By Jean Hofve, DVM and Marva Marrow

Declawing is NOT a routine surgery and should never be done as a "preventative." Despite their reputation for independence, cats can readily be trained to leave the sofa, curtains, or carpet untouched. Using surgery to prevent or correct a behavioral problem is expedient, but it is usually not the wisest, kindest, most cost-effective, or best solution for you and your cat.

Here is the CFA official position on declawing:

"The Cat Fanciers' Association recognizes that scratching is a natural behavior of cats and that cats may be defenseless without full use of their claws if they, either intentionally or unintentionally, go outdoors. Scratching damage to household furnishings can be minimized or avoided by routine clipping of the claws, the use of claw covers and by redirecting the cat's activity to acceptable surfaces.

CFA perceives the declawing of cats (onychectomy ) and the severing of digital tendons (tendonectomy) to be elective surgical procedures that are without benefit to the cat. Because of the discomfort associated with any surgery and potential future behavioral or physical effects, CFA disapproves of routine declawing or tendonectomy surgery in lieu of alternative solutions to prevent household damage. In certain situations, including high risk of injury or disease transmission to owners with bleeding disorders or compromised immune systems, declawing may be justified in order to maintain the cat-human bond."

The surgery:

Declaw surgery is technically called an "onychectomy" and constitutes amputation of the toe at the last joint. This removes the claw and the bone from which it originates. On a human hand this would be an amputation at the knuckle just before the nail. For this reason, some people call declawing "DE-TOEING" which may truly be a more accurate term!

Laser declawing causes less bleeding and swelling than other surgical techniques. This reduces pain and complications in the first few days after surgery, but the long-term consequences of the procedure remain the same.

Common excuses to declaw:

  • To protect furniture or other property
  • Unwillingness to try to train the cat
  • To stop the cat from scratching owner
  • A friend or other family member's cat is declawed
  • Have always had declawed cats
  • Veterinarian recommended it
  • Uninformed about the procedure or other options

Why are claws important to cats?

Claws perform a number of vital functions for the cat. By scratching various surfaces, cats create a visual and scent identification mark for their territory. Claws provide psychological comfort through kneading, help the cat climb to safety or as secure vantage point, and help the cat fully stretch his back and legs. A declawed cat never experiences the head-to-toe satisfaction of a full body stretch.

What are potential complications of declawing?

  • Post-surgical complications: Lameness, abscesses and claw re-growth can occur days or weeks or many years after surgery.
  • Pain: Because declawing involves ten separate amputations, declawed cats may experience phantom pain in one or more toes. These pains may continue for life.
  • Joint Stiffness: In declawed cats, the tendons that control the toe joints retract after surgery, and these joints become essentially "frozen".
  • Litterbox Problems: Declawed cats may have more litterbox problems than clawed cats (anecdotally reported). Households with cats refusing to use the litterbox may spend thousands of dollars replacing drywall, carpets, and subfloors to repair urine damage.
  • Biting: Some declawed cats do seem to "notice" that their claws are missing, and turn to biting as a primary means of defense.
  • Change in personality: A friendly, delightful kitten may become a morose, fearful, or reclusive cat, never to recover its natural joy, grace, and love of exploration.
  • Death: There is always a small but real risk of death from any general anesthesia, as well as from bleeding or other surgical complications.

Declawing that results in biting or inappropriate elimination outside the litterbox may result in the cat being locked in the basement, dumped at a shelter, or simply abandoned. If taken to shelters, such behaviors make them unadoptable, and they will be destroyed. Many cats are even exiled to a life outdoors because of these unwanted behaviors, even though declawed cats should never be allowed outside unsupervised, their ability to defend themselves, and to escape danger by climbing is seriously impaired. They also risk injury or death by dogs, cars, wild predators, disease, poison and other hazards of outdoor life.

The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) has an official position on the declawing of domestic cats:

"Declawing of domestic cats should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively or when its clawing presents a zoonotic risk for its owner(s)."

Another excerpt from their policy:

"Scientific data do indicate that cats that have destructive clawing behavior are more likely to be euthanatized, or more readily relinquished, released, or abandoned, thereby contributing to the homeless cat population. Where scratching behavior is an issue as to whether or not a particular cat can remain as an acceptable household pet in a particular home, surgical onychectomy may be considered.?

There is no scientific evidence that declawing leads to behavioral abnormalities when the behavior of declawed cats is compared with that of cats in control groups."

You can read the whole article and the position of the AVMA here.

Thankfully with minimal time and effort, it is generally not difficult to train a cat or kitten to scratch on appropriate surfaces - especially if you have several more "attractive" choices placed near where your cat tends to want to scratch. Sisal cat posts, tall enough so the cat can stretch, cat trees and inexpensive corrugated cat scratchers are additions to your household that your cat will eye (and scratch!) with pleasure. Here are some other suggestions:

Healthy Alternatives to Declawing:

  • Provide an appropriate place to scratch: Cats of any age can be trained not to scratch furniture or other objects - including people.
    1. Provide a scratching post for your cat. Take the cat or kitten to the post the moment any undesirable scratching is noticed. Move the cat's paws in a scratching motion on the post or run your finger on the scratching post so the cat will get this idea.
    2. Prefer sisal (rope) or inexpensive corrugated cardboard posts as these seem to "feel" better to the cat and give more satisfaction.
  • Make the unacceptable object undesirable: This may be as simple as throwing a thick towel, fleece or blanket over the arm of the sofa. Kitty likes the woven upholstery because it is resistant and allows him to stretch.

    Another simple plan is to use double sided tape, such as "Sticky Paws." This product has a special adhesive that does not damage the furniture, but feels disgusting to the cat's sensitive paw pads.

  • Padding for the Paws: For aggressive or unremitting scratching, replaceable soft plastic caps for the claws called "Soft Paws" may be a good solution. Please ask your veterinarian if he/she feels this is right for your pet.
  • Nail trimming: Conscientious nail-trimming will keep the claws blunt and minimize the damage that kitty can do to fabrics, furniture, and fingers.

There are a few individuals who will always declaw their cats. Their own convenience and the safety of their belongings is their top priority, and whether or not it causes suffering to the cat is not a significant concern. Fortunately, most people truly love their feline companions and want to do what's best for all concerned. If you are one of these wonderful people, please think carefully about this beautiful little animal who trusts you and relies on your for her very existence. Then you will likely make the most humane choice - and leave your cat with her claws, as nature intended.

About the Authors: Dr. Jean Hofve earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University. She is now retired from holistic and conventional feline practice, but still writes and teaches. Her informational website, www.littlebigcat.com, is a respected source of information on cat health, nutrition and behavior issues.

Marva Marrow is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (IAABC: International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants) with more than 30 years of experience. Her feline behavior business, The Kitty Kouch aids veterinarians, shelters, rescue groups and private clients. She is a frequent contributor and consultant to Cat Fancy and Animal Awareness magazines and to nationally syndicated newspapers. Marva breeds, shows and shares her home with her Oriental Shorthair cats.


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