Understanding Declawing (Onychectomy)
The anatomy of the feline claw must be understood before one can appreciate the severity of declawing. The cat’s claw is not a nail as is a human fingernail, it is part of the last bone (distal phalanx) in the cat’s toe. The cat’s claw arises from the unguicular crest and unguicular process in the distal phalanx of the paw (see above diagram). Most of the germinal cells that produce the claw are situated in the dorsal aspect of the ungual crest. This region must be removed completely, or regrowth of a vestigial claw and abcessation results. The only way to be sure all of the germinal cells are removed is to amputate the entire distal phalanx at the joint.
Contrary to most people’s understanding, declawing consists of amputating not just the claws, but the whole phalanx (up to the joint), including bones, ligaments, and tendons! To remove the claw, the bone, nerve, joint capsule, collateral ligaments, and the extensor and flexor tendons must all be amputated. Thus declawing is not a “simple”, single surgery but 10 separate, painful amputations of the third phalanx up to the last joint of each toe. A graphic comparison in human terms would be the cutting off of a person’s finger at the last joint of each finger.
Many vets and clinic staff deliberately misinform and mislead clients into believing that declawing removes only the claws in the hopes that clients are left with the impression that the procedure is a “minor” surgery comparable to spay/neuter procedures and certainly doesn’t involve amputation (partial or complete) of the terminal-toe bone, ligaments and tendons. Some vets rationalize the above description by saying that since the claw and the third phalanx (terminal toe bone) are so firmly connected, they simply use the expression “the claw” to make it simpler for clients to “understand”. Other vets are somewhat more honest and state that if they used the word “amputation”, most clients would not have the surgery performed! Onychectomy in the clinical definition involves either the partial or total amputation of the terminal bone. That is the only method. What differs from vet to vet is the type of cutting tool used (guillotine-type cutter, scalpel or laser).
Onychectomy (Declawing) Surgery
The below is a clinical description of the the declawing surgery taken from a leading veterinary surgical textbbook. Contrary to
misleading information, declawing is not a “minor” surgery comparable to spaying and neutering procedures, it is 10, seperate, painful amputations of the distal phalanx at the joint (disjointing).
The claw is extended by pushing up under the footpad or by grasping it with Allis tissue forceps. A scalpel blade is used to
sharply dissect between the second and third phalanx over the top of the ungual crest . The distal interphalangeal joint is
disarticulated (disjointed), and the deep digital flexor tendon is incised (severed). The digital footpad, is not incised. If a nail
trimmer is used, the ring of the instrument is placed in the groove between the second phalanx and the ungual crest. The blade
is positioned just in front of the footpad. The blade is pushed through the soft tissues over the flexor process. With the ring of
the nail trimmer in position behind the ungual crest, the blade is released just slightly so that traction applied to the claw causes
the flexor process to slip out and above the blade. At this point, the flexor tendon can be incised and disarticulation of the joint
(disjointing) completed. Both techniques effectively remove the entire third phalanx.” (Excerpted from: Slatter D; Textbook of Small Animal Surgery 2nd ed vol I, p.352 W.B. Saunders Company Philadelphia.)
Declawing is not without complication. The rate of complication is relatively high compared with other so-called routine procedures. Complications of this amputation can be excruciating pain, damage to the radial nerve, hemorrhage, bone chips that prevent healing, painful regrowth of deformed claw inside of the paw which is not visible to the eye, and chronic back and joint pain as shoulder, leg and back muscles weaken.
Other complications include postoperative hemorrhage, either immediate or following bandage removal is a fairly frequent occurrence, paw ischemia, lameness due to wound infection or footpad laceration, exposure necrosis of the second phalanx, and abscess associated with retention of portions of the third phalanx. Abscess due to regrowth must be treated by surgical removal of the remnant of the third phalanx and wound debridement. During amputation of the distal phalanx, the bone may shatter and cause what is called a sequestrum, which serves as a focus for infection, causing continuous drainage from the toe. This necessitates a second anesthesia and surgery. Abnormal growth of severed nerve ends can also occur, causing long-term, painful sensations in the toes. Infection will occasionally occur when all precautions have been taken.
“Declawing is actually an amputation of the last joint of your cat’s “toes”. When you envision that, it becomes clear why declawing is not a humane act. It is a painful surgery, with a painful recovery period. And remember that during the time of recuperation from the surgery your cat would still have to use its feet to walk, jump, and scratch in its litter box regardless of the pain it is experiencing.”
Christianne Schelling, DVM
“General anesthesia is used for this surgery, which always has a certain degree of risk of disability or death associated with it. Because declawing provides no medical benefits to cats, even slight risk can be considered unacceptable. In addition, the recovery from declawing can be painful and lengthy and may involve postoperative complications such as infections, hemorrhage, and nail regrowth. The latter may subject the cat to additional surgery.” The Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights (AVAR)
Two recent studies published in peer-reviewed veterinary journals (Vet Surg 1994 Jul-Aug;23(4):274-80) concluded “Fifty percent of the cats had one or more complications immediately after surgery…. 19.8% developed complications after release.” Another study (J Am Vet Med Assoc 1998 Aug 1;213(3):370-3) comparing the complications of declawing with Tenectomy concluded “Owners should be aware of the high complication rate for both procedures.” Many cats also suffer a loss of balance because they can no longer achieve a secure foothold on their amputated stumps.
Vet Surg 1994 Jul-Aug;23(4):274-80
Feline Onychectomy at a Teaching Institution: A
Retrospective Study of 163 Cases.
Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences,
Washington State University, College of Veterinary Medicine,
“One hundred sixty-three cats underwent onychectomy….. Fifty percent of the cats had one or more complications immediately after surgery. Early postoperative complications included pain…, hemorrhage…., lameness…., swelling…., or non-weight-bearing….. Follow-up was available in 121 cats; 19.8% developed complications after release.
Late postoperative complications included infection…., regrowth…., P2 protrusion…., palmagrade
stance…., and prolonged, intermittent lameness….”.
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