The Truth Behind Declawing

Before considering getting your cat declawed it is important to understand what declawing really is. It is a common misconception that it is simply the removal of the cat’s claws, like humans clipping their nails. According to the AVMA, “Onychectomy is an amputation and should be regarded as a major surgery.”

That’s right—it is a weighty surgery that involves removing a section of the cat’s toe. According to the Humane Society of the United States, “If performed on a human being, it would be like cutting off each finger at the last knuckle.” The AVMA describes the procedure as “…the surgical amputation of all or part of a cat’s third phalanges (toe bones) and the attached claws. … The surgery may be performed using sterilized nail trimmers, scalpel blades, or surgical lasers.”

Shown below is a slideshow of a diagram of declawing, one of the most common methods (clipping using a guillotine-esque tool), and the aftermath of the procedure.

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The first method addressed by the AVMA was with sterilized nail trimmers, or as seen above ‘the guillotine procedure.’ Below is a video that addresses what it is as well as what it looks like in action:

As stated in the video, this method is less than ideal in terms of efficiencyit is crude and leaves holes in the paw which makes for a sluggish and painful recovery. Occasionally bone may be left behind and, as found through the AVMA’s Literature Review, “If only part of the phalanx is removed the claw may occasionally regrow. However, it has been suggested that retaining a portion of the phalanx allows the paw to retain more of its normal function and appearance.” When bone is left behind, Max’s House states that it leads to

“…painful regrowth of deformed claw inside of the paw which is not visible to the eye. [The splintered nail may cause] …abscess associated with retention of portions of the third phalanx. Abscess due to regrowth must be treated by surgical removal of the remnant of the third phalanx and wound debridement.”

So if the first surgical procedure goes awry, a secondary surgery to fix the mess is detrimental. That’s pawful

The second approach is with a surgical laser. Claims have been made that the removal of the claws with a laser lessens the pain and recovery time of the surgery; however, in the AVMA’s Literature Review it has been noted that

…anecdotal reports claim that postoperative pain level and the recovery period are improved by use of a laser, [but] the clinically observed effect was minimal in ten cats that underwent scalpel onychectomy on one paw and laser onychectomy on the other paw.

With that being said, below is a clip from the same video that addresses the approach with laser removal:

The laser method is known to be less bloody than other methods because it burns the edge of the skin and may lead to fourth degree burns, or burns that reach down to the bone (ouch); however, the nerve endings are sealed off in the process which is said to result in lessened pain (…less ouch?) Another downside to the laser removal is that it usually is more expensive than the standard procedures.

The last technique is declawing through the use of a scalpel, which is the most recommended approach:

A scalpel is used to slice into the skin, slit four ligaments that attach the claw to the bone, and the claw is subsequently removed. This process leads to a very quick recovery time; in fact, as stated in the video, some cats are up walking around as soon as the next day.

As can be seen, each technique has its own pros and cons in terms of recovery rate and the amount of pain it causes the cat. Depending on which technique was used, after the procedure is all said and done the Humane Society of the United States mentions that “…the wounds are closed with stitches or surgical glue, and the feet are bandaged.” The cat’s paws will be sensitive during the recovery for days afterwards if the surgery is performed correctly. More information regarding postoperative effects can be found here.

It goes without saying that veterinarians must follow certain standards both during and after the surgery. The AVMA states that these standards include…

…[the] appropriate use of safe and effective anesthetics and perioperative analgesics [f]or an appropriate length of time are imperative. Pain management is necessary (not elective) and required for this procedure. Multimodal pain management is recommended, and there should be a written aftercare plan.

Without effective pain management post-operation cats will experience distress as well as severe pain that complicates walking, as seen below:

In addition to pain post-operation (which can be managed), other complications that are less manageable may arise. According to Katia Andreassi, an author for the National Geographic, “studies estimate that some form of complication—including pain, hemorrhaging, and claw regrowth—occurs in 25 to 50 percent of declaw surgeries.”

As a pet parent, hearing about these potential downfalls to declawing certainly makes me a bit hesitant to subject my cats to the procedure. In fact, Andreassi goes on to say that some veterinarians are not even properly trained to declaw cats because “A recent study showed that only 50 percent of U.S. veterinary programs have mandatory declawing instruction.”

Keeping this in mind, there is no wonder why there is a rift in the concept of declawing—a major surgery being performed by a less than ideally instructed veterinarian does not sound too favorable.

Though it may be a risky procedure, declawing is not inherently bad; there are certain benefits that can be attributed with it.

For instance, it can be beneficial to the cats themselves when concerning their physical health. As a cat grows older, it is more likely to suffer from a decline in its health. Issues may begin to arise, as stated by the AMVA, such as “…disease conditions such as paronychia and neoplasia of the nail bed,” which are infection/abscess around a nail bed, and a cancerous mass, respectively. Declawing can aid in the healing process of both ailments.

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As these are not common reasons for owners to have their cats declawed, it is also important to consider the most common reasons why pet owners choose to declaw their cats—for human benefit.

One of the most common reasons for a pet parent to declaw their cat is to correct a behavioral problem. Common behavioral problems include the scratching of furniture and/or other pets and people.

Granted, these are problematic, but can be stopped through a little personal effort of the pet parent. Alternative methods to declawing can be found here.


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