trimmed again. You can make them festive (red and green for Christmas, black and orange for Halloween, sparkly, etc) or keep them clear for a less obvious look. Be sure to match the proper size to your cat’s nails.
What would be some valid reasons for declawing?
Veterinarians still perform this practice for a number of reasons. The first being that it’s an older practice and it hasn’t been phased out yet. Many states have now banned the practice altogether with the possible exception of the following situations.