Declawing Cats: Are Legislative Bans Appropriate?

Last week a bill passed through a NJ Assembly committee which would make it a crime to declaw a cat.  Criminal penalties sought are a fine of up to $1,000 or six months in jail in addition to a civil penalty starting at $500 and maxing out at $2,000.  This would be a first in the country were it enacted so IMPS decided to take a closer look.

What Is Declawing?

Onychetomy, the medical term for the removal of an animal's claws, is a procedure that has been used for many decades.  The surgery is invasive and requires the cat to have anesthesia.  The most often used technique amputates the claw and a portion of the outermost joint of each toe on the front paws (the third phalanx).  This bone and the claw are attached to the rest of the bony paw structure by two ligaments and a tendon.  Cuts are made through those two ligaments from the top and the the bone is severed just before its meeting point with the flexor tendon, just over the front ped.  A very good diagram of this is available at Max's House Animal Rescue.

As with many animal related topics, studies of reported after effects vary widely from few to many. It is also not clear over what period of time the complications are most severe as the one most often listed is indication of pain in the paw.  Other possible complications are nerve damage, lameness and deformed claw regrowth, among others.  There are always risks with surgery, though if done properly and with appropriate post operative care (including pain medication), most cats seem to recover without issues.

Why The Fuss?

Declawing cats is without doubt a hot button issue among pet parents.  Rarely medically necessary, many view it as an inhumane modification of the cat.  There is also the issue of suffering, even if only in the short term.

So why do pet parents still have their cats declawed?  Almost always the answer revolves around the destruction of household property and/or the scratching of humans or other pets. 

Scratching, like it or not, is a natural instinct for cats.  In all cases, it serves to remove "husks" from the claw (think of it as a trimming) and provides a stretching activity for the leg muscles.  Some cats also use scratching to mark territory.

Pet behaviorists claim that many cats can be conditioned to only claw in a specific location, especially if started at an early age.  Scratching posts come in many varieties and are the most popular option for controlling kitty's urge to claw.  There are other, often free, alternatives too, such as carpet and fabric remnants (these should always be attached securely to fixed object).  The key with any anti-scratch implement is that it be tall enough to allow the cat to fully stretch its muscles while also being sufficiently anchored to prevent movement.

Pet parents also have the option to use plastic nail covers which can last well over a month and reduce any destructive effects of the claws.  Over time, however, this may become a tedious chore if the cat is not receptive. 

One anecdote often passed around among pet parents is that declawed cats turn to other forms of destructive behavior (compared to other cats) such as urination or defecation outside of the litter box.  However, the American Veterinary Medical Association states:

"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."

Though vets do have some vested financial interest in performing this procedure, IMPS believes that, as a group, they would not put a harmful procedure ahead of the cat's well being just to make an extra buck.  In fact, the AVMA is fairly clear in viewing onychectomy as unnecessary in most cases.

But Should It Be Illegal?

The bill being debated in NJ is certainly well intended but IMPS is not certain that declawing is a procedure so onerous that it should be legally banned.  Certainly, declawing is not the only body modification done on pets - see dog tails.  One might also argue that reproductive preventive surgery is medically unnecessary and can also result in pain and complications.  In that example, society feels the prevention of many unwanted puppies and kittens is more than worth the inherent risks.

In the case of declawing, it is important to consider what may happen if this procedure is made illegal.  If a cat is destructively clawing up a home (or worse, its occupants) and does not respond to behavior modification, pet parents are faced with the hard choice of giving up the pet or saving their house.  Unfortunately, the reality is that many cats are abandoned or given to shelters rather than buying a new pair of drapes every month.  That is not an easy decision for a pet parent to make and declawing, as a last resort, can provide a way for the cat to remain in the home and not on a short list for euthanasia.

The AVMA recognizes this:

Scientific data do indicate that cats that have destructive scratching 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.

IMPS believes that declawing should not be made illegal.  Undoubtedly, some procedures will result in complications and pain for the cat.  However, this must be balanced against the many other cats who might otherwise lose their lives for lack of the procedure.  That said, IMPS feels strongly that pet parents should make a genuine effort at resolving behavior problems related to clawing using other, non-surgical, methods.  Likewise, all prospective pet parents taking in a cat, whether from a shelter or a friend, should begin immediate training to prevent the development of these issues in the first place.  Declawing should always be a last resort.

1. A technique for onychectomy in the cat. by Goodyear MD, Vet Med Small Anim Clin. 1977 Apr;72(4):569-72.

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