A More Accurate Name for Declawing: ‘De-toeing’
By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Declawing continues to be a hotly discussed topic in the U.S., and while there’s growing awareness of exactly what onychectomy involves (it’s not just a permanent nail trim but mutilation of a cat’s paws), kitties continue to be subjected to the procedure, and the debate rages on.
I recently learned of the of a Connecticut veterinarian that featured highly disturbing photos of a spiraled nail removed from a cat who had been declawed 12 years earlier. During the onychectomy, some nail tissue was inadvertently left behind, which isn’t all that unusual with declaw procedures.
In this case, the remaining tissue formed a new nail that couldn’t grow naturally, so it grew in a spiral inside the cat’s leg, embedded in the flesh. It wasn’t until the spiraled nail formed a mass the size of a ping pong ball and broke through the poor cat’s wrist, that anyone knew there was a problem.
This is an extreme case of what can happen after a declaw procedure, but it should cause everyone who cares about cats to rethink what we’re doing when we surgically “redesign” cats’ feet for the sake of human convenience.
Dr. Aubrey Lavizzo, a veterinarian and anti-declaw advocate practicing in Colorado has, like so many in our profession, performed onychectomies at the insistence of cat-owning clients. In an interview with the Denver Post, Lavizzo made the point that the procedure should really be called de-toeing, because it’s not a nail trim, it’s amputation of the cat’s toes.
feline digital amputation
Declawing removes the claw, bones, nerves, the joint capsule, collateral ligaments and the extensor or flexor tendons. Amputation of the third phalanx or the first toe bone that houses the nail drastically alters the conformation of the feet, which can lead to a host of physical complications such as chronic small bone arthritis, degenerative joint disease and neuralgia.
“As veterinarians, we take an oath that we will use our knowledge and skills to benefit society through the relief of pain in our animal clients,” says Lavizzo. “When you talk about pain in cats, it’s classified as mild, moderate and severe. Mild is a neuter. Moderate is a spay. And severe is a declaw.”1
Because the feline claw grows right out of the bone, during declawing, it’s common for veterinarians to miss a tiny piece of bone that subsequently grows back as a partial nail or bone fragment. The missed piece can continue to grow under the skin, pressing into tissue and nerves, or it can grow right through the skin.
Dr. Lavizzo studies declawed cats and keeps records of bone fragments and bone spurs left behind after declawing procedures. He believes the pain caused by those missed pieces of bone may result in behavior changes like biting and eliminating outside the litterbox.
“We always see the same thing, because it’s so hard to do this procedure perfectly,” Lavizzo told the Post. “You can’t predict a successful outcome, and if you can’t predict a successful outcome, then you shouldn’t do the procedure.”
It is estimated the vast majority (80 percent) of declawed cats have at least one complication resulting from the surgery, and over a third develop behavior problems afterward.
So Why Are Cats Still Being Declawed?
Cat owners who still favor declawing typically either don’t understand what the procedure actually does to a kitty’s feet, or are more concerned with being scratched or having their furniture or other belongings damaged than with the risks and pain involved in onychectomy. Many veterinarians who are still willing to perform declaws believe they’re doing it to save cats who would otherwise be relinquished to shelters.
The ASPCA and the Cat Fanciers Association oppose declawing. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) takes the position that declawing should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively or when its clawing presents a zoonotic risk for its owner(s).
The AVMA has also published a literature review on the welfare implications of declawing on cats. It’s important to note that the U.S. is behind the curve when it comes to banning declaws. According to a recent article in Newsweek:
“In some cities and many countries, declawing is considered so inhumane that it is illegal. Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals bans declawing, along with defanging, docking ears and tails, and removing the vocal cords of a pet.
There are only a few exceptions to these rules; specifically, when a vet deems the procedures necessary to the animal’s well-being. The same goes for Australia, Brazil, San Francisco and, possibly in the near future, Denver.”2
My hope is that ultimately every state in America will ban declaws for humane reasons, and that all animal advocacy groups, in particular the AVMA, will come out in full opposition to the procedure.
Alternatives to Declawing
Cats are digitigrades, meaning they walk on their toes. Most other mammals, including humans, walk on the soles of their feet. Kitties use their claws for balance, exercise and stretching and toning the muscles of their legs, back, shoulders and paws. Cats who roam outdoors (which I don’t recommend) use their claws to hunt and capture prey, to escape or defend against predators, and as part of feline marking behavior.
At the risk of discouraging people from acquiring cats as pets, I suggest that if you absolutely can’t live with an animal companion who has sharp claws and scratches things with them, you might want to avoid getting a kitty. Alternatively, you can check with your local shelters and rescue groups for homeless cats that have already been declawed.
If you have or plan to adopt a kitty with claws, the humane solution to unwanted scratching is to provide sensible, appealing options for your cat. Felines have claws for a reason, and as long as they have them, they’ll use them. Just as most humans need to trim their nails weekly, it may be necessary to trim your cat’s nails weekly or at least every couple of weeks.
In addition to regular nail trims, I also recommend cat guardians provide at least two different scratching surfaces, including a tall, sturdy scratching post and a horizontal scratching mat. In addition to providing your kitty with appropriate surfaces to scratch, you must also take steps to protect any off-limits areas your cat is scratching.
Depending on what surfaces you want to protect, consider using one or a combination of kitty scratching deterrents, such as aluminum foil, double-sided tape, plastic sheeting, plastic carpet runners, car or chair mats with the spiky sides up, or inflated balloons.
There are also herbal sprays available that are designed to replace your pet’s paw pad scent markers on furniture or other surfaces with an odor that will discourage him from returning to that spot. You can also consider covering your cat’s nails with commercially available nail caps, which will help protect both you and your belongings from those sharp claws.
Now, there are some cats that no matter what you do, will continue to scratch forbidden surfaces and potentially damage your belongings. After all, one of the most fascinating things about having a cat around the house is you’re sharing your life with a creature that will never be entirely domesticated. Bottom line: Clawing and scratching goes with the territory when you’re a cat parent, and the solution should never, ever be to cut off your pet’s toes.
John Dasef, Have served many feline overlords.
Answered Jan 2
Original question: We want to adopt a cat from a shelter, but our apartment requires all cats be declawed. We oppose declawing, but can’t move now. Is it kinder to declaw the cat or leave it in the shelter?
Good for you for being against declawing. It is never kinder to declaw a cat just to satisfy some landlord’s wretched policy.
I agree with the other answers here – wait until you can find a cat that has already been declawed, with the understanding that because it is declawed, it may have issues that a normal cat wouldn’t usually have, such as possibly being a biter, having problems using a litter box, and potentially other medical problems like osteoarthritis as it grows older.
My nephew is a veterinarian who specializes in cats both large and small – he’s the senior vet at a large municipal zoo. When I asked him his opinion on declawing, he wrote me a detailed answer on why it’s such a barbaric practice and gave me permission to publish it any time and anywhere I thought it might help. It’s a long answer, but I hope you will read it, it will help you understand the problems you may face with a declawed cat. This is what he wrote:
“First, let us reflect on the fact that the US is one of the few remaining modern countries that still allows this practice. It has actually been outlawed in most other countries, because of the physical and psychological effects it has on the animal. In Canada, most European countries, and Australia, you would actually lose your license to practice vet medicine if you were to perform this surgery, where it is uniformly viewed as unethical and inhumane.
Where does this perception come from, you ask? let us delve into that. First, most vets do not take the time to go into detail about what is actually involved when people declaw their cats. Most people simply believe you remove only the claws, no big deal. The reality is, you are performing an amputation of each digit, akin to amputating each finger and toe at the 3rd joint. this means, (as if simply pulling off the finger and toe nails would not be painful enough) is that this is a true bone amputation removing the bone that the claw is attached to. why this may not seem significant, we need to remember that cats claws are retractable, and that they bear their weight on the end of that second digit, where we are performing the amputation. This is important, because the retractable claws means you actually have digital flexor and extensor tendons that attach to the terminal bone which is amputated. The flexor tendon is of critical importance in all of this, as it is attached to the digital pad on the bottom of the toe.
This pad provides cushion when the animal places weight on the toe as it walks. when you amputate the terminal bone, known as P3, the severing on that tendon causes it to pull back, much like a rubber band that is stretched, and then cut. the tendon also shifts the position of that digital pad it is attached to, pulling it back as well. this often means it is not in position to provide the cushioning it is intended to as the cat places its weight on that P2 bone. (imagine the difference between walking on sharp stones barefoot, as opposed to having sandals, or even flip flops to cushion). in other words, there is now an increased level of pain in each step the cat takes. The only way the body knows to try to resolve this is to create more bone. this leads to arthritis in the toes. So what happens when you have arthritis? you compensate in how you move, right? which, guess what? puts unnatural pressure on the joints you are compensating with, which means you are more likely to develop osteoarthritis in those joints as well, which is exactly what we see happen with cats. Declawed cats have an increased incidence of degenerative joint disease (DJD) in the elbows and hips. Why isn’t this noted more, you ask? Because cats are (pardon my language here) fucking studs when it comes to pain! the behavioral adaptations to the condition often has to be pointed out to people, because cats simply will not show they are in pain, until they are in so much pain they simply cannot avoid showing it. this comes from their life as an apex predator in the wild, where showing pain means you lose your territory, or your place in the pride.The signs are usually very subtle, but once you know to look for them, they become obvious.
The cat that used to jump to the top of the counter in one bound, now jumps to the stool first, then to the counter top. The incidence of cats with DJD is way under diagnosed, due to the fact cats simply don’t show pain. The level of pain they deal with would have a human wheelchair bound, I might add. (humans, for the most part, are sissies when it comes to pain tolerance). There have also been cases of pieces of the amputated bone being left in the surgical site, or the end of the P2 bone being shattered or fractured during the process of the surgery, when done with a pair of nail trimmers, as is common.. This again results in long term pain, and bone changes leading to arthritis. Imagine living for years with that rock you can’t get out of your shoe, except now you also never get to take your shoe off. There have been cases where the end of the bone is not fully removed, and you have the nail try to grow back, often in horrific fashion. (you can do a google search and come up with some intense pictures of this process). There have also been cases of cats, due to the malpositioning of the digital pad I mentioned earlier, literally walking through the skin on the end of their toes, resulting in them literally walking on the exposed bone of their toes..
So, if their are so many reasons not to declaw cats, why is the US one of the last countries where it is still accepted practice to do so? There are several reasons, none of them a good reason to continue the practice.
1) vets are simply too lazy to try to educate their clients on the effects of declawing, and it is an easy surgery, that they make fairly good profit on.
2)they feel as though they will lose the client to another vet if they do not perform the surgery. “if I don’t do it, the other guy will.”
3) they use the excuse that it may lead to the cat being turned out or worse, euthanized if they do not do the surgery, because the cat may damage furniture. there are several issues with this most useless of excuses. first, wouldn’t they be the one to have to euthanize the cat? everyone I ever worked for knew very well I refused to ever do a “convenience euthanasia” in other words, the animal had to have a medical condition, or was uncontrollably aggressive, in order for me to euthanize it. Follow your own ethics, and this excuse goes away. secondly, you can “teach” the owners to control the cats behavior. use cat trees, perform proper nail trimming, use soft paws…..”
Go ahead and re-print this if you like, then give it to your landlord or apartment manager the day you move out. Best of luck…
Nova Scotia becomes first province to ban declawing of domestic cats
HALIFAX — Nova Scotia has become the first province to ban medically unnecessary cat declawing, part of a worldwide movement against the practice.
The Nova Scotia Veterinary Medical Association decided Tuesday to amend its code of ethics to make the practice of elective and non-therapeutic declawing ethically unacceptable.
It will come into effect on March 15, 2018, following a three-month education period.
Dr. Frank Richardson, registrar of the association, said the decision follows years of discussion by veterinarians, surveys, public input, and a recent statement from the national association.
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association strengthened its stand against declawing domestic cats in March, saying the practice causes unnecessary and avoidable pain.
Vets’ groups in many other provinces are having active discussions on the issue, Richardson said: “It’s on everybody’s radar.”
Richardson said while declawing was popular 20 years ago, fewer and fewer veterinarians have been willing to perform the procedure.
“The number is getting smaller and smaller each year. I think if we did nothing it would die off on its own,” he said.
Dr. Hugh Chisholm, a retired veterinarian who has been pushing for the change, said while some municipalities have enacted regulations against declawing, Nova Scotia becomes the first province or state in North America to declare the practice unethical.
“It’s a great day. I’m so proud of the Nova Scotia Veterinary Medical Association,” said Chisholm, Atlantic Canada director for the Paw Project.
“You are amputating 10 bones from 10 digits on the paws of a cat, and if that doesn’t constitute mutilation, I don’t know what does,” he said.
The practice has already been banned in the U.K., Europe, Australia and several California cities. New Jersey is considering a law that would ban the practice unless a vet decides the operation is medically necessary.
“Now that we have this success in Nova Scotia, I will be contacting the other provincial veterinary associations to encourage them to do the same thing. I think it’s just a matter of time,” Chisholm said.
For years some pet owners have had their cats declawed to prevent scratches to furniture, people and other pets. But the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association says scratching is normal behaviour that cats use to mark territory, help with balance, climb and defend themselves.
Chisholm said there will still be cases where declawing will be medically necessary.
“Those would be very rare cases, but yes if it is in the cat’s best interest to have a claw removed or a few claws removed because of trauma or infection, then yes it is the right thing to do. To do it because you’re worried your sofa is going to get picked or scratched is just wrong,” Chisholm said.
— By Kevin Bissett in Fredericton.
The Canadian Press
Dr. Evan Antin hails from Kansas City, Kansas where he grew up spending the majority of his childhood in search of native wildlife including snakes, turtles and insects. He went on to study evolutionary and ecological biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and spent multiple semesters abroad in Australia and Tanzania to learn more about their respective ecosystems and fauna.
In addition to his love for cats and dogs, Dr. Antin’s passions lie in exotic animal medicine and interacting with exotic animals in their native habitats around the world. For more than a decade Dr. Antin has made an effort to seek opportunities to work with wildlife on a domestic and international level to include locations such as Central America, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Eastern and Southern Africa, South East Asia and a variety of North American ecosystems. The accumulation of Dr. Antin’s hands-on experience with exotic animals has prepared him exceptionally with their handling, husbandry, and enrichment. He is capable of caring for small, delicate animals; large, dangerous animals; and of course our beloved household dogs & cats with ease and confidence.
Dr. Antin has been happily employed as a full time associate at CVVH directly following his graduation from Colorado State’s veterinary school in 2013. Since then he’s developed clinical medical & surgical skills to help provide the right care for the dogs, cats, exotics and wildlife of the Conejo Valley.
Dr. Antin currently lives near Calabasas, California with his dog, Henry, his cat, Willy, his savannah monitor lizard, mangrove snake and an assortment of tropical freshwater fish. Other hobbies of his include traveling, scuba diving, snowboarding, hiking, and weightlifting.