Tag Archives: declawing

The evidence against declawing cats just keeps mounting

We’re seeing yet more evidence that not only does declawing not keep cats out of shelters, but it can cause a lifetime of pain and difficulty walking for cats who have undergone the procedure.

The routine declawing of cats, known as “onychectomy,” has become extremely common in the United States, but that’s not the case elsewhere — in fact, it’s illegal in many countries, and rarely practiced in most.

We in the veterinary profession have long justified performing this surgery by saying it would prevent cats from scratching furniture and other possessions, as well as people, in their homes, and keep them from being taken to a shelter or put outside to fend for themselves. We’ve also claimed that, when performed skillfully and with appropriate pain medication, it was not harmful.

I’ve written about post-declawing pain syndrome before, and a study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery  this spring reinforces my concern. The researchers found declawed cats are at risk of back pain and gait problems, retained bone fragments, and were more likely to bite and stop using their litter boxes. Additionally, they stated:

Declawing cats increases the risk of unwanted behaviors and may increase risk for developing back pain. Evidence of inadequate surgical technique was common in the study population. Among declawed cats, retained P3 fragments further increased the risk of developing back pain and adverse behaviors.

The use of optimal surgical technique does not eliminate the risk of adverse behavior subsequent to onychectomy.

In another study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association late last year, the authors found that declawed cats who live with other cats are three times more likely to fail to use the litter box appropriately than those with intact claws:

(H)aving cats that had undergone onychectomy in a 3- to 5-cat household were all significant predictors of house soiling. Notably, having cats that had undergone onychectomy in a 3- to 5-cat household increased the risk of house soiling by more than 3-fold, indicating that the association between onychectomy and house soiling was influenced by the number of cats per household.

Compare this finding with the results of the analysis in which onychectomy status was stratified by the number of cats per household, which showed that onychectomy status had no confounding effect on this association. Taken together, these results indicated that when there were 3 to 5 cats in a household that had also undergone onychectomy, there was a greater risk of house soiling in that household.


Since litter box avoidance is the top reason cats are surrendered to shelters, continuing to use keeping cats out of shelters as a way to rationalize declawing seems increasingly insupportable.

It’s also worth noting that virtually all national humane organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, Alley Cat Allies, AdoptAPet.com, the North Shore Animal League, Petfinder, and Best Friends Animal Society, as well as countless shelters and rescue groups across the country, vehemently oppose surgical declawing of cats unless medically necessary due to a condition such as cancer or severe injury.

I’m with them. I hope the rest of my profession joins us soon.

Breaking: Canadian Veterinary Medical Association issues statement opposing declawing of cats

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association today issued a statement opposing the declawing of cats, a stronger position than they’ve taken previously.

From the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has strengthened its stand against declawing domestic cats, saying the practice causes unnecessary and avoidable pain.

“It is evident that felines suffer needlessly when undergoing this surgery as an elective measure,” Dr. Troy Bourque, the association’s president, said Wednesday.

“The CVMA views this surgery as unacceptable as it offers no advantage to the feline and the lack of scientific evidence leaves us unable to predict the likelihood of long-term behavioural and physical negative side-effects.”

The association is sending the new guideline on what it calls “non-therapeutic partial digital amputation” to its 7,000 members across Canada. It also hopes to raise public awareness to reduce demand for the procedure.

I applaud my colleagues in Canada for this statement, and hope we’ll soon see a similar toughening of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s stance, which weakly discourages  declawing but stops well short of opposing the practice.

The tragedy of post-declaw pain syndrome, and how to help cats who suffer from it

As a veterinarian, I was taught early on that while declawing cats wasn’t without its drawbacks, it was a valuable tool in preserving the human-cat bond, and kept cats out of shelters. I no longer believe that today.

As I’ve learned more about the negative effects of pain and fear on our companion animals, I’ve become a firm opponent of surgical declawing — and like the AVMA, a believer that we should call it by its correct name: amputation.

I’ve also learned that the pain caused by this procedure often lasts long after the surgery is over. It can last the life of the cat, and even cause worse behavior problems than the one it supposedly set out to solve, destructive scratching, such as litter box avoidance and biting. After all, declawed cats come into animal shelters all the time, and are also trapped in feral cat colonies. I think we as veterinarians have fallen back on the “keeping them in their homes” rationalization for far too long.

To understand the issue of chronic post-declaw pain in cats, I turned to my personal veterinary pain guru, Dr. Robin Downing of the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo.

Dr. Downing has a string of credentials longer than the driveway leading up to our Almost Heaven Ranch (and definitely long enough to give this veterinarian an inferiority complex), including:

  • Diplomate, American Academy of Pain Management
  • Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • Certified Veterinary Pain Practitioner
  • Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner
  • Certified Pain Educator, American Society of Pain Educators

My first question for Dr. Downing was to confirm whether what my clinical experience has shown me, that some cats, perhaps many, develop persistent pain after being declawed, was accurate.

“Cats most definitely can suffer pain after having their toes amputated — the appropriate description for the procedure,” she told me. “Unfortunately, as the latest survey conducted by DVM360 revealed, a huge percent of cats do not receive appropriate post-operative pain management.

“If post-op pain is not managed aggressively and comprehensively, the pain can become chronic.  Because the nerves to the toes are actually cut, the pain can become what in people is called ‘neuropathic’ pain. People with neuropathic pain report various sensations in the affected area of the body — they may feel tingling, burning, electrical pain, throbbing, and more.”

This happens, she said, because the nerves are actually cut during the surgery, which damages them. “With nerve damage, there are changes that occur in the transmission of signals along the nerve fibers,” she explained. “The damaged nerves can set up a pain syndrome that is self-perpetuating. This means that the toes can become hypersensitive, or may even develop the sensations that humans with neuropathic pain experience.”

I’ve seen many declawed cats in my years as a veterinarian, and expect to continue seeing them, so I asked Dr. Downing what signs might suggest to an owner or veterinarian that an already-declawed cat is suffering from a post-declaw pain syndrome.

It depends on the cat, she told me. “Some cats with neuropathic toe/foot pain limp all the time,” she said. “Some cats limp when they walk on some surfaces but not on others.  I knew a cat who only limped on tile floors, never on carpet.  Another cat would only limp on carpet, yet not on smooth floor surfaces.  It is impossible to predict the outcome.”

One of the most interesting things Dr. Downing has observed in working with these cats is that when their feet and toes are touched and manipulated, they don’t object. That’s because, she said, this pain can be presumed to be neuropathic in origin — in other words, nerve pain. Given that, I asked her, what should owners of already-declawed cats do if they suspect or discover their cat suffers from this condition. Is there any hope?

“Absolutely!  Because this pain is neuropathic in nature, gabapentin is the treatment of choice,” she said. “Gabapentin targets a receptor in the spinal cord that helps to modulate peripheral pain.

“Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are useless against this type of pain, as there is no inflammation involved.  Gabapentin is a true game-changer for these cats, restoring them to normal life.  It is possible that gabapentin may have to be given for the rest of the cat’s life, but every cat is different.”

I know many veterinarians believe as I used to, that this procedure has its place. But I took an oath to prevent and relieve animal suffering, so today I work with clients to train their kittens and newly-adopted adult cats to only scratch on appropriate surfaces, and use deterrents such as sticky tape on the side of the sofa or soft claw-covers that need to be replaced every 4-6 weeks for the few more serious cases.

I don’t hesitate to refer clients whose cats are possibly suffering from this pain syndrome to a pain specialist for help.

And to my fellow veterinarians who feel they won’t have tools to help people struggling with destructive scratching if this surgery is taken off the table, I say: Stop selling yourselves short!

As a recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior showed, the greatest power we as veterinarians have to help cats and humans live together in peace is to provide our clients with reliable, informed behavior advice — and for them to follow it!

We can help both cats and their humans by offering them expert advice that will cement a lasting, beneficial bond among pet, owner, and veterinarian. Isn’t that better than risking lifelong pain or behavior problems in our patients?

So let’s embrace this new wave of concern over the practice of declawing. Just as our profession once held a belief that animals don’t feel pain, and more recently thought it was acceptable to leave animals in pain if we needed to keep them quiet, let’s put this one into the history books where it belongs!


What you need to know before declawing your cat

Should you consider getting your cat declawed? Here’s what a reader had to say via email:

Q: When I was growing up, we always had our cats declawed and I didn’t think anything about it. I took our new kitten in to the vet to have her declawed, and he didn’t want to do it. Why would he hesitate? I thought it was a normal procedure for cats. 

And here’s my reply, from this week’s Pet Connection newspaper feature:

Surgical declawing, or onychectomy, used to be common, but we now know so much more about cat behavior and needs that we’ve come to have a different view of it. Scratching is a normal behavior for cats. It’s one of the ways they mark territory and stretch, and it conditions their claws by removing the husks. Declawing isn’t medically necessary, and it takes away the cat’s ability to perform these normal and necessary actions.

Declawing surgery isn’t a minor procedure. It involves amputating all or part of the end bones of the cat’s toes. Potential risks and complications include hemorrhage, infection and pain.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Cat Fanciers Association and the Humane Society of the United States are just a few of the organizations that recommend against declawing, and it is illegal in many European countries. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s position is that declawing should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using claws destructively or when clawing presents an above-normal health risk to the owner.

Better options are to provide your kitten with plenty of options for exercising his need to scratch. A tall scratching post (at least three feet high), cardboard door hangers or boxes, or even a real log can all provide your cat with opportunities to scratch without harming your furniture or carpet. Be sure that scratching posts or other scratching implements are firmly anchored so they stay in place and offer good resistance as the cat scratches away at them. You should also trim the claws every week or two. If you start when he is young, trim when he’s relaxed and reward him with treats and praise, your cat won’t mind having his nails trimmed at all.

Read about how recycling can help pets, where the phrase “dog days of summer” came from, and more in this week’s Pet Connection!