Is it bad to declaw a cat? Experts weigh in

If your cat is scratching your furniture or even scratching you, you might be growing frustrated at the behavior and are probably looking for solutions. Cats naturally scratch objects for many purposes, including to help maintain their claw condition and stretch their legs and paws. But it also can be damaging, and that’s where the idea of declawing comes in. If you’re considering having your cat declawed, it’s important to understand what this type of operation really consists of and what complications can arise. Is it bad to declaw a cat? There are lots of questions about whether this surgery is ethical, which is why two experts have weighed in and provided some important insights every cat owner should know.

A cat stretching out on a deck and exposing its claws

What is declawing, and why do people do it?

Dr. Jo Myers, D.V.M., at JustAnswer, has a background in emergency room care and a special interest in pet behavior. Myers explains that declawing refers to the surgical amputation of all 10 of the front toes at the last joint. “It would be equivalent to cutting off the tips of your fingers at the knuckle just below the fingernail,” she says. She notes that there’s generally no reason to declaw the back paws since they don’t significantly contribute to property damage or injury.

According to Myers, the declawing amputation is performed under general anesthesia. Cats also need postoperative pain management. But even with proper care, the surgery doesn’t have an easy or simple recovery. “This traumatic amputation requires significant healing. It can take anywhere from weeks to months for a cat to fully recover from being declawed. In some cases, a cat carries permanent pain or injury as a result of the declaw. Larger, older cats experience significantly more trauma during the procedure, and healing time is much longer,” says Myers.

Nikki Martinez, board member of Hearts Alive Village in Las Vegas and founder of Fostering a Purpose, explains that many people want to declaw cats because it prevents them from causing damage by scratching. “Some argue that declawing reduces rehoming and euthanasia, which comes about because of such scratching,” she says. “However, as we have seen firsthand in our rescue, it may actually increase the chances of behaviors such as aggression and biting, which ultimately lead to rehoming or euthanasia.”

The problems with declawing cats

Myers notes that declawing is a “brutal procedure” that can lead to significant complications.

“Even when done under the best of circumstances and with the best pain management plan possible, it’s still painful and a lot of healing has to occur,” Myers says. “Complications can occur that can cause delayed healing or even lifelong pain and other issues.

“A declawed cat cannot defend itself as effectively in a fight; therefore, it is inadvisable to allow a declawed cat to roam unsupervised outdoors,” she adds. “We also do not fully understand the full extent of how declawing affects a cat’s behavior and mental well-being throughout its life.”

In many parts of the world, declawing is banned. Martinez reports that 42 countries, including Australia, Brazil, and the U.K., have banned declawing. In 2019, New York became the first state in the U.S. to ban elective declaw surgery. In recent years, cities including Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have also passed declawing bans.

Myers says it’s difficult to come up with an example of a situation that would warrant declawing. “Put yourself in the cat’s shoes,” she suggests. “If you try to imagine choosing between moving out of the home and social circle you’d always known or getting all your fingertips amputated, it’s pretty hard to come up with a set of circumstances where you’d opt for amputation. Likewise for a cat, it’s important to consider what’s best for the cat if special circumstances arise where declawing is considered.”

Orange and white cat stretching its paw and showing its claws

Alternatives to declawing

If your cat is causing damage by scratching, you have options besides declawing to explore. Martinez recommends regularly trimming your cat’s claws since blunt claws will cause less damage. “Trim the claws about once a week, and always avoid the blood vessels and nerves in the base of the claws so you do not injure the cat. If you aren’t sure how to trim your cat’s claws, ask your veterinarian to show you,” she says.

Myers adds that some owners have been able to condition their cats to accept grinding tool pedicures, which result in a dulled claw tip.

She suggests looking into soft plastic claw covers. “These are glued over the claw and can stay in place for several weeks before the glue wears off. It takes a little practice to get good at this, and property damage can still occur when a claw cover drops off unbeknownst to the owner,” she says.

Myers closes with the fact that it’s important to recognize that scratching is a normal and necessary behavior for cats. “They need the opportunity to scratch, and it’s up to us as their caretakers to find ways for them to do this that we can tolerate living with. Providing adequate substrates for scratching is critical,” she says. “The most important thing cat parents can do to ease conflict over their cat’s need to scratch is get good at trimming front claws and do it often. Once that’s accomplished, and you’ve provided some suitable scratching posts, you’re all set to coexist.”

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