The Pet Professional Guild (PPG) believes that all cats have an intrinsic right to be treated humanely, to have each of their individual needs met, and to live in safe, enriched environments free from pain, force, and fear. Scratching is a natural feline behavior. Declawing cats for owner convenience or in an attempt to protect property, people, and other pets is both inhumane and unnecessary given that there are highly effective alternatives available to manage the behavior more appropriately and less intrusively. Studies have also shown that declawing a cat increases the risks of behavior problems, such as house soiling, biting, and aggression.
Feline Behavioral Considerations
Cats use their claws to defend themselves, balance, climb, and hunt (Bahr, 2017). Cats also scratch to communicate (by leaving scent and visual marks), remove old nail sheaths, display assertiveness in view of less assertive cats, stretch and exercise their forelegs, and express excitement (Grier & Peterson, 2005). Rodan and Heath (2016) characterize scratching as a normal cat behavior that is undesirable to cat owners (e.g. when household items such as furniture, carpets, rugs etc. are preferred outlets for the behavior), as opposed to a “problem behavior.” This important distinction emphasizes the need for greater owner education in terms of redirecting the behavior and/or modifying the cat’s environment to encourage the scratching of items cat owners deem appropriate, such as customized scratch posts.
What Is “Declawing”?
Declawing is “an elective surgery that renders cats unable to scratch.” (Clark, Bailey, Rist & Matthews, 2014). Medically defined as onychectomy, it involves amputating all or part of the last bone in each toe (the third phalanx or P3) of the front paws (or sometimes all four paws) using a sterilized guillotine nail trimmer, scalpel, or laser (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2016). Because a cat’s claws grow from the last bone, the bone must be removed to prevent regrowth. Regardless of the tool used to perform the surgery, tendons, nerves, and ligaments are also severed in the process. In human terms, it is analogous to cutting each finger off at the last joint or knuckle (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2016).
A less commonly performed procedure is tendonectomy, in which the deep flexor tendon that controls the claw is cut on the underside of each toe to prevent grasping motions. The claws remain, but the cat cannot extend them (Mills, von Keyserlingk & Niel, 2016). Cat owners still need to regularly clip the nails of a cat who has undergone tendonectomy because they will continue to grow, possibly excessively (Yeon, Flanders, Scarlett, Ayers & Houpt, 2001).
Medical vs. Surgical
No matter what method is used to declaw, the objective is to permanently remove a cat’s ability to use his claws naturally. Declaw surgery is irreversible; there is no treatment to replace missing bones or repair the permanent injury done to nerves, tendons, and ligaments during a declaw procedure. Medical reasons for declawing include removal of tumors or infection from the nail bed (Martell-Moran, Solano & Townsend, 2017) or irreversible claw damage or claws that do not retract (Wilson, 2017). Usually, however, declawing is not medically necessary, but, rather, an elective surgical procedure (Clark et al., 2014; Mills et al., 2016; Patronek, 2001). In such cases, the primary reasons for declawing are:
- To protect furniture or other household materials from damage (95% to 99%) (Landsberg, 1991a; Patronek, 2001).
- To protect people from being scratched (Patronek, 2001).
- To protect other animals in the home from being scratched (Mills et al., 2016; Munera, 2014).
Referral to Qualified Feline Behavior Professionals
It is essential to recognize, however, that each of these behavioral issues can be minimized or modified through owner education and/or environmental or behavior change procedures. When cats are declawed for non-medical reasons, a surgical solution is applied to address a potential behavior issue when, in all cases, effective non-surgical alternatives are available. For this reason, PPG recommends that veterinarians who do not specialize in behavior refer cases of destructive scratching and aggression to qualified feline behavior professionals to achieve outcomes that are both satisfactory to cat owners and protective of cat welfare (Halls, 2018).
There are a number interventions are available to behavior professionals to resolve undesirable feline behaviors (e.g., environmental modification, behavioral modification, and pheromone therapy). A feline behavior professional will thoroughly assess cases using questionnaires, medical histories, phone interviews, photos, videos, videoconferencing, and/or one or more consultations in the home, after which interventions suitable to the individual case are selected. The behavior analytical approach is used, which does not rely on guesswork, trial and error tactics or anecdotal recommendations, but systematically identifies the functional relationship the behavior has with the environment. When these relationships have been identified, then efficient and effective solutions can be developed with the individual animal in mind. This behavior analytical approach is known as a functional assessment, i.e. “an objective and systematic, efficient and effective strategy for explaining, describing and modifying behavior.” (Tudge, 2015).
Because clients typically apply the interventions in their homes, client compliance plays a significant role in the successful outcome of feline behavior cases (Casey & Bradshaw, 2008). Compliance is improved by working with clients to identify goals; by ensuring that the interventions are “practicable, feasible, and understood”; and by providing follow-up support that is easily accessible (Casey & Bradshaw, 2008). Owner perception of the professional (e.g., a specialist versus a general practitioner) has also been found to be an important factor in client compliance when addressing feline behavior problems (Casey & Bradshaw, 2008). Pro-claw veterinarians, veterinary behaviorists, andqualified feline behavior consultants are highly trained and educated professionals who are uniquely positioned to work closely with cat owners to address scratching and aggression issues. Seeking their services is the best way to successfully solve problems when the other techniques have been ineffective.
Studies have shown that declawing is associated with a number of behavior issues, most notably house soiling (Ellison, 2003; Gerard, Larson, Baldwin& Petersen, 2016; Jankowski, Brown, Duval, Gregor, Strine, Ksiazek& Ott, 1998; Landsberg, 1991a; Martell-Moran et al., 2017; Morgan & Houpt, 1989; Patronek, Glickman, Beck, McCabe & Ecker, 1996; Yeon et al., 2001), biting (Bennett, Houpt & Erb, 1988; Ellison, 2003; Landsberg, 1991a; Martell-Moran et al., 2017; Patronek, 2001; Yeon et al., 2001), and aggression (Gaynor, 2005; Martell-Moran et al., 2017). In addition, the frustration caused by “depriving a cat of the use of its claws and the ability to engage in hard-wired species-specific behaviors…has been proposed as a cause of chronic stress” in declawed cats (Patronek, 2001).
A recent study of age-matched declawed and non-declawed cats, both owned and shelter cats, using control groups, found significant increases in the odds of back pain (3x), house soiling (7x), biting (4.5x), aggression (3x), and barbering (excessive licking or chewing of the fur, 3x) in declawed compared to control (non-declawed) cats (Martell-Moran et al., 2017). The authors of the study propose that “persistent pain and discomfort subsequent to declaw surgery is an important risk factor” for the development of these behavioral changes (Martell-Moran et al., 2017) and go on to say:
“Clinically, we have observed that pain arising from the lower back is associated with inappropriate elimination. Similarly, if the source of pain is declawed phalanges, the act of walking on or digging in a gravel-type substrate may result in pain and aversion to use of the litter box. Many cats that eliminate outside of the litter box choose a soft substrate such as carpet, clothing or a location next to the litter box like a mat. With respect to aggression, following claw removal, a cat’s only defense when upset or fearful is biting. When touched, a painful, fearful or stressed declawed cat may react by attempting to bite as it has few or no claws to scratch with. During the physical examination of the cats in this study, many biting attempts occurred when cats were lifted, creating an arched back; when they were touched or petted caudal to the middle thoracic vertebrae; or in anticipation of pain when a handler was reaching to touch the lower back or tail.” (Martell-Moran et al., 2017).
Health and Welfare
PPG takes the position that declawing for any reason other than medical necessity for the health of the cat violates three of the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, n.d.):
- Freedom from pain, injury, or disease.
- Freedom to express normal behavior.
- Freedom from fear and distress.
Cats are digitigrade mammals, i.e. they walk on their toes (Sunquist & Sunquist, 2017). As stated earlier, declawed cats are almost three times more likely to suffer from back pain than non-declawed cats (Martell-Moran et al., 2017), possibly because amputation of the last bone in each toe shortens the declawed limbs and alters the natural gait, or because chronic pain at the surgery sites causes cats to unnaturally shift their body weight to the rear legs (SAGE, 2017; Patronek, 2001). It has also been suggested that declawing prevents cats from exercising their back muscles through scratching (Patronek, 2001). In veterinary medicine, declaw surgery “serves as a model of severe pain for testing the efficacy of analgesic drugs” (Dodman, 1997).
Assessing pain in cats using behavioral signs or physiological measures has been challenging and inconsistent (Conzemius & Gordon-Evans, 2005). Persistent pain after surgery is often under-diagnosed in cats because it develops slowly, and behavioral signs can be difficult to identify (Robertson & Lascelles, 2010). Cats instinctively hide signs of musculoskeletal pain, making it easy to overlook (Martell-Moran et al., 2017). A reasonable method for identifying pain after surgery on a limb is the patient’s willingness to use the limb; however, because both front paws are typically operated on in declaw surgery, cats are forced to use their paws, which masks this behavioral sign of pain (Conzemius & Gordon-Evans, 2005). In addition, if a declawed cat has pain in both front paws, limping might not be apparent (Hofve, 2017). Veterinarians, pain specialists, and feline behavior professionals have identified behavioral signs of paw and musculoskeletal pain specific to declawed cats that can be used to guide diagnostic efforts and treatment (Becker, 2015; Gaynor, 2005; Hofve, 2017; Munera, 2016, 2017; Robertson & Lascelles, 2010).
One particular source of pain in declawed cats that is not easily detectable through diagnostic testing is neuropathic pain. This type of pain has been coined “wind-up” pain because it increases in intensity over days, months, and years, and is often the result of poor pain control immediately after surgery (American Association of Feline Practitioners, 2017; Gaynor, 2005). States animal pain specialist, Dr. Robin Downing:
“Unfortunately, … a huge percentage of cats do not receive appropriate post-operative pain management [after declaw surgery]. If post-op pain is not managed aggressively and comprehensively, the pain can become chronic. Because the nerves to the toes are actually cut, the pain can become what in people is called ‘neuropathic’ pain. People with neuropathic pain report various sensations in the affected areas of the body—they may feel tingling, burning, electrical pain, throbbing, and more. … With nerve damage, there are changes that occur in the transmission of signals along the nerve fibers. The damaged nerves can set up a pain syndrome that is self-perpetuating. This means that the toes can become hypersensitive or may even develop the sensations that humans with neuropathic pain experience.” (qtd. In Becker, 2015).
Human Health Concerns
Not only is pain a major welfare issue for declawed cats, but the possible increased risk of biting also has health implications for cat owners. Declawing could put other animals in a home at greater risk too, because declawed cats may escalate more quickly to biting if they do not have the use of their claws to ask for space (Munera, 2014). Cat bites can be serious (SAGE, 2017) because “when cats bite, their sharp teeth can inject hard-to-treat bacteria deeply into the skin and joints, increasing the risk for serious infection,” and often leading to hospitalization (Dallas, 2014).
Declawing may sometimes be recommended for cats whose owners have immunodeficiency disorders, fragile skin, or organ transplants; are taking drugs that affect the immune system; or have small children—citing risks of contracting so-called cat scratch disease (an infection caused by the Bartonella bacteria) and other diseases. In fact, as Bartonella is transmitted by infected fleas, the most effective way to prevent transmission of Bartonella infection is flea control (American Academy of Family Physicians, 2017; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015).
A joint statement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the HIV Medicine Association of the Infectious Diseases Society of America states that “[d]eclawing is not advised” for preventing the transmission of Bartonella henselae (Kaplan, Benson, Holmes, Brooks, Pau & Masur, 2009). The CDC (2016) also states that it is not necessary for people who are “HIV positive, being treated for cancer, or have any other condition that might disrupt [their] immune system” to declaw their cats. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) (2015) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) (2019) echo the CDC’s stance in their respective position statements on declawing.
There is a common misconception that declawing cats, by removing a cat’s ability to engage in destructive scratching, means that more cats stay in their homes, but there is no evidence to support this. According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (2017) “[c]urrent peer-reviewed data definitively proving that cats with destructive behavior are more likely to be euthanized, abandoned or relinquished” do not exist. While declawing will prevent most scratching-related injuries, “it is unlikely to resolve the problem of aggression in general” and it does not remove “the potential for cats to bite as an alternative to scratching.” (Mills et al., 2016). It is also essential to note that not all cats will engage in problematic scratching behaviors; indeed, pre-emptively declawing kittens denies them the opportunity to learn appropriate scratching behaviors (Robinson, 2012).
One study has perpetuated the myth that if veterinarians do not declaw, more than 50% of cat owners will get rid of their cats (Landsberg, 1991b). This figure is based on an opinion survey given to veterinarians in Canada. However, a follow-up survey given to those veterinarians’ clients revealed that, in reality, only 4% of cat owners would actually relinquish their cats if declawing were not an option (Landsberg, 1991a).
Declawed cats are readily available for adoption from rescue groups and shelters having been relinquished in spite of their declawed status. In one study, approximately 9.1% of shelter cats were declawed (Fritscher & Ha, 2016). A study by Patronek et al. (1996) of cat relinquishment to an animal shelter found that declawed cats were at increased risk of relinquishment by almost two-fold after adjustment for other risk factors.
Cats are commonly relinquished to shelters for behavior issues such as biting, aggression, and inappropriate elimination (Martell-Moran et al., 2017). In one study, the reason given for 40% of cats being relinquished to shelters was house soiling, and 15% of cats were relinquished for human-directed aggression (Salman, Hutchison, Ruch-Gallie, Kogan, New, Kass & Scarlett, 2000). Another study found that declawed cats living in multi-cat homes of three to five cats were more than three times more likely to house soil (Gerard et al., 2016). Unexpected findings in a study on feline aggression in multicat households suggest that declawing could be associated with an increase in intercat conflicts (DePorter, Bledsoe, Beck & Ollivier, 2019). The study found a “high percentage of cats that are declawed and in homes with intercat aggression” and that “the declaw status of either the aggressor or the victims may have an impact on ongoing aggression.” (DePorter et al., 2019). Intercat conflicts are a source of chronic stress for many pet cats (Bradshaw, 2016); approximately 19% of cats are relinquished to shelters due to intercat conflicts (Salman et al., 2000).
Scratching is a normal, species-specific behavior that cats should be allowed to engage in. If it becomes an issue, it can be redirected to more appropriate places, such as customized scratch posts. The surgical amputation of cats’ toes is painful and permanently disfiguring. Effective alternatives exist to manage natural scratching behavior and to prevent injury to humans and other animals from cat scratches, making declawing an unnecessary and antiquated procedure. It would be far preferable for professional pet organizations and associations and veterinary professionals to work together on educating cat owners to ensure their pets live in nurturing, stable, and enriched environments to better prevent behavior problems.
Note: At the time of publication, the practice of declawing cats was banned in England, Scotland, Wales, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia, France, Germany, Bosnia, Malta, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Belgium, Israel (Declawing.com, 2019), the Canadian provinces of Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Labrador, Nova Scotia and British Columbia (Narcity.com, 2018), the US state of New York (New York State, 2019), and the Californian cities of West Hollywood, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Burbank, Santa Monica, Berkeley, Beverly Hills and Culver City (The Paw Project, 2019).
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