The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) discourage declawing.1,2 AAFP states that declawing is at best ethically controversial and is not medically necessary for cats in most instances.1 Embrace Pet Insurance does not endorse or recommend declawing cats. The purpose of this article is to educate and inform pet owners about the procedure and its potential effects.
What is Declawing?
Declawing, also known as onychectomy, is the process of amputating or cutting off a portion or all of the last bone of each digit/toe of the paw while the cat is under anesthesia.1-3 This is usually done at the pet owner’s request to prevent cats from using their claws to scratch. Most declawing methods amputate the toe from the first joint (or knuckle) past the nailbed, a method called disarticulation.3
With laser declawing, a medical-grade CO2 laser is used to amputate the toe at the first joint past the nailbed.3 Other methods are the scalpel method and the guillotine method. The scalpel method uses a scalpel blade to amputate the toe at that first joint as well. The guillotine method, which has largely fallen out of favor in the veterinary community, uses either sterilized nail trimmers or a bone cutter to amputate the toe at the joint. Unfortunately, especially with the guillotine method, disarticulation is not always achieved, and bone fragments can be left behind.3
Laser declawing is considered by some in the veterinary community to be the most humane method for declawing. Reasons cited for this are that the toes undergo less trauma with laser, nerve endings are “sealed” off leading to less pain, and less bleeding occurs.4 Several scientific studies showed that cats did experience less pain initially (i.e. within 1-2 days of the procedure) with laser declaw compared to other procedures; however, all methods of declaw were proven painful. Pain levels were the same six days into recovery regardless of procedure type in one study.5,6 Another study comparing pain from scalpel declaw vs. laser declaw showed very little difference in how quickly cats were able to recover, reporting that pain was severe enough to cause trouble walking for roughly one week with both types of declaw.4 This study as well as a similar study did find that cats declawed with a scalpel tended to show more signs of pain overall than those who were declawed with a laser. As with the previous mentioned research, both studies demonstrated that pain was still present regardless of method used.4,7 The take home point from these studies is that while laser declaw might be less painful than other procedures, it is still painful.
Laser declaw is more costly than traditional methods. While the old-school method usually costs about $100 (give or take depending on your location and whether your cat is already under sedation for another procedure), the laser method usually starts around $250 and can go up to $400. There may be other exam fees or costs with either procedure, so it’s best to ask your vet first.
Consequences of Declawing
Scratching is a normal, instinctual behavior in cats. Many reasons exist for scratching, including keeping the claws healthy, communication, and stress relief.10 Because declawing is painful and removing the claws prevents cats from scratching, no matter what method is used, cats can experience short-term and long-term consequences and problems from the declaw procedure.3 Short-term complications include pain, lameness or trouble walking, bleeding, poor appetite, change in personality, infection, sluggishness, and idiopathic cystitis (trouble urinating).3 One scientific study showed that regardless of pain medication used, cats were still unable to completely use their legs normally within the first 1-2 weeks.7 Long-term problems include regrowth of one or more claws, lameness/trouble walking, chronic or long-term foot, leg, and/or back pain, self-barbering or pulling out hair, idiopathic cystitis, using the bathroom outside the litterbox, toe deformities (either from the procedure or from flexor tendon contraction), and aggression or increased biting.3,8 Up to 50% of cats (that’s half the cats that get declawed!) that underwent declawing experienced short-term complications in one study.3 In another report, claw regrowth was seen in up to 10% of declawed cats and was the culprit behind many (but not all) of the long-term problems that occurred in cats.3,8
Laser declawing has been shown to have a lower rate of claw regrowth as well as certain short-term and long-term issues (e.g. using the bathroom outside the litterbox); however, short-term and long-term problems still happen in many cats, most importantly those associated with pain and missing out on the instinctual fulfillment of scratching.3,7,9,10 In other words, regardless of what method is chosen for declaw, risk for lifelong consequences is still high.
Alternatives to Declawing
There are a variety of alternatives to declawing that you should consider before considering a declawing procedure. Encouraging scratching in the right places can help the cat’s wellbeing while keeping you and your furniture protected. Adding multiple tall scratching posts as well as scratching pads, and continually directing the cat to these areas can prevent furniture destruction. Cats like to reach up to scratch as well as stretch out and scratch, so different height levels are important. Sometimes sprinkling a little catnip on the posts/pads can encourage a cat to use them.
If scratching seems to go beyond what is normal for a cat, consider discussing the issues with your veterinarian. A check up may determine the problem is a medical issue. If the scratching problem is more of a behavioral issue, your vet may discuss adding environmental enrichment for your cat such as food puzzles and more play time; adding pheromones to the environment (e.g. Feliway® diffusers); or other anti-anxiety measures. Other helpful options to protect furniture are the use of synthetic nail caps (e.g. Soft Paws®) over the cat’s toenails (although these may not alleviate the need to scratch) or trimming the claws regularly.1,10