The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” ― Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation
Have you had an experience that changed the way you once viewed something? Have you ever known in your gut that something you were watching unfold or helping with seemed ”so right” to everyone else, but it felt so wrong to you? I’ve had this experience more than once, and I would like to talk to you about it today.
This is not a feel-good story, but it’s one that needs to be shared.
From the age of 14 to 17, I worked and volunteered at local veterinary clinics in Orlando Florida, where my family lived at the time. I worked closely with pets that people brought in for boarding, minor procedures, and major surgeries. Even though I was young, the staff let me work alongside of them for many of the procedures. This was in the 90s, so veterinary staff were much more lax about safety procedures than now. Some of the procedures were fascinating. Some were bloody and heart wrenching.
As a teenager, and later as an adult, I had an all inclusive pass and a front row seat to participate in tail and ear dockings and amputations. Tail and ear docking was considered “minor” surgery, but what I witnessed as a post-op staff was not “minor.” The harmless-sounding term “declawing” was used to hide what amounted to an amputation procedure. You might raise an eyebrow reading that because these procedures are something we hear about often, so they seem rather innocuous. I am here to tell you from first hand experience: declawing is not a minor, harmless procedure. Onychectomies (declawing of cats) is quite controversial, and quite complicated.
Experience Changes Perception
During my teenage veterinary life chapter and my post college veterinary school chapter I witnessed and participated in many things involving or resulting from decalwing. It always felt wrong to me, despite the docs who quickly dismissed my questions and concerns. None of what I saw was positive. I saw cats in pain, cats sick from the procedure, cats later euthanized due to major complications post-surgery, and I saw cat owners devastated because of the uninformed decision they made for their cats. I have even known cougars who had been declawed out of safety for humans, but ended up living a life dominated by physical pain and discomfort. Fast forward to today. Now I help people who made the decision to declaw their cats (either out of convenience or because of a veterinarian’s recommendation to solve undesirable scratching behavior), but now they have more issues because of declawing their cats. I share this with you today because tomorrow is Declaw Awareness Day. This is your chance to spread the word and become involved.
Educations spreads Awareness. Awareness breeds compassion
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DECLAWING
Declawing is NOT a “Kitty Manicure”
People often are often misled to believe that declawing is a harmless procedure. Nothing could be further from the truth. Declawing is the surgical amputation of all or part of a cat’s third phalanges (toe bones) and the attached claws. If this surgery was done on a human, it would be like cutting off each finger or toe at the last knuckle.
Onychectomy is an amputation and should be regarded as a major surgery. ~ AVMA American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
Feline Fact: Cats claws are NOT like our fingernails.
How Declawing Is Performed
The standard method of declawing is amputating with a scalpel or guillotine clipper. The wounds are closed with stitches or surgical glue, and the feet are bandaged. I had the job of doing the “kitty super glue” when I assisted veterinarian staff as a teenager. Laser surgery is another way this procedure is done. I helped during the post-op procedures for this technique at the Louisiana State University Veterinary Teaching School. A beam of light cuts through tissue by heating and vaporizing it. This procedure still amputates the last toe bone of the cat and carries the same long-term risks as the other method.
Feline Fact: At least 22 countries have banned declawing.
A Cat’s Anatomy Matters
Did you know that cats are digitigrade, which means that they walk on their toes? As a cat walks or runs, he/she will usually retract their claws into sheaths, leaving behind just the smooth, small toes and footpad. Humans and bears are plantigrade mammals. We walk on the soles of our feet, with the toes only touching the ground briefly toward the end of each step.
Once a cat is declawed, it changes the way a cat can move. There can also be a regrowth of improperly removed claws, nerve damage, and bone spurs. A cat’s leg muscles and back muscles can weaken over time. This can lead to back and joint pain.
Removing claws changes the way a cat’s foot meets the ground and can cause pain similar to that which humans experience when wearing a very uncomfortable pair of shoes
Medical Complications of Declawing:
- pain in the paw
- tissue necrosis (tissue death)
- nerve damage
- bone chips that prevent healing
- postoperative hemorrhage
- regrowth of the claws inside the paw pads.
Behavioral and Physical Complications of Declawing:
- Many cats are less likely to use the litter box due to pain after being declawed.
- Most cats are more likely to bite because they no longer have their claws for defense.
- There are long lasting physical problems for your cat.
Feline Fact: Declawing changes the way the cat’s paws function, and this creates stress on the joints of the paw, wrist, elbow, shoulder, and spine.
Why Cats NEED Their Claws
1. Offense and Defense – Your cat’s claws are a vital part of his/her arsenal for offense and defense. Did you know:
- Cats use their claws to capture prey (toys or real prey)
- Cats use their claws to settle disputes among themselves, other animals, and with people who are hurting, threatening, or annoying them.
- Cats who need to climb to safe place use their claws to grip onto the surface and pull themselves up to safety.
2. Health and Habits – Your cat’s claws are a vital part of his/her daily rituals. Cats instinctually pull the claws on their front paws through surfaces that offer resistance (trees, logs, rugs, scratching posts, etc.) They do this to mark territory, exercise and stretch muscles, relieve stress, and to remove worn sheaths from the nails.
Scratching Serves Many Purposes.
Despite what you may believe, cats don’t’ scratch your furniture or other personal items to “get back at you”. Cats have a biological (physical and emotional) need to do this behavior! Scratching is a very normal and healthy behavior. There is another popular misconception that cats scratch to sharpen their nails. This is not true. Cats scratch for a variety of very important reasons:
- To communicate; scratching on surfaces deposits pheromones that send messages to other cats.
- To condition the claws by removing aged cuticles
- To serve as a visual territorial marker
- To defend themselves
- To stretches the muscles of the limbs, thorax, and back
- To express joy, excitement, frustration, stress, and as a displacement behavior
Experts Weigh-In on Declawing
Read what the respected feline veterinarians and animal welfare organizations have to say about this declawing:
The ASPCA is strongly opposed to declawing cats for the convenience of their guardians. The only circumstance in which the procedure could be condoned would be if the health and safety of the guardian would be put at risk, as in the case of individuals with compromised immune systems or illnesses that cause them to be unusually susceptible to serious infections.
The Humane Society of the United States opposes declawing except for the rare cases when it is necessary for medical purposes, such as the removal of cancerous nail bed tumors.
Feline expert Dr. Margie Scherk shares her experience and thoughts on the issue:
Some people feel it’s unnatural to remove a cat’s claws, and it’s done for the owner’s benefit and not for the cat’s benefit. There are many other arguments you can make for this — the pain they go through, the complications after declawing. But I think it really boils down to cats are born with claws and they should keep them. ~ Drew Weigner, Atlanta veterinarian and president of the Academy of Feline Medicine
Is declawing bad for cats AND YOU? You bet. Jackson Galaxy sets the record straight:
Alternatives to Declawing
Sometimes, people feel like there is no other option but to remove a cat’s claws. Thankfully, many progressive and humane veterinarians are now teaching their clients about other humane and respectful methods for managing destructive clawing and to prevent injury from cat scratches. Here are just a few alternatives to declawing:
- Have your cat’s nails trimmed or filed down regularly to safely blunt the nail tips
- Provide adequate scratching pads and posts for each cat in your home
- Use positive behavior modification techniques
- Become familiar with cat behavior
- Learn safe handling techniques to avoid being scratched
- Offer different materials like carpet, sisal, wood, and cardboard, as well as different styles (vertical and horizontal).
- Use toys and catnip to entice your cat to use the posts and boards.
- Ask your veterinarian about soft plastic caps like Soft Paws®
- Attach Sticky Paws® to furniture to deter your cat from unwanted scratching.
Facts Aren’t Enough
I was going to simply share the facts about declawing along with the humane alternatives and just keep it at that, but as I write this I am moved to share more. I have three cats laying around me right now. All of them have their claws intact. Have we had issues with scratching in the home before? Sure. It’s what cats need to do. But I didn’t chop off their toes because of unwanted scratching. I taught my cats where and what to scratch on. I took the time to learn my cats’ individual preferences and thresholds so they would never feel the need to scratch me, our house guests, each other, or the dog. I teach my clients, family, and friends how to do this as well. It’s humane. It’s fun. And it works.
The Bigger Picture
Those of you who have been following my blog for some time know that I steer on the positive side of things. I do my best to not judge, and I focus on compassionate education. But I have to ask: Who do we think we are to do this to cats? Why do we think it’s perfectly acceptable to amputate an animal’s body part because it makes our lives easier? How did we get to this point with the animals we invited into our lives? Will we continue to do this procedure without exploring other options? How did the disconnect happen between caring for our cats and fully honoring them for who they are? When did we choose to overlook their emotional and physical needs? Who are we to decide that this procedure is justifiable? We would never consider doing this to a child if there was a behavioral issue; we would look into every other option available. Are cats considered less than deserving of the same treatment?
I understand these are tough questions, but they need to be asked, and we need to take an honest look at all of this.
Before you make the decision to amputate your cat’s toes, try humane alternatives. There are too many available to ignore. Choose wisely. My cats are family. Are yours?
When we understand that all animals are our relatives, perhaps then we will treat them as our brothers and sisters. ~ A.D. Williams