Should I have my cat declawed? What all is involved?
A very controversial subject matter, depending on who you ask. Declawing is an amputation of the first digits of each front foot. Its primary purpose is to eliminate the damage that cats can cause from scratching on furniture and carpets in a home. Are there alternatives to declawing? Yes. Is declawing the best option for you and your cat? Read the following and make your own decision.
Declawing a cat can be done by three different methods.
The first method, which we at All Feline Hospital do not perform nor recommend, is to remove the nails and distal toe bones using the guillotine method. This is done using a guillotine nail clipper that is sterilized. The goal is to fit the clipper around the distal bone and sever the tendons holding it on without damaging the middle toe bones. If performed correctly, this does not damage either bone or tissue, and drastically reduces the time needed to perform the declaw procedure. However, it is very easy to cut through either the distal or middle toe bone, either leaving a piece of bone in the foot that is like walking on gravel for life, or cutting the tip of the middle bone off, which is extremely painful to walk on until it heals. This method can also commonly results in cutting part of the toe pad off. We have repaired many declaws done this way at other clinics. That is not to say that this method cannot be performed correctly, but it has the highest likelihood of complications. This also requires a tourniquet to be applied to the leg during the procedure to minimize bleeding.
The second method is the blade method. This method uses a scalpel blade to sever the tendons holding the distal toe bone in place. This also requires a tourniquet to be applied to the arm during surgery, and takes much longer than the guillotine method, but it is precise, and only removes the bone and minimal skin tissue.
The third method is the laser or radiosurgery method. This is the method we use at All Feline Hospital. This method utilizes either a CO2 laser or a radiosurgery unit to cauterize and sever the tendons holding the distal bone in place, and to cut through the minimal skin needed to access the distal toe joint. This method does not require a tourniquet to be applied to the arm since it cauterizes as it goes. There is minimal bleeding with this procedure. This can result in slightly longer healing times, but with the reduction in swelling and bleeding, it is considered negligible compared to the other two methods.
All three methods involve closing the skin incision with either skin glue or suture. At All Feline Hospital we prefer to close the incisions with sutures, since they are much less likely to come undone with movement and/or licking at the paws, but either way can be effective.
After the procedure, a bandage is applied to the end of the foot. Depending on which method was used to declaw your cat will depend on how long the bandages need to stay on the feet. With the CO2 laser method that we use at AFH, we remove the bandages the next morning before your cat goes home.
Benefits. Most kittens that are declawed correctly with adequate pain control before and after the procedure generally act like nothing ever happened the next day. Your furniture is safe, and there is nothing sweeter than a paw placed on your cheek with no fear of being scratched when your cat is being affectionate.
Potential complications. Sadly, there are a lot of these. After a cat is declawed, the pressure points on their feet change because there is now a bone missing on the end. In many cases, the pressure point is now just behind the toe pad, which means there is no longer cushioning designed by the body for the weight of the front foot to land on. This can result in calluses developing just behind the toe pads. Until these calluses heal, it can be painful for the cat to bear weight on their front feet.
If the guillotine method was used improperly, this can result in bone chips being left in the ends of the feet, which after a few years, can result in chronic limping, kind of like walking with gravel in your shoes. If part of the toe pad was cut off by the clippers, a larger callus may form. Once the callus is formed, the discomfort decreases, but until then, it hurts to walk on. If part of the middle toe bone was clipped off, your cat will be walking on raw painful bone until it heals over, which can take years to fully heal.
If not enough pain control was utilized with the procedure, the cat can actually develop a hypersensitivity of the nerves in the toes that can result in a lifetime of acute pain every time your cat puts weight on their paws. This can result in cats holding their paws up every time they sit down from chronic pain. Sometimes this hypersensitivity can be reversed with certain combinations of medications, but not always.
In people, after an amputation, they can commonly experience phantom pain, where they feel pain in the limb that has been removed. While we can't really ask cats if they feel this, each declaw is a toe amputation, so there is a very high likelihood that they also experience this phantom pain.
While kittens tend to recover quickly from a declaw, adult cats have a much longer recover period, and many owners of cats that were declawed as adults will tell us afterwards that they wish they hadn't done it because their cat took so long to return to normal. They have more weight to bear on the front feet, they have larger vessels that are more likely to bleed, and they are used to using their nails, which are suddenly gone.
If your cat is declawed with the intention of keeping them as an indoor cat, but something changes for whatever reason, and your cat suddenly finds themselves going outside, suddenly they are short a set of weapons against other cats and predators. Yes, they still have their back nails and their teeth, but the other cat has their front nails too.
All 4 declaw. We do not recommend this ever at All Feline Hospital, and will generally only perform it under special circumstances such as if an owner has had a hip transplant, or has complicated diabetes and cannot get scratched under any circumstance. Or, in the very rare event that a cat has a skin disorder that can lead to more damage if they scratch themselves. In addition, there is no reason to declaw a cat's rear feet. They scratch with their front feet. We will also tend to see more behavioral issues in cats that have been all 4 declawed. They tend to be more likely to bite because they feel defenseless with no nails. That doesn't mean every cat that is all 4 declawed will have behavior issues, but we see a much higher percentage in those that are.
Alternatives to declawing. Yes, there are alternatives. Probably the main one is to trim your cat's nails. If you trim them regularly, you can almost completely prevent damage to furniture or carpeting. However, a note of caution. Once you start trimming your cat's nails regularly, you will have to keep up on it, because they will stop wearing them down, and if you trim regularly and then suddenly stop, there is a reasonable chance that one or more of their nails will grow around into their paw pad. For instructions on how to trim your cat's nails, check out the grooming page.
Soft paws. These are little nail caps that after you trim the nails, you apply with a drop of nail glue onto your cat's nails. They are soft, they don't scratch, and they can stay on for 4-8 weeks after application. Cats are not always cooperative about having these applied, the more cooperative they are for having their nails trimmed, the more likely they are to be cooperative for having soft paws applied. And, soft paws come in multiple colors. So you can really impress your friends and family with your cat's "painted" nails.
Scratching posts. If you offer enough of the right kinds of scratching posts, and take the time to teach your cat that scratching the furniture is not acceptable, you can keep your cat's nail on, they will scratch them on the scratching posts, and leave your furniture alone. Many people have very good luck with this, you just have to find the right kind of scratching post that your cat will use, offer multiples of the, and make scratching the furniture a less than pleasant experience (i.e. squirt bottles, double sided sticky tape).
In the end, it is up to you to decide whether or not to declaw your cat. We will front declaw cats of any age if it means that they will not be able to keep their home if they are not declawed. However, you should know what you are doing to your cat, so you can make the best, most informed decision as to what will work for you and your cat. If you are strongly leaning towards declawing your cat, it is better to do it while they are still kittens and can recover faster, rather than waiting until they are an adult and it is a harder procedure on them.