What are the potential complications of declawing?
Felines—whether house cats or big cats—can suffer pain, post-operative complications, serious health problems, psychological trauma that manifests itself in negative behavioral changes, and even death because of being declawed. More details about the complications associated with declawing include the following:
Litter box problems.
Many declawed cats won’t use their litter boxes anymore. After the declaw surgery, the cat’s paws are very raw and when the cat goes to use the box, digging in the sand causes the cat a lot of pain. They begin to associate the box with that pain and may never use it again. Many cat experts know this and it has been confirmed in the veterinary literature. It is not uncommon for declawed cat owners to trade scratched furniture for urine-soaked carpeting. In one survey, 95% of calls about declawed cats related to litter box problems, while only 46% of clawed cats had such problems-and most of those were older cats, many with physical ailments that accounted for the behavior.
Deprived of claws, which is their primary defense, a cat may turn to its only other line of defense—its teeth. Some experts believe that cats that are declawed are likely to become biters. Many veterinarians will recommend declawing to protect human beings from being scratched. This goes against what human health organizations recommend. Declawing the cat can give people a false sense of security because declawed cats bite more often after being declawed.
James Gaynor, DVM, an expert in pain management at Colorado State University Veterinary Medical School, has written about chronic pain syndrome in cats that have been declawed. The article describes severe pain in cats that can last a lifetime.
Veterinary textbooks list the pain from declawing as “severe.”
Declawing is considered one of the most painful, routinely-performed surgeries in all of veterinary medicine and yet 30% or more of veterinarians don’t provide any pain medication whatsoever to their declaw patients. Another study showed that declawed cats were still in pain from the surgery at the end of the study, which was 12 days after the operation!
Declawing is so predictably painful that it is used in clinical trials by pharmaceutical companies to test new pain medications.
Determining pain in cats is much more difficult than determining pain in dogs. Cats are very often stoical and people will interpret a cat curled up in a ball and sleeping as normal, when in reality, the cat is in a lot of pain. Dogs are more demonstrative of their pain.
While the immediate post-surgical pain that the cats suffer is obviously severe, it is impossible to know how much chronic pain and suffering declawing causes. Declawing is ten (front toes only) or eighteen (there are only 8 toes on the back feet) separate amputations, so it is not unreasonable to believe that declawed cats experience phantom pain in one or more toes. (Many human amputees report life-long, painful “phantom” sensations from the amputated part.) Cats typically conceal pain or illness until it becomes unbearable. With chronic pain, it may be that they simply learn to live with it. Their behavior may appear normal, but a lack of overt signs of pain does not mean they are pain-free.
Lameness, abscesses, and paw pad atrophy can occur after surgery. In some cases where the veterinarian left part of the bone in the toe, the claw can begin to grow again. However, the claw grows abnormally under the skin and might eventually bust through the skin on top of the paw. In one report that studied cats for only five months after surgery, about 25% of cats developed complications from both declaw and tenectomy surgeries (digital tenectomy or tendonectomy is a procedure, sometimes promoted as an “alternative” to declawing, where the tendons that extend the toes are cut). Click here to see the section on Tendonectomy »
In declawed (and tendonectomizedized) cats, the tendons that control the toe joints retract after the surgery because they are no longer anchored to the bones, and over time these joints become essentially “frozen.” The toes can no longer be extended, but remain fully contracted for the lifetime of the cat. The toes become like hammer toes. Cats may continue to “scratch” after they are declawed, this is probably explained by the cat’s desperate desire to stretch those stiff, contracted joints and not evidence that the cat does not miss its claws.
Veterinarians, in clinical settings, have found that in the immediate post-operative period, newly declawed cats shift their body weight backward onto the large central pad (the three-lobed pad on the palm) of the front feet and off the toes. This effect was significant even when strong pain medication was given, and remained apparent for the duration of the study (up to 40 hours after surgery). This altered gait may persist over time, and can cause stress on the leg joints and spine, and could lead to damage and arthritic changes in multiple joints. X ray images of declawed cats confirm this theory.
Death due behavior problems, anesthetic complications or defenselessness.
Declawing that results in biting or litter box avoidance may result in the cat being dumped at a shelter or simply abandoned. If taken to shelters, such behaviors make them unadoptable, and they will be destroyed. Many cats are exiled to a life outdoors because of these unwanted behaviors, even though declawed cats should not be allowed outside—their ability to defend themselves, and to escape danger by climbing, is seriously impaired. They also risk injury or death by dogs, cars, coyotes, poison, and other hazards of outdoor life. There is always a small but real risk of death from any general anesthesia, as well as from hemorrhage or other surgical complications. Many veterinarians will say that they would rather declaw the cat than have it die—it seems that they don’t realize that declawing is often the cause of the cat’s death. Declawing is unnecessary when there are so many humane alternatives.