Declawing Cats- What are the facts?

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Apr. 11, 2011
Declawing Cats- What are the facts?

I can’t think of any one topic that is more controversial in the feline world than declawing. The arguments that fly back and forth remind me of the debate surrounding abortion. Two sides with extremely strong opinions that seem completely unwilling to look for a middle ground.

On the one hand (or should we say "paw"), we have the anti-declaw zealots. They say declawing is uniformly cruel, citing pain, disfigurement, altered behavior, and the possibility of surgical complications up to and including the possibility of death.

Other cat owners consider declawing to be something of a feline rite of passage, with the declaw occurring at the same time as the spay/neuter, regardless of the cat’s behavior. Risk the upholstery on the new loveseat? Never!

Veterinarians certainly fall into these two camps as well. Some will perform declaws whenever an owner requests while others refuse all such surgeries on ethical grounds and chastise owners for even bringing up the topic. But most vets — and owners, I suspect — fall somewhere in the middle, but avoid speaking up lest the wrath of the two opposing camps come crashing down upon their heads. Let’s call these folks the muzzled majority.

Can’t we all agree that declaws are justified under certain, limited circumstances? Consider a cat that is quickly becoming an unwelcome member of a loving family because he or she has destroyed virtually every chair in the home. Is it better that this cat be confined to the basement or relegated to the outdoors? Should we send it to a shelter where its chances for adoption are slim at best? Or what about the situation where a cat is injuring an elderly owner’s fragile skin with its claws? Do you want to be the one to break the bond between these two old friends?

I’ll admit it. I’ve performed declaws, but only after heartfelt discussions with the owners:

  • Why are you considering a declaw?
  • Are you aware of and willing to deal with the potential down sides of the surgery (e.g., pain, infection, damage to the legs from bandages or tourniquets)?
  • Have you tried other options, like behavioral modification, weekly nail trims or rubber nail caps?
  • Can you guarantee that your cat will remain indoor-only after the surgery?
  • Will you allow (and pay for) post operative hospitalization so your cat can receive the best pain management possible and then follow up with continued pain relief at home for as long as necessary? With post-management pain management and hospitalization, the procedure can quickly become an expensive procedure.

Properly done, a declaw does not have to be any more painful, disfiguring, or risky than a spay or neuter. It is a valid option when it offers potential benefits to the pet in question … just don’t get me started on the insanity of cropping a dog’s ears!

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Pavel Shlykov / Shutterstock

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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