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Feline De-clawing (a.k.a.- Onychectomy)

June 16, 2007 by Maria-Elena Cloherty, DVM

Every day across this country people make the wonderful decision to open their hearts to feline friends. These pets may have been discovered at shelters, rescue organizations, feral animals found wandering neighborhoods, and those animals given to them by friends, whose unaltered animals unfortunately reproduced. Whatever means by which we become blessed by these curious, playful, amicable beasts, they will make an indelible impression on all who meet them. For many they may be their only companions, for others they enrich our lives with a sense of mutual reliance for affection, attention, and appreciation of our talents. These animals are especially important for those like our ever-increasing elderly population, and mentally/physically impaired folk, whose sense of well-being, and empowerment is enhanced by their feline dependents.

Those who do not understand the developmental stages that each animal must pass through, and learn how to be able to fend for one’s self, protect one’s self, and play, will be heartily confused by why a cat behaves in the manner that they do. In some instances, people decide that their kittens/cats are terrors! But teething, chewing, as well as scratching, and chasing are all parts of “hunting” behaviors that arise from their origins as a predator. If these natural instinctive behaviors are not channeled in appropriate ways through play etc., while these pets are young, often what’s deemed by owners as a “behavioral problem”, will be noted later in the cat’s life. One of the most common of this category is “inappropriate scratching” of furniture, and other treasured items within one’s home.

Many find the solution to this problem is simple; de-claw the cat. Some see this as an “only” option available in order to both keep the cat, and save the furniture. But for those unaware, there are other means by which we can accomplish both goals. In this document I seek to instruct you as to how to approach this distressing situation.

Here are several options that one can try at home before consulting a veterinarian about the de-clawing procedure. The first is routine nail trimming (at the vet’s or by owner at home), the second is to offer the cat various acceptable areas/types of scratching surfaces in which to exercise this need, and last is Soft Paws (nail covers that are purchased at petstore chains and are applied over a trimmed cat nail). The Soft Paws (or Claws in other brands) are to be reapplied every 3 months after each nail has been trimmed. They cover the sharp pointed nail that causes the destruction, without removing the enjoyable behavioral aspect that scratching fulfills. The cat is still able to retract their claws, but not catch them on fabrics or furniture.

As for informational background, kittens learn scratching behaviors when they’re a number of months old. So, one should not be concerned if their 8+ week old kitten does not get the idea behind this behavior. You can slowly introduce them to scratch posts, by orienting their play with toys in, on, and around the precise location you have selected within your home for appropriate clawing. You may find that the cat will scratch the post as a way to relieve the pent-up excitement from the games you share, and quiet praise in a pleasant voice should be offered as a reward for “good” behavior. NEVER USE SCRATCH POSTS COVERED IN CARPETING, OR OTHER FABRICS THAT ARE COMMONLY USED IN FINE FURNITURE OR RUGS. Cats cannot distinguish between your prized heirloom objects, and that which is ok to play with in you home. Also, please don’t make the common mistake of trying to put the cat’s paws on the scratching post, and maneuver in a scratching manner, as often cats don’t like to be handled this way, as this may risk a negative association with the post.

One important factor to consider is some cats have an orientation preference for scratching, some like to stand on their hind limbs and scratch vertically, while others like to stand on all fours and scratch horizontally. If one can place items they want the cat to scratch in both orientations at first, and observe their personal pet, the posts can then be oriented in this “preferred” manner.

Other means of dissuading cats from using your good furniture for scratching are to cover the furniture with aluminum foil or better still with Sticky Paws – a special transparent product that prevents the cat from scratching the covered surface. Others have used special repellant spray on furniture, but some cats are not negatively affected by the scent contained within the spray. Remember to only opt for these measures provided that your cat has refused to use an appropriate scratching post to scratch & claw.

The following are books found on Amazon.com written by behaviorists & cat fanciers alike. Some of these texts may be of assistance in learning how to start your cat off on the right track, or how to deter an older cat from using your furniture as a scratching post.

Now I will attempt to describe the procedures by which de-clawing is accomplished, and at the same time introduce some information from alternate view points as to the ethical, moral, and physical reasons to do/not do this procedure. Having an animal de-clawed has been cited as leading to serious behavior problems later on in their life. De-clawed cats are probably more prone to become biters, while some others may develop litter box problems, as well.

This cosmetic surgery is best performed on kittens that are 12 to 20 weeks of age, because recovery is slower, and often more complicated in older cats. Having this procedure done, removes one of the cat’s primary defense mechanisms its ability to frighten others away without risking mortal combat.

The goal of this surgery is the removal of the distal phalanx (last knuckle), along with the accompanying claw. The newest (though not as widespread) method of accomplishing this task is by the use of a carbon dioxide laser. This type of onychectomy can further minimize post-operative pain, and complications in any age animal from a strictly cranio-dorsal approach. The redundant epidermal tissue will now cover the majority of the onychectomy site. No sutures or tissue adhesive are advised.

To perform this surgery (in the routine, non-laser manner) first, the cat is given a general anesthetic, and the fur surrounding the cat’s paws is shaved off. A tourniquet is placed around the leg, and the nail area is rinsed with surgical scrub. Amputation of each toe is accomplished by making a cut across the first joint (possible involving the foot pad) using a guillotine type nail cutter, or a surgical blade. The area is then tightly bandaged to prevent excessive hemorrhaging. The bandaging can be removed two to three days after the surgery. The wounds are closed with either sutures or adhesives, or left open. Shredded paper or newspaper pellet litter should be used in the litter box instead of kitty litter for a week following the surgery. The foot must be kept clean and dry to minimize infection.

Potential complications post-operatively include persistent pain, reluctance to walk, scar formation, and tissue death in the foot. A “sequestrum” (piece of shattered bone within healed over surgical site), another type of complication, can become a sight for continuous irritation, and drainage from the toe. This can only be corrected by another surgical procedure. Lastly, keep in mind that amputation of a cats’ toes is used by pharmaceutical companies to test pain-killers, as it is one of the most painful procedures known that can be performed to test their drugs’ efficacy.

Also, numerous cases of cystitis and skin disorders have been noted in the course of time just following this type of surgical procedure. If bandages become too tight-gangrene can set-in leading to limb amputation, and excessive bleeding, as well as pain post-op in older cats whose owners elect this procedure later in life due to changes in housing arrangements can also be seen.

It is my feeling, as well as that of many others, that since scratching is a natural behavior of cats we must be prepared to accept this behavior if we are to live with cats. Despite the fact that most cats will use designated scratching posts when provided, we must accept that occasional damage to our belongings. The solution to this is to learn acceptance, and redirect the activity of scratching. More cats may bite if de-clawed, since they’ve lost the claws by which to defend themselves. Then many of these same cats, which were altered to make them “acceptable” pets, are often the same pets, which later are surrendered to shelters due to a man-made behavioral problem of “biting” aggression, and are later euthanized.

In another’s opinion: “It is easy to justify one inhumanity because it may be better then another inhumane option, but both are unnecessary, and neither is justifiable. For many cat lovers de-clawing are unconscionable, many veterinarians will not perform the procedure, it is outlawed in some countries, and there are currently no animal welfare organizations that condone the practice. Despite the non-surgical alternatives that exist, many people still view this as a preventative procedure that is necessary for a cat to be a ‘good pet.’ “

- Maria-Elena Cloherty, DVM

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