Declaw: Whom Are We Protecting?

Deemed illegal or inhumane in countries around the globe and opposed by many organizations in the United States, why do U.S. veterinarians still consider onychectomy “routine?”


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The Paw Project's anti-declawing billboard.

Courtesy of Jennifer Conrad, DVM

Declaw happens, at least in the United States. Deemed illegal or inhumane in countries across Europe, Scandinavia and around the globe,1 declaw is also opposed by many organizations in the United States. However, U.S. veterinarians still consider onychectomy “routine,” sometimes bundling spay/neuter with declaw as specially priced “packages.”2 In fact, an estimated 25 percent of owned cats in the U.S. are declawed.3

While West Hollywood has banned declawing, 86 percent of southern California hospitals declaw cats, 76 percent do so on kittens younger than 8 months old, 95 percent declaw to protect furniture, 33 percent perform the procedure for no specific reason, and 5 percent earn over $1,000 per hour for the operation.4

How does protecting furniture or one’s bottom line compare with the veterinarian’s oath to employ knowledge and skill “for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering”?5

So, why do declaws continue?

“My veterinarian supports it.” Sociologic research on attitudes of veterinarians and staff concerning onychectomy indicated “a number of staff felt uncomfortable with their participation in onychectomy (declawing) and relied heavily on organizational support structures to cope with both these feelings and the moral ambiguity about the practice.”6

Some practices employ “scripts” that staff members must follow or face chastisement. Frustrated employees complain: “You know that we are not allowed to explain that it’s an amputation of the toe. ... People have no idea that it leaves a gaping wide hole ... unless they ask specifically what the procedure entails, but no one asks. We simply have to say that we don’t encourage it or discourage it.”

What happened to informed consent?

“Veterinarians know that the procedure is controversial, but ‘It’s up to clients to decide,’ not us.” Veterinarians are uncomfortable with philosophical discussions about animal welfare.7

Do veterinarians use the word “declaw” to hide the brutal truth? Atwood-Harvey states: “Language is a powerful force in human life. It helps to shape human thought and action. In a large way, it is through language that reality can be obscured and institutional violence can remain unchecked and unchallenged. According to both sociologists and psychologists, the use of ‘euphemistic language’ or ‘false naming’ is an action strategy that enables individuals or large populations to ignore, dismiss, and ‘morally disengage’ from actions that they otherwise might find objectionable.”

Regarding onychectomy, “Even the more common language of declawing is misleading. It is not the practice of removing a cat’s claws. Rather, if you put your hands up in front of you and look at your first knuckle—where your nails begin—think of them chopped off.”

“It’s safe and relatively painless.” Onychectomy, with “an exceptionally high complication rate,” causes 50 percent of cats to experience problems acutely, and 20 percent after hospital discharge.8 Complications include pain, hemorrhage, pad laceration, swelling, limb disuse, neuropraxia or tissue necrosis from inappropriate tourniquet application, lameness, infection, dehiscense, draining tracts, debilitating tendon contracture and more.9

Onychectomy forces cats to ambulate on the distal P2, causing persistent trauma and inflammation. Instead of correct weight bearing, some sit upright with both forepaws elevated. Some heartbreakingly try to walk only on the pelvic limbs.10 Acupuncture, massage and laser therapy might help, but why not avoid what some call “needless mutilation”?11

Pre-emptive analgesia improves pain control12 but “there is a comparative paucity of literature about [the declaw] technique and analgesia for it.”13 Furthermore, “[P]ain that persists beyond the expected healing time is detrimental to the well-being of the animal. ... Although animals may appear to behave normally after major surgery, careful observation can reveal differences in behaviour. … Characteristic responses to pain include avoiding use of a painful limb and licking the painful region.”14

Inadequate acute pain control precedes “chronic pain syndrome of feline onychectomy,”15 manifested as bearing little to no weight on the fore paws as though walking on glass or nails, decreased mobility, inappetance and aggression. Nearly one percent suffer persistent lameness after declaw surgery.16

“It reduces euthanasia rates.” Declawing does not necessarily protect a cat from relinquishment and findings are mixed.17 Inappropriate scratching doesn’t even appear on the list of diagnoses of behavior problems in cats, although some of the unpleasant behavioral consequences of declaw made it to the top, such as aggression and house soiling.18 According to Patronek, “It is a common maxim among animal shelter workers that declawed cats in shelters have a different demeanor than nondeclawed cats, possibly attributable to behavioral frustrations or chronic pain, and are likelier to have inappropriate elimination.”19

In 1996, Patronek et al evaluated risk factors for relinquishment.20 “In the univariate analysis, being declawed was a protective factor for relinquishment to a shelter, but after adjustment for other risk factors, it was associated with an increased risk of relinquishment.”

“Digital flexor tenectomy is less painful and a humane alternative to onychectomy.”21 AVMA policy states, “The surgical alternative of tendonectomy is not recommended.”22 Over the long term, cats’ inability to flex the distal interphalangeal joint of tenectomized toes can lead to pain, nail-bed infections and client dissatisfaction.23,24 In terms of acute post-surgical pain, one small controlled clinical trial recruited cats presenting to a veterinary hospital for onychectomy or tenectomy in order to compare pain, behavior and analgesic requirements after onychectomy, tenectomy or sham surgery.25

In their study, Cloutier et al found that cats in both surgical groups experienced significantly more pain than control cats and that cats undergoing tenectomy evidenced more signs of discomfort one hour post-op.

“I use a surgical laser for onychectomy, which causes fewer problems.” The discomfort following both procedures can persist for several days or longer, though the laser onychectomy produced less discomfort initially.26 Although laser onychectomy reduces the need for and potential complications due to bandaging,27 the ethics and long-term quality of life issues remain.

“Those with compromised immune systems should have their cats declawed.” That cats should be declawed to protect immunocompromised clients is a myth, according to Jennifer Conrad, DVM, of The Paw Project. She contests, “[T]he national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Public Health Service, and infectious disease specialists state that declawing is not recommended to prevent zoonoses.”28

“In my opinion, if a cat is going to be a companion and not a wild predator, it should be declawed in all four feet at a very young age. The resulting pet will be more loving, more of a companion, and less a danger to humans.”29 Some argue that by removing claws in kittens, inappropriate scratching patterns never have the opportunity to develop. Perhaps like circumcision, they figure, cats will not remember they had claws and therefore won’t miss them. However, unlike the excised tissue in circumcision, cats need to still be able to use their digits. The ensuing neuropathic pain and degenerative changes may plague them for life.

Pre-emptive onychectomy in kittens eliminates the opportunity for other measures to be tried, and not all cats become problematic scratchers. Cats need time to learn when and where it is appropriate to scratch. The AVMA writes, “Declawing of domestic cats should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively.”30

For more facts about feline declawing, including informational videos about declaw and paw repair surgery, visit The Paw Project website at www.pawproject.org

Dr. Robinson, DVM, DO, Dipl. ABMA, FAAMA, oversees complementary veterinary education at Colorado State University.

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FOOTNOTES

1. Anonymous. Who says declawing is a bad idea? Obtained at /redirect.aspx?location=http://members.petfinder.org/~MI486/DeclawingStatements.pdfon 06-12-12.

2. Example: Twin Peaks Veterinary Center./redirect.aspx?location=http://www.twinpeaksvet.com/packages.html. Accessed on 06-12-12.

3. Reported in Posner LP. Analgesia for declaw patients. NAVC Clinician’s Brief. May 2010. Pp. 63-67.

4. Anonymous. Declaw and SCVMA update. Pulse. November, 2009, p. 4.

5. American Veterinary Medical Association. Veterinarian’s Oath. AVMA Website. Accessed on 06-11-12 at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.avma.org/about_avma/whoweare/oath.asp.

6. Atwood-Harvey E. Death or declaw: Dealing with moral ambiguity in a veterinary hospital. Society & Animals. 2005;13:4. Accessed on 06-10-12 at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.animalsandsociety.org/assets/library/567_s1343.pdf

7. Beaver BV. After the DVM: Specialization in animal welfare. JVME. 2010;37(1):61-63.

8. Tobias KS. Feline onychectomy at a teaching institution: a retrospective study of 163 cases. Vet Surg. 1994;23:274-280. Cited in: Cooper MA, Laverty PH, and Soiderer EE. Bilateral flexor tendon contracture following onychectomy in 2 cats. Can Vet J. 2005;46:244-246.

9. Cooper MA, Laverty PH, and Soiderer EE. Bilateral flexor tendon contracture following onychectomy in 2 cats. Can Vet J. 2005;46:244-246.

10. Cooper MA, Laverty PH, and Soiderer EE. Bilateral flexor tendon contracture following onychectomy in 2 cats. Can Vet J. 2005;46:244-246.

11. Curcio K, Bidwell LA, Bohart GV, et al. Evaluation of signs of postoperative pain and complications after forelimb onychectomy in cats receiving buprenorphine alone or with bupivicaine administered as a four-point regional nerve block. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2006;228:65-68.

12. Brunson DB. Anesthesiology/pain: cats: the silent sufferers. AAHA Long Beach 2010 Proceedings, 18-21 March, 2010. Scientific, management and technician programs. Denver: American Animal Hospital Association, 2010, 815-817

13. Posner LP. Analgesia for declaw patients. NAVC Clinician’s Brief. May 2010. Pp. 63-67.

14. Cloutier S, Newberry RC, Cambridge AJ, et al. Behavioural signs of postoperative pain in cats following onychectomy or tenectomy surgery. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2005;92:325-335.

15. Gaynor JS. Chronic pain syndrome of feline onychectomy. NAVC Clinician’s Brief. 2005;11-13, 63.

16. Pickett L. Ask the vet’s pets: Declawed cats risk chronic pain. Readingeagle.com./redirect.aspx?location=http://readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=388930. Accessed on 06-10-12.

17. Conrad J. [In her response to letter to the editor, “Believes cat declawing ban silly, poorly thought out.] JAVMA. 2003;223(1):40-41.

18. Bamberger M and Houpt KA. Signalment factors, comorbidity, and trends in behavior diagnoses in cats: 736 cases (1991-2001).

19. Patronek GJ. Assessment of claims of short- and long-term complications associated with onychectomy in cats. JAVMA. 2001;219(7):932-937.

20. Patronek GJ, Glickman LT, Beck AM, et al. Risk factors for relinquishment of cats to an animal shelter. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1996;209:582-588.

21. Cloutier S, Newberry NC, Cambridge AJ, et al. Behavioural signs of postoperative pain in cats following onychectomy or tenectomy surgery. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2005;92:325-355.

22. AVMA website. Issues: Declawing of Domestic Cats. Revised 4/2009. Accessed on 06-12-12 at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.avma.org/issues/policy/animal_welfare/declawing.asp

23. Branch C and Knudson D. Comments on tenectomy and onychectomy in cats. Letters to the editor. JAVMA. 1998;213(7):954.

24. Jankowski AJ, Brown DC, Duval J, et al. Comparison of effects of elective tenectomy or onychectomy in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1998;213:370-373.

25. Cloutier S, Newberry RC, Cambridge AJ, et al. Behavioural signs of postoperative pain in cats following onychectomy or tenectomy surgery. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2005;92:325-335.

26. Holmberg DL and Brisson BA. A prospective comparison of postoperative morbidity associated with the use of scalpel blades and lasers for onychectomy in cats. Can Vet J. 2006;47:162-163.

27. Mison MB, Bohart GH, Walshaw R, et al. Use of carbon dioxide laser for onychectomy in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2002;221:651-653.

28. Conrad J. [In her response to letter to the editor, “Believes cat declawing ban silly, poorly thought out.] JAVMA. 2003;223(1):40-41.

29. Renard SG. [Letter]. Believes cat declawing has positive implications. JAVMA. 2003;222(11):1504.

30. AVMA website. Issues: Declawing of Domestic Cats. Revised 4/2009. Accessed on 06-12-12 at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.avma.org/issues/policy/animal_welfare/declawing.asp.

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