Why this vet hates to declaw cats

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: August 29, 2016
Published: May 16, 2007
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I’ve confessed here before: Yes I do declaw cats. You may dislike this about me—and I don’t blame you. I don’t like to declaw cats, either.

It’s a personal decision for every vet: Am I willing to amputate the cat fingertips for the benefit of their humans? And, most of the time, I would say no. But sometimes it’s a procedure where the expressed goal is to keep that cat safe and indoors with his family.

Families with geriatric or immunosuppressed members (chemo, AIDS, transplants, etc.) are a no-brainer. If kitty uses her claws when being handled, people with challenged immune systems are at high risk for serious infections.

Other declaw exceptions include seriously destructive pets whose owners have tried everything…except eliminating the claws. If scratching posts, claw covers (like Soft Paws) and furniture protection haven’t worked, we go for the declaw instead of the outdoors. Given the choice, I’ll always choose [what’s usually] a few days of medicated pain over a lifetime of exposure to outdoor risks.

The event that occasioned this post occurred a couple of weeks ago. And it happened, to a large extent, because I failed to heed my own advice. One of my colleagues had to rush out of the office on emergency and left me with his daily surgeries (a highly uncommon occurrence). One surgery was a declaw whose owners I’d never met and whom I couldn’t reach by phone before the procedure. Instead of postponing to conference with his owner, I went ahead with the declaw.

Now, this was a full-grown cat. I have very special rules about how I do declaws on these guys. I use pre-anesthetic non-steroidal pain relievers, local nerve blocks and post-op opiates. I never use a laser—just a batch of very sharp blades. Sometimes, I even use fentanyl patches, but this requires that I apply the patch at least six hours before surgery—I had no such luxury that day.

Thankfully, the procedure went well and kitty recovered beautifully. I kept him for two days without incident (I don’t send them home immediately because I find that owners seldom are able to control serious running or jumping—definitely a complicating factor).

The day kitty went home he came right back—bleeding paws. Not good but a very common compliction, nonetheless. To be safe, I kept him over the weekend without any bleeding.

Yesterday, kitty’s owner came back in with him—complaining of kitty’s limping and holding paws up intermittently (an obvious sign of discomfort). The surgical sites looked beautifully healed. All the pads were perfectly intact and no bony protuberances were palpable beneath them. And there was no obvious pain when I palpated them. In short, a perfect declaw (in spite of the bleeding that one day)—that still managed to go wrong.

This is the most frustrating kind of situation: An upset owner whose reasons for surgery were perhaps not what I’d normally consider acceptable and to whom pre-procedure warnings on high complication rates on declaws never got communicated. Bad bad bad.

I explained the possibility of sensory confusion (the paws just feel strange with no claws) or intermittent phantom pain that would more than likely resolve after a few weeks. “Tincture of time,” I told him. He was not amused. I gave a pain shot anyway to mollify him and by way of discerning strange sensation from pain.

Today I plan on calling to see how it’s going. I’m not looking forward to the call. Like all vets, our goal is to help—not to injure pets with unnecessary procedures. And a less-than-satisfied client with a potentially painful pet is just about the worst feedback you can get. The moral of the story: stick to your basic principles and make no exceptions for random occurrences like the one that occasioned this one. Some day I’ll learn to follow my own codes over short-sighted concessions to my clients’ convenience.