Outlaw the Declaw? One Veterinarian Weighs In

Cat Center
Declawing cats

Today’s telephone inquiry impressed me as much for its unapologetic cluelessness as for its subject matter. It was the first time in at least a couple of years someone’s asked me whether I’d be willing to remove the claws from a cat’s hind feet too.

“Oh my God, no! I won’t even take off the front ones!” was my reflexive rejoinder, which was perhaps a little harsh. In my defense, however, I’d been surprised by the random request. Besides, I happen to feel strongly about the subject. (Can you tell?)

If only she’d given me a chance to prepare, this is what I might’ve offered, instead:

The declaw (aka, the elective feline onychectomy) is a surgical procedure where the bones at the tip of a cat’s front toes are amputated along with their adjacent claws. The fact that a bony amputation is required to remove the claws makes it arguably the most controversial routine procedure in veterinary medicine –– more so even than ear crops, tail “docks,” and other cosmetic procedures.

Though all cosmetic surgeries are considered ethically fraught, the pain elicited by multiple toe-tip amputations makes it an especially problematic elective procedure. Not convinced? Read on…

Any way you slice it, the declaw procedure is considered painful. Whether a fancy laser is employed or traditional cold hard steel (some board-certified veterinary surgeons still believe this latter approach is less traumatic, if bloodier), make no mistake: removing the last knuckles on ten toes will cause pain.

Those who say their cats don’t feel any (I hear this offered a lot in the declaw’s defense) aren’t cats. Consequently, they don’t deserve a vote. This determination should be left up to the next best thing: researchers in veterinary surgery and anesthesiology who know how to measure pain and have concluded time after time that declawing cats causes a lot of it.

Adult cats, in particular, have been found to suffer extreme pain after declaws, extremes even observant owners will typically fail to recognize due to our cats’ unwillingness to disclose their degree of suffering and their expertise in occulting it. (This is a well-recognized skill among felines.) Moreover, older and heavier cats are at much higher risk of serious complications than their kitten counterparts.

To be sure, the fact that declawing cats happens to be painful is a relevant point, but for me, pain isn’t necessarily its strongest critic. In fact, what I find most egregious about declawing cats isn’t merely the discomfort we’re willing to inflict, it’s that the procedure is wholly avoidable.

Not only do plenty of pet owners and landlords demand we declaw without a destructive or aggressive cat to show for it, they’re often unwilling to explore alternatives for unwanted behaviors. Re-homing, applying plastic claw coverings such as Soft Paws (they work!), and enticing cats with a variety of different scratching surfaces are all preferable to taking a cat’s claws out.

Though its popularity is undoubtedly waning, a significant percentage of our US population still values the declaw as a solution to unwanted feline behaviors. This demand, coupled with the supply of veterinarians still willing to offer it, currently precludes the demise of this surgical procedure in our nation’s veterinary hospitals. (It is, however, outlawed in Australia, Israel, most of Europe and Brazil.)

Like plenty of my colleagues, over the years I’ve struggled mightily with the morality of the procedure. So much so that I finally felt forced to give it up altogether. At first I limited the procedure to young kittens, then to young kittens whose claws might disqualify them for a forever stay in their current loving homes. But in the end, I decided that removing the claws of any animal for the sake of something as silly as furniture and drapes just seemed too hard to justify.

So do I still struggle? Sure… but not with my own personal choice, now that I no longer perform the procedure. Instead, I find myself doing battle with the cultural conception of cats as creatures whose independence and “wildness” we revere, but whose feet are often surgically altered to accommodate us, nonetheless.

By extension, I also struggle with veterinarians who feel as I once did. These are my colleagues who say, “If someone’s going to take these claws out it might as well be done by someone like me who cares enough to do it properly.”

But after many years of declawing cats as “properly” as possible in practice, I felt I was perpetuating the problem I’d serially rail against in print. If we agree it’s our moral responsibility to uphold the welfare of animals under our care, I’d write in veterinary publications, doesn’t it run counter to this belief that we inflict pain for the preservation of our clients’ furniture?

In fact, it was because I could no longer conceive a reason good enough to warrant the removal of a cat’s claws (an impassioned defense of household upholstery doesn’t cut it) that I concluded it shouldn’t be performed at all. Not by me… not by anyone.

Yet banning it outright has its downside, too. Sure, it’s always preferable to observe a cultural shift occur seamlessly, free of vitriol or spleen. But that’ll never be the case when it comes to the declaw’s demise. Indeed, in veterinary circles, outlawing the declaw is an issue more likely to raise hackles than most –– more so now that newly minted veterinarians are brazenly refusing to perform it and declaw-inspired inter-vet rancor is on the rise.

But what’s worse than any veterinary strife over high-minded animal welfare issues are the more mundane concerns raised by my recent telephone call: The fact that we’re still fielding requests not just for declaws, but for its extreme all-four version, too, doesn’t bode well for an imminently declaw-free future. Clueless special requests like this one suggest we’re unlikely to see convenience claw removal beat a hasty retreat. Not anytime soon, anyway.