Ethical Issues

The Controversial Declawing Procedure: First Option or Last Resort?

If you are like some cat owners, you may feel that you have to choose between your love of your pet and your concern for your furniture. Cats have an instinct to scratch and can do considerable damage to couches and chairs with upholstery. Many pet owners do not want to declaw their cats but feel they are at their wits’ end when it comes to trying to preserve their furniture. Although declawing has been outlawed in many countries, it is still legal in the United States. People who love their cats may cringe at the notion of removing its claws, but feel they have no choice. Unfortunately, the view that cats cannot be trained not to scratch persists, but it is a common misconception. While declawing will remove the source of damage to your furniture, it may cause trauma to your pet and be an extreme measure to deal with the problem that can be solved in less invasive ways. Many people still choose to declaw their cats, but fortunately, there are many options that make it unnecessary.

The medical term for declawing is onychectomy, and it is a procedure that removes a cat’s claws through amputation of the end bones of the animal’s feet. Complete amputation is required because the claw grows from germinal tissue in the third phalanx. The term declawing is euphemistic, because not only the claw is removed, but the actual toe bone. There are complications related to this procedure including inflammation and even tumors. A cat that has been declawed may experience persistent infections and other difficulties. The procedure is common in North America where it is estimated that 25% of domestic cats have been declawed, and some landlords require it before allowing tenants to move in with their cats. A law in 2007 forbade landlords from making this requirement in some states.

Although declawing is widespread in North America, there are no standard practices governing the procedure or the tools that have to be used. In addition, a veterinary surgeon is not required to use analgesics or prescribed postoperative treatments. Cats can be declawed using a scalpel blade, guillotine trimmers or laser. The majority of pet owners who have their cats declawed report that their pets experience discomfort after the procedure. A cat who has been declawed may take a few days to several weeks to recover fully. However, this recovery may be only apparent in many cases because at least half of the cats who undergo declawing have some type of damage following the procedure including infections, chronic pain syndrome and nerve damage. Cats can also experience behavior problems following the ordeal of surgery and may bite more frequently or urinate or defecate outside the litterbox.

Europe, Australia, Israel and other countries have banned the practice of declawing. In America, the procedure was outlawed in many parts of California after a lengthy legal battle between veterinary associations and a nonprofit animal welfare organization called The Paws Project. Although declawing is legal in most states, it is highly controversial among veterinarians and some refuse to perform the procedure. A survey of American pet owners found that the majority of those who own cats felt declawing was unethical. Some veterinarians have stated that they would do the procedure only if no other options were available and if the reason was a matter of health and safety rather than to protect furnishings. It is estimated that 95% of declawing procedures are undertaken to prevent damage to furniture.

One alternative to declawing is a tendonectomy which involves cutting the digital flexor tendon of each claw. The cat is not able to move its distal phalanges and flex its claws. Since this impairs the cat’s ability to trim its own claws, owners must make sure that the claws are treated with the trimmer regularly. A tendonectomy causes less pain to cats than traditional declawing, although there is the same rate of infection, bleeding, and other problems.

More cat owners are choosing alternatives to surgery to keep their cats from scratching furniture. Other methods owners can use is to train their cats to avoid scratching furniture. Scratching posts provide an alternative to the furniture, and veterinarians have developed vinyl caps that are attached to the claws with a non-toxic glue. These caps require replacement from time to time but do not harm the cat. Another solution is emery nail pads that dull the claws so that they do not do much. Some owners choose to cover their furniture with plastic to keep the cat from scratching.

One reason people resort to declawing rather than other methods to keep their cats from scratching furniture is the widespread belief that cats cannot be trained. While cats are more independent by nature and less tractable than dogs, like all creatures, they can be influenced by behavioral modification. There are fewer creatures who are more independent than human beings since we have the intellect and independent will. However, even human beings’ behavior can be guided by the principles of reward or punishment on an instinctive level. The prime example of behavioral psychology is demonstrated by Pavlov’s dog. Many schoolchildren are introduced to the concept of behaviorism by the story of the scientist Pavlov who trained his dog to anticipate mealtime with the ringing of a bell.  The truth is that Pavlov didn’t need to use dog but he could’ve had the same result with a cat or a mouse or even a person. With a little bit of effort and patience, a human owner can train a cat to stop scratching on the sofa.

It may seem like a major challenge to train a cat not to scratch on furniture because scratching is an instinct. Cats use their paws to communicate a variety of emotions, and scratching is an instinctive part of marking their territory. You may notice that when you pet your cat and it is purring, it does a kneading motion with its paws. This kneading motion began when it was a kitten when it was nursing from its mother. The kitten uses its paws to explore its mother’s stomach so it can find a nipple to nurse from. Kittens are born blind and they cannot locate a feeding space through sight. In addition, it has to compete with other kittens to find a place to eat. The kneading motion is regression to kittenhood and expresses a feeling of comfort. While this is not the same as scratching, removing part of its claws can cause a significant amount of trauma, not only because it is deprived of its need to scratch, but it also loses a significant means of communication.

There are several reasons why cats scratch. A cat may use its claws when it feels threatened. Claws are used not only as a means of defense against an attack, but cats can scratch to relieve tension. Cats will also scratch to mark their territory or to assert themselves in a house that contains other cats. If the cat is discouraged from scratching, it can find alternatives to marking his territory such as rubbing its head on surfaces. You may have noticed that when you pet a cat, it may break away and start rubbing its head or its cheeks on an inanimate object. There are many glands on a cat’s head and cheek that release its scent and can be detected by other cats and not by humans. It is possible that your cat, when trained, will rub its head on your sofa instead of scratching it.

One answer to the problem of scratching is to find your cat a scratching post. You can find scratching posts made out of a variety of materials such as cardboard, wood, sandpaper and upholstery. You do not need to opt for a traditional vertical post, but some scratching surfaces have unusual shapes such as curved boards where your cat can lie down and scratch at the same time. Your feline may be attracted to the shape of your sofa and may appreciate the ability to sit or recline while scratching. Creative shapes can give your cat comfort while he scratches.

During the process of training your cat not to scratch you may decide to cover your sofa with plastic before you go out. This may seem like a hassle, but it only takes a few seconds and will preserve your sofa. Another option is to close the door to your living room if you’re going to be away and make sure your cat is in a room of the house that does not contain valuable furniture. You can also spray your sofa with fragrances and herbs that repel cats. Felines are known to dislike the smell of sour apple. At the pet store or on websites, you may be able to find sour apple spray which is pleasant for humans but will keep your cat from scratching.

If your cat starts scratching on the sofa or chair try to distract it with a favorite toy such as a wand with feathers at the end. You might try negative reinforcement such as standing up and clapping to get it away from the sofa.

Training any animal to do something is a challenge, but cats, given their independence, can require more effort. In addition to being independent, cats are territorial creatures, which can work in your favor or be an obstacle. Your cat may not be discouraged from scratching your sofa not because it is inclined to use its claws on your furniture in general but because it has designated that particular sofa as its place. If your cat often rubs up against it as well, that is a sign that your cat may believe you are sitting on its sofa.  If you have been wanting to replace your couch for some time, but haven’t gotten around to it, it may be a good idea to purchase a new sofa and put the new one in a different area of the room. This gives you a fresh start for establishing boundaries. It also helps if the new furniture different color from the old furniture so your cat feels the difference.

Based on the principle of territory, is important not to throw out your cat scratching post if she uses it regularly. It may be tempting to want to get rid of an unsightly battered scratching post, but to your cat, it is a safe haven. One reason a cat may return to scratching a sofa after it has been trained is that the owner decided to replace its scratching post. It is easy to underestimate a feline’s attachment to certain objects or to comprehend how attached they are to certain places. Cats are famous for their homing instinct which causes them to travel many miles to return to a home their owners and vacated. It is also difficult for cats to let go of familiar objects such as old toys or a favorite scratching post.  Be careful about getting rid of old objects your cat feels he owns because it won’t take him long to make the transition to your property, which may have his scent on it which he may consider as somewhat his.

One useful thing to keep in mind when you training cat is that cats view us differently than dogs. Canines are aware that human beings are separate species and yet they want us to join their pack. Cats believe that human beings are failed cats, and this may be why some people sense a superior attitude from felines. The fact is they do feel superior because they believe they are better at being cats than we are. Nevertheless, since cats believe we are fellow felines, they can be trained by imitating our behavior. Introduce a scratching post to your by scratching your fingernails on the scratching post the way a cat would if he starts scratching on your chair. It is likely your cat might ignore you at first but it is more likely that sooner or later he will try himself if you reward the scratching behavior with treats and catnip.

When you train your cat, think about the 3Rs which are: Respect, Reinforcement, and Rewards. Make sure that your approach to your cat is comfortable and supportive. Reinforcement means repeating the same procedure over and over again so your cat can create new habits. Consistency is the key to training cats, so let her know what to expect. Rewards are important for encouraging your cat to behave well with its claws. Make sure that the reward is one that the cat especially enjoys and praise your kitty profusely when she succeeds.

If you haven’t been successful training your cat to scratch the post rather than your sofa or if you want to protect your furniture during the challenging process of training, you can place vinyl caps on your cat’s claws to keep it from damaging your belongings. These were invented by a veterinarian who was tired of seeing cats declawed or given away because they were scratching furniture. Your cat may resist attempts to deal with his teeth and claws, but with patience, it is relatively simple to apply the nail caps yourself. These caps provide a safe and humane alternative to declawing and can be attached with a non-toxic glue to your cat’s claws. They look like your cat’s claws, but they are hollow inside.

The procedure of putting on nail caps is simple and involves filling the cap with non-toxic glue and applying it to your cat’s claw. The glue dries quickly and easily. After the application, the caps will be good for 4 to 6 weeks. The claws should be inspected regularly to make sure they don’t fall off. You can purchase kits that have 46 months’ worth of nail caps.

Your pet may object at first to your covering its claws with caps and may engage in obsessive grooming which can cause the caps to fall off. There’s no reason to be discouraged if this happens a few times, and many cats eventually get used to the nail caps. There is no need to worry even if the cat ingests a cap because they are completely non-toxic. Your cat is not prevented from retracting and extending its claws while wearing these items, and most felines can scratch and stretch normally. There are various sizes for different types of cats, and getting the right size is necessary for them to work effectively.

If your cat resists and keeps biting the nail caps off, you can at least make sure the claws a well-trimmed so they do not cause damage. Even if you have successfully trained your cat not to scratch on the sofa, regular trimming is good for your cat and keeps the claws from splitting or breaking. To trim feline claws, make sure your cat is relaxed prior to the procedure. Pet your cat’s claws and rub them. Don’t try to trim your cat’s claws when you’re in a hurry and avoid forcing the issue, since cats can resist this pressure and make it more difficult. Hold your cat’s paw and turn it around in the palm of your hand. Give the cat rewards or treats so that it feels reassured during the process. Squeeze on the cat’s paw so that it shows its claws. Inspect each claw so you see the thick upper part of the nail and the pinkish area inside. Avoid cutting the pinkish area because it contains blood and is painful if cut.

The best position for trimming a cat’s nails is with its bottom on your lap facing away from you. It is often a good idea to have someone with you when you are trimming the cat’s nails to secure your pet. A good time for trimming your cat’s nails is when the cat is well-rested and fed. Make sure that you cut away only the clear part that is not too close to the pink area. Use the right trimmers that are sharp and can cut right through the claw. You may want to use guillotine clippers with the sliding blade that slices right through when you squeeze the handles. The most important things to consider during this process is keeping the cat as calm as possible, positioning the clipper just right so that it only cuts through the clear part of the claw and using a clipper that is sharp enough that it can be done quickly in one motion. Another handy tool to have is a styptic pencil in case you cut too far down on the claw and it starts bleeding. You can find a styptic in the shaving section of your pharmacy, and this tool cauterizes blood vessels to prevent bleeding.

If you want to make a cat’s claws blunt without having to trim them frequently, consider getting a cat scratcher that is made of emery, a material used to make nails duller.  If your cat wants to use it, a large emery board can be an alternative to clipping the nails and can let your cat manage its own claws.

Declawing is still considered an acceptable although controversial procedure in many parts of North America, but so many countries have outlawed the surgery, that it raises ethical questions. Some parents of kids realize that they may not have a chance at preserving their antique chaise lounge in a room full of jumping kids. While the cat is not the same as a child, some owners realize the need to compromise and can keep the valuable item covered with plastic while they sit on an ordinary sofa that can handle a few scratches. There’s no reason to give up the battle without a fight since there are many alternatives to declawing. Training your cat to use the scratching post can be an effective way of preserving your furniture. Failing that, at least keeping your cat’s claws trimmed can give your furniture a fighting chance.


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