5 Negative Side Effects of Declawing Cats

Dr. Rania Gollakner
Vet Reviewed
By Dr. Rania Gollakner on Mar. 3, 2023
5 Negative Side Effects of Declawing Cats

In many countries, including two states in America (Maryland and New York), the practice of declawing is not only a  controversial veterinary surgical procedure, it is also banned entirely. Scratching behaviors are instinctual and normal, and serve multiple purposes as an important scent marker, for nail grooming, and for stretching. That is why, after considering alternative options, the decision to declaw should be a well-informed decision between a pet parent and a veterinarian.

What Is Declawing in Cats?

Cats have three small bones that make up each toe, and declawing (onychectomy) is a surgical amputation of part (or all) of the toe bone attached to the claw of each toe. This procedure will make each toe shorter.

There are three different ways to amputate this bone: use sterilized nail trimmers, a scalpel blade, or a surgical laser. The procedure is done under general anesthesia. Surgical glue (or stitches) is used to close the surgical openings, and bandages are placed to control bleeding. Typically, your cat will stay one to two nights in the hospital to ensure the bleeding is sufficiently controlled. Healing takes between one and two weeks and requires special aftercare such as pain medications and a special cat litter.

What Are the Risks of Declawing Cats?

Surgical Complications

Despite a surgeon’s best efforts, some things can go wrong during the procedure. All general surgeries have risks associated when anesthesia is applied.

Some possible complications include, but are not limited to:

  • Allergic reactions to the anesthesia

  • Pneumonia

  • Stroke/embolism

  • Cardiac arrest

  • Damage to the throat from a breathing tube

  • Nerve damage

  • Bleeding

  • Death

There are also complications that can occur post-surgery, such as pain, infection, or wound dehiscence (the reopening of the surgical site). The most common complication is continued bleeding of the dewclaw after surgery.

Infections

Infection is a possibility after all surgical procedures. Keeping the feet clean after surgery is difficult, because your cat needs to walk and use the litterbox. Infections that happen after a declaw can be dangerous, especially if it affects the bones in the feet, so it is important to watch for infection closely. Your veterinarian may also prescribe antibiotics as a precaution.

Pain and Nerve Damage

Pain is difficult to assess in cats because they do not express their pain in an obvious way that a pet parent would normally notice. Examples of pain that you should watch for after declawing include decreased movement, lameness or limping, or a “guarding” posture. In general, surgical procedures involving bone are more painful than others.

Chronic, long-term pain after a declaw is rare, but can occur. Possible causes include neuropathic pain (when the nerve signals abnormally to the brain), long-term inflammation, infection, or remaining bone fragments. A few studies have shown that declawed cats can have an increased risk of back pain or barbering (pulling out their hair) when compared to similar non-declawed cats.

Paralysis can also occur as a complication of tourniquet use during surgery. It is usually temporary but can last up to two months.

Lameness

Lameness (abnormal walk or stance) can occur for several reasons. The most obvious and common reason is surgical pain. Other causes are related to the causes of long-term pain, nerve damage, or reopening of the surgical incision. In rare cases, lameness has occurred due to scarring that affected the movement of the toes and required follow-up surgical procedures to correct limb function.

Behavioral Changes

There is some debate about behavior changes that may occur in cats after declawing. Since scratching is a normal behavior, there is concern among some in the veterinary community that not being able to scratch can cause emotional stress. Many cats will still perform the motion of scratching even after declawing, although stretching during scratching is no longer possible. It’s not clear if performing the scratching motion without nails is as satisfying for the cat.

Another concern is that declawing can increase aggression (such as biting), inappropriate urination, or defecation. While there are studies that show some behavioral changes can occur, it is unclear if the behavior changes are due to the declaw procedure. More research is needed to better understand the relationship of declawing and changes in behavior.

How to Stop Cats from Scratching

Scratching is normal behavior for a cat. Because it’s part of a cat’s nature to scratch, do not try to stop your pet from this natural reaction. There are some ways, however, where the damage caused by cat scratching can be limited.

Nail Trims

Frequent nail trimming can protect human skin from severe scratches, although some pet parents may be uncomfortable doing it. Nail caps, which are tiny covers for your cat’s nails, are another way to protect humans and furniture alike, but they require regular maintenance and replacement if they fall off. Like with nail trims, some cats may not be comfortable or tolerate wearing them.

Scratching Posts

If furniture damage is the main concern, use a suitable replacement for your cat to scratch. This means paying attention to the exact type of material your cat likes to scratch and matching that as closely as possible. Also pay attention to the position scratching occurs, as some cats like to scratch vertically and some like to scratch horizontally, so the replacement should match this preference. Location is equally important and the replacement should be in the same room as the unwanted scratching. Using treats and/or catnip when your cat is near it can help encourage interest.

Deter from Furniture

Deterrents can be used to discourage scratching on unwanted areas—but should only be used after a suitable replacement has been provided—or your cat may simply find another piece of furniture.

Deterrents should be humane and not cause pain, panic, or severe distress. Ideas include placing undesirable textures on or around the furniture until your cat stops using it to scratch. Some textures that cats do not like include aluminum foil, sticky tape, or rubber. Using anything like a squirt bottle will only teach your cat to scratch when you are not around and is usually not effective long term.

Featured Image: iStock.com/w-ings


Dr. Rania Gollakner
Vet Reviewed

WRITTEN BY

Dr. Rania Gollakner

Veterinarian

Rania Gollakner received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 2010 and a Master of Public Health in 2017. She practiced companion...


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