A Guide to Declawing
Deciding whether to declaw your cat may be one of the most important choices you make as a cat owner. And for many feline lovers, it's a thorny issue.
Why Cats Scratch
Cats scratch to smooth out the rims of their claws, which gradually get frayed. Scratching is also an instinctive method of marking territory. Each scratch leaves secretions from glands in a cat's feet, a scent that gets other cats' attention.
The cat's retractable claws are also used for defense and add to the animal's grace and acrobatic ability. But those claws can also rake a new sofa to shreds and lash a small child's cheek during a playful encounter. According to Dr. Debra Primovic, a veterinarian at the Animal Emergency Clinic in St. Louis and a consultant for PetPlace.com, the dividing line between declawing and not declawing usually involves where cats are kept: indoors such as the city, vs. areas where cats are more apt to move freely between inside and outside, like the suburbs or country. City dwellers usually declaw their cats because the animals will be staying indoors, but people who live in the country want their cats armed to defend themselves if they roam around outside or escape, Primovic says. Keep in mind that cats can get out accidentally in the city and if they are declawed they will be nearly defenseless against other cats who might try to pick a fight.
The cat's age is another consideration. Primovic says she declawed her own kitten at 11 or 12 weeks, and the animal bounced back quickly, but older cats need more time to heal.
Sometimes declawing is all that will keep peace in the family. "I've had people actually hit their cat for scratching the furniture. Even though declawing is not the ideal alternative, maybe it's better to declaw a cat so that he can't claw up the sofa,'' she says. "This way, he's less likely to get scolded."
How Declawing is Done
Declawing– also called onychectomy – is a surgical procedure in which the nail and last bone are removed from all the toes of the cat's front feet. The cat is usually under general anesthesia for the procedure. Some veterinarians now use laser surgery, which some think can lessen pain and post-operative bleeding. Either way, your cat's toes will be bandaged, and it may take a couple weeks for your cat to walk normally. Some cats bounce back very quickly, especially kittens. Shredded paper should be used in the litter box for this period because litter pieces are uncomfortable and can get stuck in the cats surgery site causing an infection.
What Are the Risks?
Problems are uncommon when correctly done on a young cat. Potential problems include an incorrectly positioned cut, which can remove too much of the toe, taking with it part of the toe's pad. This can cause pain. If the whole claw is not removed, misshapen claws can grow back. In addition, if a bone fragment is left at the surgery site, it may become a source of infection. Post-surgical blood loss is another concern, but great care is taken so that the bandages are placed to control bleeding.
What Else Can You Do?
While declawing may be necessary to live harmoniously with an indoor-only cat, there are other excellent alternatives:
- Buy or make a scratching post. Make sure it is strong enough not to wobble and tall enough to accommodate a cat at full stretch. Sisal and corrugated cardboard make good scratching post surfaces. Avoid carpeting as it is easy to tear up and looks terrible once it is broken in. Also, the cat will have a hard time differentiating between "good" carpet to scratch (the post) and "bad" carpet to scratch (your living room rug) so you may create a new problem.
- Train with a dual approach. Encourage the cat to claw the right things, and discourage her from clawing the wrong things. Each time you bring the cat to the scratching post or she goes on her own, praise her, pet her and spend a minute playing at the post. If the cat begins to scratch where she isn't supposed to, call her by name, firmly telling her "no," and move her to the scratching post. Put her front legs up on the post and make scratching motions with them. Dangle a toy in front of the post so as she goes for the toy she'll touch the post. Most likely, she'll enjoy the feeling and continue using it afterwards. You can also "use" the post so that your scent will be on it and entice your cat to mark the territory herself.
Some owners use a spray bottle filled with plain water handy and squirt the cat on the back when she claws the furnishings. The only problem here is that you run the risk of the cat simply being afraid of you and the bottle and will still scratch when you are not around. Try tempting her with a more suitable scratching surface first. If you do use the bottle, make sure to never spray her in the face.
- Keep your cat's nails trimmed. Cutting the nails regularly may help a cat from scratching furnishings, or at least reduce the damage done by her scratching. Get your kitten used to having her feet handled and her nails clipped while she's young. With an older cat, it may help to begin by handling the cat's feet under pleasurable circumstances. Then introduce the clipping procedure by approaching the cat while she's relaxed (or even napping) and clip only one nail per session. Praise your cat while you clip the nail, and reward her with a treat. If you are in doubt about the proper nail length, let your veterinarian instruct you.
- Nail Covers. A few years ago an excellent product was introduced to reduce damage from furniture scratching humanely. "Soft Paws"™ (or Soft Claws®) are plastic nail caps that can be super-glued to a cat's claws following a preliminary nail trim. The results are often spectacular, with damage to furniture practically non-existent while the nail caps remain in place. The manufacturers recommend a complete replacement every month or so, but replacing lost nails individually as they fall off also works (and involves far less work).