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Claw counseling

With attitudes toward declawing changing, veterinarians need to keep current about the practice to help clients manage their pets’ scratching behavior

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Photo courtesy ©BigStockPhoto.comDeclawing is banned in more than 20 countries worldwide. As bans start to take effect in municipalities and regions throughout North America, veterinarians will need to shift their focus to living with clawed cats and without partial digital amputation (PDA). Developing a thorough understanding of feline scratching behavior is the first step.

Changing the tides

Declawing—or onychectomy—is the practice of amputating the third phalanx of each fore- and/or hind limb of a domestic cat. It is done to eliminate unwanted scratching of undesirable targets. While partial digital amputation is banned in dozens of countries worldwide, North America stands comparatively alone in the historical trend to make declawing a normal practice.

In the last two decades, this trend has weakened, with a growing adversity toward the practice. In 2003, with the support of The Paw Project, West Hollywood, Calif., became the first region to ban PDA in the domestic cat. In 2017, Denver also voted for a ban on elective PDA, while the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) issued position statements opposing the procedure. In December 2017, the Nova Scotia Veterinary Medical Association became the first province to ban PDA outright, and British Columbia followed suit in May 2018.

Photos courtesy AAFP
Indoors, cats may scratch furniture, door frames, walls, carpet, and hopefully, their scratch posts.

Other provinces and U.S. states are also poised to pass bans. The tide has begun to turn for the practice of PDA, as cat parents and veterinarians become more aware of the procedure’s negative side effects. As such, cat parents will need support in understanding their pet’s natural scratching behavior and how to live in harmony with a clawed cat. Support includes a comprehensive approach to nail care, environmental enrichment, and resource management, as well as an understanding of what drives the natural behavior of scratching in the domestic cat. As North American attitudes toward declawing change, it will be valuable for veterinary practitioners to stay educated and informed about declawing, including developing knowledge of the short- and long-term postsurgical side effects, which are still being unravelled.1-3

Claw Counseling

“Claw Counseling” can help cat parents understand their cat’s normal scratching behavior and scratching preferences. While providing information on the negative impact of declawing is necessary at times, the Claw Counseling program focuses on positive options by teaching clients how to live in harmony with their clawed cat. AAFP has developed Claw Counseling resources for both veterinarian and caregiver. Claw Counseling can be used in preparation for the addition of a new cat, while training kittens, and in situations where cats may be scratching undesirable surfaces. Through Claw Counseling, we can work with clients to address particular situations, assisting them in how to train cats to scratch only desirable surfaces and without preventing the cat from expressing what is natural to them. That said, Claw Counseling is never really complete, as cats’ needs within the household and their targeted scratching surfaces may fluctuate over their lifetime.

A wide variety of desirable scratching surfaces are available. A number of substrates should be provided, including sisal rope, natural bark or wood, corrugated cardboard, and carpet. These should be placed in various locations throughout the home.

 Why do cats scratch?

Used for hunting, self-defense, or for marking territory, the claws of the forelimb are uniquely retractable in cats, allowing them to expose or retract the claws as needed. Outdoors, marking of territory may include trees, fences, and other solid surfaces. Indoors, cats may scratch furniture, door frames, walls, carpet, and hopefully, their scratch posts (Figure 1). Scratching inanimate objects also allows the cat to dislodge old nail growth, exposing a new, sharper claw underneath. Cats also scratch after waking from sleep as a means of stretching out their limbs. It is important to understand these behaviors, as they are natural and necessary to the cat. Increased scratching and marking may occur in times of anxiety and stress, including when environmental resources are threatened or restricted. Identifying the cause of the anxiety or stress is likely to offer solutions that will lead to a reduction in the unwanted marking behavior.

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Troubleshooting problematic scratching

Scratching is natural and necessary, and not done with the intention of upsetting the caregiver by damaging furniture. The concept of appropriate or inappropriate surfaces does not exist to the cat as it does to the homeowner. Scratching is quite simply a form of communication. Anything occurring in a cat’s life that poses a perceived threat to its territory can be expected to result in an increase in territorial marking. Behavioral consultations for “problematic” scratching should include very thorough questioning about the environment and available resources. When other pets are in the home, a complete evaluation of intercat and cat-dog relationships should be completed. The presence of outdoor animals, particularly cats, may be perceived by the cat to be threatening its territory. Frequent comings and goings of humans within the household will disturb the cat’s environment as well. New furniture, renovations, and other changes necessitate renewal and adjustments to territorial marking. Anxieties can arise from any changes in the cat’s day-to-day schedule of feeding, sleeping, and play.
Cats that are not well stimulated mentally are also more inclined to mark. Use of scheduled play hunting time, as well as feeding puzzles, can be beneficial in keeping the mind stimulated and boredom minimized.4 Claw Counseling consultations should work through all these possibilities, so as to identify every possible trigger.

Resource management in a multipet environment is critical to reducing territorial anxiety in cats. The following household concerns should be considered during house soiling consultations for indoor cats:

  • Litter boxes
  • Sleeping and resting areas
  • Food bowls
  • Water bowls
  • Toys
  • Perches or 3-D space
  • Scratch posts
  • Scratching surfaces

Litter boxes should be provided at a minimum ratio of one per cat, plus an extra. The boxes should be distributed throughout the house, of suitable large size, and uncovered. Regular scooping of the boxes is necessary. Sleeping and resting locations should be ample to accommodate all cats in a variety of locations. Food can be a major source of anxiety in multicat households. Cats fed within visual, olfactory, and/or auditory distance of each other may experience anxiety as they eat. This may not be obvious to the client, as signs can be subtle or absent. Some cats may eat their food rapidly, while others may move from bowl to bowl, sometimes pushing the other cat away. Some cats may eat and then move to another area of the household to mark territory as an outlet for their anxiety.

Photo courtesy Kelly St. Denis
Encourage clients to place scratch posts and perches near windows to allow the cat to visualize the outdoors, which is mentally stimulating.

What is the ideal scratching surface?

Preferences for desirable scratching surfaces are influenced by individual substrate preferences, orientation of surfaces (e.g. upright, horizontal, or angled pads), location within the household, and the perceived desire to mark territory in certain locations inside. It is advisable to counsel clients to offer a wide variety of options in various locations. A number of substrates should be provided, including sisal rope, natural bark or wood, corrugated cardboard, and carpet (Figure 2). The substrates should include vertical options extending above the cat’s stretched-out height, as well as inclined and horizontal options.

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A 2015 internet-based survey on feline scratching behaviors found the ideal scratch post was a simple upright structure at least three feet tall, with two or three platforms.5 The same survey found that undesirable scratching decreased as the different types/styles of posts increased in the home. Geriatric cats were found to prefer carpet, while younger cats seemed to favour rope. A list of recommended scratch substrates and surfaces should be provided and discussed with the client. The addition of new surfaces and structures should be considered, while existing options may need to be moved into more strategic locations to prevent undesirable scratching.

Where is the ideal location for scratching surfaces?

Some scratch posts and perches should be located near windows to allow the cat to visualize the outdoors, which is mentally stimulating (Figure 3). Other scratch surfaces should be located near sleeping spots, so the cat can stretch and scratch after a nap. It is recommended to place scratching surfaces in both busy and quiet areas of the household. If a cat is scratching a particular piece of furniture that is undesirable to the caregiver, placement of scratching surfaces directly adjacent to or attached to the furniture will likely redirect the cat’s scratching to the new, appropriate surface (Figure 4). In some cases, increased scratching occurs proximal to the most used entryway in the household. As comings and goings can be stressful to the cat, an increased desire to mark territory near this doorway may occur. Providing desirable scratching surfaces nearby will allow the cat to mark territory.

For most cats, catnip and catnip spray help to encourage use of desirable scratching surfaces. The pheromone/catnip product Feliscratch by Ceva is now available for use in Canada and the United States. This product is designed to draw cats to desired scratch surfaces (Figure 5).

Photo courtesy Kelly St. Denis
Placing a scratching surface directly adjacent to or attached to the furniture
can redirect the cat’s scratching to the new, appropriate surface.

Troubleshooting scratching behaviors

In situations where cats scratch undesirable objects, a review of the environment is necessary. Identifying the location in the household where the cat is scratching undesirably may help reveal why the cat feels the need to scratch that surface. For example, a cat may scratch undesirable surfaces located near a window where outdoor cats are visible and perceived as a territorial threat. Likewise, a cat may scratch an undesirable surface directly adjacent to a favorite sleeping spot, simply because that is the most convenient place to stretch after a nap.

Feliscratch by Ceva is a pheromone/catnip product designed to draw cats to desired scratch surfaces.

Reviewing environmental factors can help suggest the optimal locations for acceptable scratching surfaces. If the cat has selected several surfaces the client does not wish to have scratched, an attempt can be made to make these surfaces less desirable. Punishment should be avoided in any form, as it can increase anxiety and result in further marking behaviors. The placement of two-sided sticky tape, tinfoil, plastic, or furniture covers may reduce scratching on these surfaces. Deterrents should not cause pain, discomfort, or pose health risks to the cat. Whenever possible, it is preferable to provide acceptable surfaces rather than deterrents. There are scratch surfaces available commercially that can be mounted on the arms of couches, on doorframes, and on walls. An increasing number of stylish scratch products and furniture are available for use.

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Partial digital amputation is an unnecessary medical surgery,7 fraught with short- and long-term consequences. Suffering may go unnoticed, while subsequent pain-related behaviors, such as house soiling, can lead to relinquishment of the cat.1-3 Through Claw Counseling, we can support and encourage clients to live with clawed cats. As veterinary professionals, we have the knowledge to discuss the negative impact of PDA, and positively support the client through the process of training their clawed cat. The benefits are mutual—the caregiver learns to understand the cat’s behavior and needs, and the cat is allowed to express itself in the most natural way. For more information, click here.

1 Patronek GJ. Assessment of claims of short- and long-term complications associated with onychectomy in cats.
J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2001;219:932–937.
2 Yeon SC, Flanders JA, Scarlett JM, et al. Attitudes of owners regarding tendonectomy and onychectomy in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2001;218:43–47.
3 Martell-Moran NK, Solano M, Townsend HG. Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats. J Feline Med Surg. 2017;55:1098612X17705044.
4 Ellis SLH, Rodan I, Carney HC, et al. AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. J Feline Med Surg. 2013;15:219–230.
5 Wilson C, Bain M, DePorter T, et al. Owner observations regarding cat scratching behavior: an internet-based survey. J Feline Med Surg. 2016;18:791–797.
6 Cozzi A, Lecuelle CL, Monneret P, et al. Induction of scratching behaviour in cats: efficacy of synthetic feline interdigital semiochemical. J Feline Med Surg. 2013;15:872–878.
7 Mills KE, Keyserlingk von MAG, Niel L. A review of medically unnecessary surgeries in dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2016;248:162–171.

Kelly A. St. Denis, MSc, DVM, DABVP (feline practice) is a full-time clinician at the Charing Cross Cat Clinic in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, which she opened in 2007. She holds a bachelor of science degree in molecular biology and genetics, as well as a master of science degree in immunology. In 1999, she completed her doctor of veterinary medicine degree at the Ontario Veterinary College. Dr. St. Denis has been certified with the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners in the specialty of feline practice since 2013. Becoming a specialist has given her the welcome opportunity to lecture on feline medicine across North America. St. Denis was also fortunate to have a role in The Nature of Things television episode, “The Lion in Your Living Room,” which first aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., in January 2014. She is proudly one of the six Canadian feline specialist members of Cat Healthy (cathealthy.ca). St. Denis is a consultant on Veterinary Information Network, a member of American Association of Feline Practitioners’ (AAFP) board of directors, and sits on the advisory council for the AAFP Cat Friendly Practice Program. She can be reached at drstdenis@charingcrosscatclinic.com.

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