Declawed Cats: Don't Declaw, and How to Care for an Adopted and Declawed Cat
Shadow Cats TNR (formerly Best Friends in Harford County), September 13th, 2020
For many years, declawing was considered an appropriate way to prevent cats from destroying furniture, scratching their family members or other pets, and to keep them from attacking other small animals that got into the house. However, many vets and rescue groups have stopped offering or allowing this practice in recent years. Some vets will refuse to perform the procedure and many rescues only adopt cats into homes that contractually agree to not declaw the adopted cat in the future . Unfortunately, this is not a global, or even national standard, yet. Although declawing has been outlawed in 22 countries worldwide, in America, between 20 and 25 percent of all cats have been declawed, according to BBC World News.
HOW IS DECLAWING ACCOMPLISHED
Declawing can be done in several different ways, but none are risk-free for the pet or the owner. An onychectomy is the most widespread way to declaw. It involves amputation of the cat’s toes to the first joint. The operation is comparable to a human having the first joint of their fingers removed to avoid having fingernails. While recovery occurs in a matter of days, it can be complicated with additional pain, hemorrhaging, nail regrowth, lameness, paralysis, wound reopening or infection (ScienceDirect) and secondary behavioral issues.
A tendonectomy is another common, though less popular, operation. This severs the tendon on the back of the cat’s paw so that they can no longer flex their claws (National Geographic). Because a tendonectomy does not remove the claw, owners will still have to trim them every few weeks to avoid growth into the cat’s paw pad, which can cause pain, infection, and other problems as well. The nails will sometimes become thick and difficult to trim because the cat cannot file them down themselves. As the cat ages the nail can become brittle and easily split or shatter.
WHY DECLAWING HURTS CATS
No matter what operation is done, declawing can have negative effects on the cat—and it may not even serve its intended purpose. Cats need their claws for climbing and defending themselves. Without the last digit of their toes they can suffer from balance issues. According to some studies, many onychectomies are done improperly and leave bone fragments in the paw, which can cause pain while walking, jumping, or climbing (BBC World News).
Scratching is a natural instinct for cats, and it serves multiple purposes. Cats scratch against things to mark their territory as well as stretching their back muscles, sharpening their nails, and to remove keratin sheaths due to nail growth. Outdoor or indoor/outdoor cats need their claws for survival. Barn cats use their claws to catch and kill rodents or protect themselves against predators. For these reasons, cats that spend any time outside should never be declawed. Cats that have already been declawed should not be let outside, even if they spend most of their time indoors.
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN ADOPTING A DECLAWED CAT
Animal Advocacy group PAWS explains some of the issues in declawed cats on their blog: “Groomers, veterinarians, and people who care for declawed cats in shelters find many of them to be nervous, irritable, and difficult to handle.” (PAWS.org) Without their claws, cats can get easily stressed and feel vulnerable. They may withdraw, hide, or compensate for their lack of claws with other defense mechanisms. These can include biting and increased vocalizations. Declawed cats may avoid their litter box as they begin to associate it with discomfort or even pain. Without claws they cannot get as clean and stepping on the litter can be particularly sensitive.
If you are interested in adopting a cat that has been declawed, be aware of their extra challenges. Speak with a veterinarian about any changes in their diet or routine before implementing them. As with any cat, take your time and build a relationship of trust. Cats without claws still need to exercise and play, but they cannot do most things the same. They play with toys by wrapping their whole paws or whole body around it, or pouncing fully on things instead of swatting at them (Life With Cats).
Ask the rescue or foster group about behavioral issues that the cat may have already displayed. Be honest and realistic about the commitment you can make to a cat, and what your home life is like. Cats can be trained out of negative or aggressive behaviors, but it takes time and patience. Positive reinforcement and repetition are essential.
HOW TO HELP YOUR CAT ADJUST TO LIFE WITHOUT CLAWS
If your declawed cat shows signs of pain, limping, or lameness, you can try different types of massage on their paws or legs. Remember that cats will try to hide pain. Declawed cats adjust their gait to redistribute their weight or avoid pain the same way that humans may change the way they walk after an injury. Depending on how recently the surgery occurred, you may need to keep an eye on the wounds to assure that the wounds heal correctly and do not become infected. If the pain or hobbling continues, discuss oral or topical painkillers with your cat’s vet. You can also proactively add supplements to their diet to stave off arthritis. Limit the amount of grain and carbs in your cat’s diet and ensure that they get exercise and mental stimulation every day (Way of Cats Blog).
Offering a scratching post may seem counter-intuitive, but it allows your cat to stretch, play, and may let them mark it as part of their territory in the home (Petful). Offering kickers or larger toys can help redirect their biting instincts. Wiggling the stick end of pole toys under a blanket or pillow allows your cat to jump on top of it safely.
If they are struggling to use the litter box, consult first with a veterinarian to make sure there are no other medical issues at hand. Try slowly transitioning their litter to a soft, scoopable type instead of anything large or coarse. Assure that the box is easily accessible and that there is at least one box on each level of the home.
ALTERNATIVES TO DECLAWING
Cats need claws for balance, self-defense, and survival—especially if they spend any time outdoors. Pet owners considering declawing should know that there are many alternatives. You can clip your cat’s nails once every couple of weeks or whenever they get too sharp for your liking. This may take some getting used to on your part and on the part of your cat. If you start making nail trims part of their routine when they are young, you are less likely to face resistance as they get older. If you are uncomfortable clipping your cat’s nails yourself, many groomers and vet offices will take care of it for a small fee or as part of exams.
You can also apply nail caps onto your cat’s claws. These are rubber or plastic covers which make a cat’s claws duller and softer, though they do require trimming of the claws. Caps are applied with animal-safe glue applied to the nail. These caps do not prevent claws from retracting, they should not do damage to the claw of paw itself, and they do not stop the cat from playing and climbing normally. They may be a good option for any homes where one or more family members need to stay extra protected from scratches—if they get infections easily, are immunocompromised, or have any blood-related disorders.
Finally, behavior training and environmental adjustments may help. You can train cats not to scratch furniture or family members by applying furniture covers, sprays, or pheromones that will help calm them down. Make sure to read the labels of the sprays you use and avoid using anything with citrus as an ingredient. Citrus is toxic to cats and can be found in many cleaning agents and home fragrances.
No matter what, it’s important to remember that cats need their claws and use them instinctively. Cat ownership will, inevitably, include some amount of scratching. Making sure that your cat uses their claws appropriately and that you do not punish them for their natural instincts will make your life, and theirs, much easier.