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Alternatives to Feline Declaw Surgery

November 21, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

Feline declaw surgery is becoming increasingly more controversial in society and among veterinarians. This article is not meant to debate the ethical question of declawing cats, but rather to educate cat owners about the procedure so they, together with their veterinarian, can make the best decision for their unique circumstance.

Declawing is an amputation of the third phalanx bone of each toe. When looking at your own hand, this is the equivalent of removing the tip of your finger to the first knuckle behind your nail on each of your fingers. It is a very painful procedure. Pain management is crucial during recovery, and it can take weeks for normal mobility and jumping without pain to be achieved.

Through declawing, we are taking away a source of defense and of natural feline behavior. Sometimes, this change for a cat can result in an increase in biting behavior, inappropriate urination, or other symptoms of stress. Each cat responds differently. Over time, arthritis of the paws, or even "phantom pain" can cause continued problems with mobility. Because of these potential consequences, declawing your cat is a decision you should make with your veterinarian after exhausting all other options. Understanding those options requires that we talk about normal cat behavior.

The most common reason cat owners request declaw surgery is destruction of furniture due to scratching. Therefore, I would like to discuss the purpose of scratching behavior. Cats use scratching to remove dead nail tissue, to mark their territory, and to stretch their bodies. It is a very normal behavior. Just like humans, cats have their own opinions and preferences about their lives, and so may prefer a certain substrate to scratch. For instance, some cats prefer rope-covered posts, others cardboard, wood, etc. Some cats prefer to scratch a vertical object, some a flat, horizontal object. Some cats scratch before sleeping or after waking, others scratch at random times. Providing a variety of objects, substrates, and locations can help satisfy scratching needs.

The first step in training your cat to scratch appropriately is to consider the above recommendations and offer a variety of scratching objects throughout your house. You can then decide which objects and locations suit your cat best. Next, encourage use of the scratching object by placing favorite treats, toys, catnip, etc. near or on the scratching spot. Then, reward your cat for using the object by offering a toy or treat within a few seconds of appropriate scratching behavior. This helps him/her to correlate scratching in this area with a positive outcome.

During times of stress, cats may begin to scratch inappropriately. Stress behavior in cats can be subtle and undetectable. It can be difficult to determine the source of stress. If your once behaved kitty is now clawing your furniture, talk to your vet about the possibility of anxiety-related behavior.

For cats prone to scratching furniture, curtains, or carpet, it is important to keep the nails trimmed short. Alternatively, nail caps can be applied every 2-3 weeks to prevent damage from scratching.

I would encourage all cat owners, especially owners of new kittens, to have an understanding of normal versus abnormal scratching behavior, training techniques, and alternatives to declaw surgery. I feel that by doing so, declaw surgery can be reserved for rare circumstances, or discontinued altogether.

Information for this article is taken, in part, from the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

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