Also known as onychetomy, declawing is the removal of the distal phalanges (third knuckle) of a cat’s front paws. Typically just the front paws anyway. There are some cats out there that have been declawed in the front and back limbs but most cats have only the front removed. This is typically to prevent scratching furniture, clawing people with health concerns and I have seen cats declawed to match the situation of the other cat(s) in the house and therefore ensure a safe level playing field for all involved. No matter the reason, the procedure is the same, it is the amputation of the last bone on each digit being declawed.
Typically this is done with very good pain control including general and local anesthesia, preoperative and post operative pain control and usually the cats will be hospitalized until the incisions have at least begun to heal. It is done by extending the claw , placing a blade in the grove between the second and third knuckles on the digit, cutting through the tendons of the extensor muscles and continuing the incision in a slightly curved fashion to get around the curved end of the flexor tubercle of the distal phalanx and disconnect the tendon of the deep digital flexor muscle. This removes the distal phalanx along with the unguicular crest and unguicular process and as a result, stops the cat from producing claws.
Cats are digitigrade animals meaning they walk on the tips of their toes, you might think that cutting the tips off the toes and then asking the cats to walk around might be asking for complications. For the most part they seem to adapt but there are some who have to live with chronic pain following the procedure. Sometimes this pain doesn’t show up for months or even years.
If you follow animal health at all you know that declawing cats is a big hot button topic here in the United States. It doesn’t tend to be as big a deal in other developed countries because by and large they just don’t do it. The big issue is we are performing a procedure on a cat who can not give consent, this procedure provides no medical benefit for the patient, provides no benefit for the population of cats as a whole, is a relatively invasive/painful procedure and carries the potential to create a chronically painful situation.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have declawed many cats. Well, more than 20 but less than 1000. While I have never had a patient experience an immediate post operative complication, I can not tell you whether or not any are going to experience chronic pain from the procedure as that can develop years later and the vast majority of cats I have declawed are still under 10 years of age.
Here’s my thoughts on declawing, I don’t like it, at all. I think in most cases it’s a harsh reaction to an otherwise minimal problem. Yes they’ll destroy furniture, wood work and other things, but that behavior can be modified through training and working with them consistently. Yes, you can make a case that immunocompromised people are at an increased risk of infection from cat scratches but I have had more clients undergoing chemotherapy or treatment for HIV who had cats with claws than I have had clients who had their cats declawed. Total.
Why would I do it then? I could give you a story about how we control pain better and if people are going to have their cat declawed they are going to have it done regardless of whether I did it or not and I would rather they have it done right. Or I could be honest and tell you that the answer is easier than that. If I explain to someone how a declaw procedure happens, show them in a text book how we do it and prepare them for the possibility of having to aggressively deal with chronic pain for the remainder of the cat’s life and the owner still wants the cat declawed; I do it. I do it because if that is the cost of a cat having an indoor home with shelter, food, love and medical care provided then to me, the risks are worth the rewards. I do it because I would rather take that risk than see a cat go back through the gauntlet of shelter living and hoping to get adopted. I do it because from where I sit it is the better of the two options. I take heart in knowing that I will have to do it less and less as my career advances.
Thank you for reading.