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Declawing: Is it really as bad as everyone makes it out to be?

Being a child of the 90’s and early 00’s, declawing was generally something that was automatically done at the time a cat was spayed or neutered. Our family and everyone that I knew with a cat did it. It was rare to find someone with a cat that WASN’T declawed (at least that’s what it seemed like to me). From a human perspective, there are so many pluses to declawing:

  • Furniture is undamaged

  • Humans/other animals are undamaged

  • No nail trimming necessary

  • No need for scratching posts

As the years went on, laser declawing was introduced as a more “humane” alternative and many professionals recommended declawing for cats under 1 year of age because it was “easier on them.” I myself made those recommendations for many years.

In 2017, a study came out that changed everything. It gave statistics on the chances of physical changes like bone fragments being found at the declaw sites, bone regrowth at the declaw sites, as well as arthritic changes in the elbows and shoulders. Because physical and behavioral health are so interconnected, it’s not surprising that cats that experienced this pain/discomfort exhibited inappropriate behaviors like urinating/defecating outside of the litter box and an increased likelihood of biting.

For Emily, the study changed how she helped her cat clients. Whenever she is presented with a declawed cat that is exhibiting problem behaviors, she always refers the client to their vet to rule out the potential for the declaw to be causing pain/discomfort. One case in particular stands out:

Mack was an approximately 11-year-old neutered male four paw declawed cat whose family moved and left him outside. A kind neighbor took him in and attempted to keep him, but he would not urinate in the litter box whatsoever. He was also pretty grumpy. When he arrived at the shelter that Emily worked at, he continued to not use the litter box consistently and was not open to pets or affection. He hissed, growled, and attempted to bite the staff multiple times.

In most shelters, a cat like Mack would not be a candidate for adoption and would likely be euthanized. He was lucky to have landed at a progressive shelter who was willing to do everything they could to help Mack. He went straight to the vet and had blood work checked, urine checked, and x-rays done of his paws, elbows, and back. What was found explained a lot: Mack had bone fragments in the toes of his front paws and arthritis in his elbows. These physical changes on top of being overweight caused Mack a lot of pain and discomfort. Bone fragments in the toes are the equivalent of walking around with rocks in your shoes 24/7! For cats, that can make digging around in the litter box especially painful. When an individual is in pain/discomfort, they are not going to be on their best behavior. They are more likely to lash out and have a “shorter fuse,” which totally matched with Mack’s behavior!

Because bone fragment removal surgery is painful and lengthy, the doctor prescribed a daily pain medication for Mack and put him on a prescription weight loss diet to take the strain off of his elbows and toes. The shelter staff saw a MASSIVE difference in Mack’s behavior! He was affectionate, happy, and used the litter box consistently. He went up for adoption shortly after the changes were put into place and was quickly adopted. His “dad” loved him dearly for the rest of his days.

Stories like Mack stick with us when we work with other cat clients. His pain and discomfort (and even possibly his abandonment) could have been prevented if he was not declawed. We are strong advocates of not declawing and instead encourage clients to provide opportunities for their cats to practice species-typical behaviors (like scratching) by having both vertical and horizontal scratching options available in areas of the house that the cats frequent, trimming nails on a consistent schedule, and in some cases placing rubber caps over the nails to prevent damage to people/animals/furniture.

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