Cat Declawing: Pros, Cons, and Safer Alternatives

If you have a kitten who is scratching up your furniture and generally tearing up your house, you may be tempted to have it declawed. Read this first.

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Cats by nature have a need to scratch to mark their territory, stretch their bodies, and remove the worn-out outer claws to expose fresher sharper claws underneath. For an indoor cat, this natural instinct can result in tattered curtains, torn up sofas, and carpets left in shreds—destructive and cranky behaviors that can leave frustrated pet parents scrambling for a solution.

Some may be tempted to declaw their cats. Also known as onychectomy, declawing is a surgical process in which the front knuckles of the cat’s toes are amputated so the animal can no longer use its claws to scratch household items or hurt others during rough play—or defend itself should it meet an aggressive cat or another animal outdoors or even hop a fence or climb to get away from a predator.

Many groups, including the ASPCA and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), discourage declawing and suggests non-surgical alternatives. This major surgery has the potential to result in chronic, lifelong pain, and a change in the animal’s gait. In 2019, New York State became the first state to outlaw the procedure. Declawing is illegal in many countries in Europe, as well as in the United Kingdom, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel.

Read on to learn about special circumstances that may require declawing and a guide to safer alternatives to declawing so you and your kitty can have a happier relationship.

What is cat declawing?

“Declawing a cat is the surgical process of removing/amputating the first ‘knuckle’ of a cat’s toes, thereby removing where the claw grows,” says Jamie Richardson, DVM, medical chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary in New York City. It’s similar to cutting off a human’s fingers or toes at the top joint. Dr. Richardson says that declawing cats “irreversibly physically alters a cat for the purposes of changing its natural behavior, most often performed for the convenience of the pet owner.”

The procedure is performed under general anesthesia, and the cost varies on the nature of the technique, surgical time, and the location of the clinic. For uncomplicated cases, Dr. Richardson notes that recovery time is around 10 to 14 days. “Cats that have undergone a full declaw will be tender on their paws for several weeks and possibly permanently due to the altered anatomy of the paw.” Removing the claws of an outdoor cat is among the mistakes cat owners should never make.

Medical alternative: tendonectomy

Tendonectomy is a new procedure that’s a medical alternative to declawing. Dr. Richardson explains that it involves “small incisions made behind the claw to snip the tendons that are responsible for a cat being able to properly extend its claw.”

While a tendonectomy keeps the claws intact and avoids harmful repercussions to the animal, without the tendons the toes tend to curl around and alter the cat’s normal anatomy, which predisposes them to arthritis. Dr. Richardson warns that there also is a risk of the curled claws puncturing the pads and causing pain and infection if the nails are not kept meticulously trimmed.

When is declawing needed?

Cute bengal funny cat playingIngus Kruklitis/Getty Images

Declawing is often done to prevent the cat from scratching their owners, other animals, or furniture—but it should only be considered as a last resort. The AVMA states that declawing can be considered “when a cat’s excessive or inappropriate scratching behavior causes an unacceptable risk of injury or remains destructive despite conscientious attention to behavioral modification and alternatives.”

Ultimately, the decision to declaw the cat is up to the pet owner in conjunction with their vet (assuming it’s legal in the place they live). Some veterinarians are open to declawing if it means the cat doesn’t end up back at the shelter or out on the streets.

Samantha Canup, DVM, from Noble Creatures Veterinary Services in Washington, Georgia says she recommends the procedure, “if it ensures the cat will have a home for the rest of its life. It is better than being outside and at risk for trauma or disease.” She does, however, emphasize that it is not for every cat and urges owners who choose this option “to commit to having the pet indoors for the remainder of its life, or to finding it an appropriate home if they can no longer care for it.” Declawed cats must be kept indoors “because we have taken away their ability to fully defend themselves,” she explains. Dr. Richardson points out that, in addition, “removing the claws removes a cat’s ability to climb trees and jump fences, etc., to evade predators, and they would be very vulnerable if allowed outside.”

On the other hand, Dr. Richardson, whose practice is in New York City where declawing is illegal, says it should be done only if medically necessary, in the instance of an infection of the bone or toe that cannot be resolved medically, or cancer, for example. “In the vast majority of such cases, only one or two digits would require amputation, rather than all of the toes.”

Ramifications of cat declawing

The biggest consequence of cat declawing is chronic pain. “Cats are very good at hiding signs of pain and discomfort, so they can be uncomfortable for many years without you knowing,” Dr. Richardson explains. “It’s important to monitor mobility for changes in gait or obvious signs of discomfort, as declawed cats may be more prone to degenerative joint disease and arthritis as they age, due to the change in the way they must bear weight on the paws after this procedure.”

Additionally, without the ability to scratch, the cat can have a hard time stretching her muscles and tendons, preventing her from staying healthy. You can find out what your cat is trying to tell you by learning how to decode their behavior.

Safer alternatives to declawing

Declawing is life-altering surgery for cats; many veterinarians consider the procedure to be unethical and unnecessary and encourage cat owners to opt for safer alternatives to prevent cats from scratching up undesirable surfaces. These include:

  • Nail trimming. Trim your cat’s nails every two to three weeks. If it’s challenging for you to do it yourself, bring the cat to a clinic or groomers to have it done properly.

  • Nail caps. Gluing blunt nail caps to the cat’s claws can prevent damage from sharp claws. These plastic caps need to be replaced when the nails grow out (every four to six weeks). If you are unable to apply the caps, professional groomers can help.

  • Training. To change your cat’s natural behavioral patterns, provide training at a young age. Encourage your kitten to use a scratching post rather than your sofa by spraying it with pheromone solutions or rubbing it with catnip. Reward your feline with her favorite treats whenever she uses the post. This is what catnip does to your cats.

Safeguard your furniture

Portrait of Chartreux cat relaxing on sofa at homeCavan Images/Getty Images

Cat parents can also make changes to the indoor environment and safeguard furniture to avoid destructive behavior. Provide your cat with a stimulating enriching environment that includes scratching posts and climbing gyms. The post needs to be at least as tall as the cat’s length for her to enjoy a good stretch and drag her claws down.

Aside from height experiment with the different types of posts available, from traditional posts to corrugated cardboard ramps, to find the one your cat likes best, suggest Dr. Richardson.

Because cats love to scratch upholstered surfaces cat lovers should select couches and chairs made of leather or microfiber, which has a tight weave that’s hard for cats to dig into with their nails. Use plastic, aluminum foil, or double-sided tape coverings to deter your cat while you’re in the training phase. Finally, follow these additional strategies to prevent your cat from scratching furniture.