Scratching is a normal and instinctive behavior for a cat. It conditions the claws, serves as a visual and scent territorial marker, allows the cat to defend itself, and provides healthy muscle engagement through stretching. A cat uses scratching to remove excess claw material and to keep his nails in good shape and clean. Since cats enjoy this natural behavior, they aren’t aware that their owners may find ripping apart the couch offensive.

In some cases, cat owners look to declawing to solve the scratching situation.

What is Declawing?

Declawing isn’t a simple surgery that removes only the nails of your cat. It isn’t like having your fingernails trimmed. The operation involves amputation of the last bone on each of your cat’s toes. The usual method of declawing is amputating the bone with a guillotine nail clipper or a scalpel. You remove the little piece of bone the claw grows on, or the claw will try to grow back. Then the wounds are either closed with surgical glue or stitches, and your cat’s feet are bandaged.

Another method is using laser surgery. With this method, a small intense beam of light will cut through tissue by heating it first and then vaporizing it. It still amounts to amputating your cat’s last toe bone. It also carries the same long-term risk of lameness and behavior issues that declawing with clippers or a scalpel will carry.

A third method, which is not approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, is called a tendonectomy. This procedure is where the tendon that controls the movement in each claw is severed. Your cat keeps all his claws, but he won’t be able to scratch or regulate the use of them. You’ll be required to trim your cat’s nails at least every two weeks, so they don’t snag on the carpet, furniture, people or drapes. Also, the nails can grow into your cat’s paw pads if left unattended. If your cat has tendonectomy surgery, he may require further declawing surgery later. Incidents of lameness, bleeding, and infection have been found to be connected to both tendonectomy and declawing.

A fourth technique is called cosmetic declawing and is more precise and time consuming on the part of the veterinarian. A tiny curved blade is used to dissect out the claw. It also pulls out the small piece of bone to which the claw is attached. With this type of declawing, the paw pad and soft tissue remain intact. As with the laser declawing, it has less post-surgery discomfort and the recovery time is faster overall.

The recovery time for some methods is longer than for other methods. The guillotine method of declawing can take two or three weeks or even longer. The cosmetic type of declawing can heal within a week.

Why Declawing?

Most of the cases for declawing are for the benefit of the owner. Your cat will continue scratching behavior once declawed, but there won’t be any damage. This can increase the quality of the owner-pet relationship.

Your cat may need to be declawed because of medical reasons. One reason could be a bacterial infection between where the claw joins the skin, called paronychia. Another reason may be abnormal tissue growth around the nail itself, called neoplasia. Your cat’s claw may need to be removed if it’s damaged beyond repair, or if the nail has a tumor in it.

Risks of Declawing

Declawing is a painful procedure. It’s difficult to measure the degree of pain a cat feels because they hide it well. But pain relief should be provided after surgery until the wounds are fully healed.

Surgical complications can be an issue when your cat undergoes declawing. Blood loss is more severe and more frequent in cats who are older than in young kittens. Some cats can experience wound reopening. This more often occurs when surgery is performed with a scalpel. In some cases claws regrow, causing abscesses to form. Occasionally some cats have temporary paralysis in their paws which  can last anywhere from five to 30 days after the declawing.

The medical drawbacks of declawing can be an infection, pain in your cat’s paw, tissue necrosis, back pain, and lameness. This occurs because when your cat is declawed, it changes the way their paw meets the ground. It can cause pain and discomfort. Plus, there can be regrowth of claws which were improperly removed, bone spurs and nerve damage.

You will need to use shredded newspaper in the cat’s litter box, so as not to irritate their feet. Because your cat isn’t accustomed to this substitute litter and when he scratches it causes pain, your cat may stop using the litter box. Some cats may even start to bite because they have no other defenses.

Your cat, if declawed, should be kept inside the home unless it is under direct supervision outside since their defenses are gone.

Questions to Ask Your Veterinarian

If you do make the decision to declaw your cat, there are some questions you need to ask first before the procedure:

  1. Which technique do you use in this office for the declawing procedure? Laser declawing has a faster recovery and fewer post-surgical complications. Nail clipper procedure has higher long-term lameness and post-operative infections.
  2. Do you remove the entire  distal toe bone? Some veterinarians leave a small portion of the bone behind. This helps to preserve some of the normal function of the foot. However, unless the veterinarian is exceptionally experienced, claws can regrow which can cause painful complications. If your veterinarian plans on leaving some of the bone behind, ask them  what their experiences are when doing that. Also, ask how many of their cat patients have experienced regrowth or complications.
  3. What is the plan for pain relief? Ask how long the veterinarian will provide for pain relief after surgery. And inquire about what type of monitoring they do to make sure your pet stays as pain-free as possible.

Alternative Methods to Declawing

There are  alternative methods to declawing if you don’t want to have your cat go through that type of surgery. Some of these alternative methods are:

Behavioral training: This training involves redirecting a cat to a scratching post. It does work better with kittens than with adult cats so start your kitten early. There is a new product on the market called Feliscratch that brings a new innovative pheromone product that provides an answer to your cat’s inappropriate scratching in the home by redirecting their scratching to the scratching post. Tests have shown Feliscratch significantly reduced or stopped their destructive scratching within the first 7 days.

Soft claws: These are vinyl nail caps that are applied to a cat’s claws with surgical adhesive. Your cat should  become accustomed to these within a few days. It will require patience and diligence on your part, but it is a great alternative to declawing. The nail caps will fall off when your cat naturally sheds the outer sheath of their claws. If they do not fall off, you should take the caps off and replace them every four to six weeks. You can replace them yourself or have a groomer or veterinarian apply them. These nail caps are not recommended for cats who go outside.

Nail trimming: This is a widely used alternative for cat owners instead of declawing. It won’t stop your cat from sharpening existing claws or using them. If you’re planning on using the nail trimming method, it’s best to start when your cat is small, so they get used to being handled and having their nails clipped.

Synthetic facial pheromone sprays/diffusers: These are used to relieve stress and anxiety. Apply these products to areas or objects in your home where your cat has been scratching.

Environmental enrichment: Since cats are natural hunters and explorers, they can get stressed when kept indoors. It’s essential to provide outlets for them, or they will find their own, such as your sofa. Toys, cat trees, and scratching surfaces are all good solutions.

Ultimately, whether you have your cat declawed or not is your decision. Weigh all the pros and cons and then make an informed decision with the help of your veterinarian that is the best for your situation. Always consult your local veterinarian to talk about whether declawing is a good option for you. It has been shown that inappropriate scratching on furniture and people is among the top five reasons cats are relinquished to animal shelters.