BY HEATHER DOWDY
To many Americans, it may come as a surprise that declawing a cat is illegal in countries across the world, where it is recognized as animal cruelty. It may also come as a surprise that it is indeed cruel.
After all, we love our pets. We love our cats. And yet, many Americans continue to subject their feline friends to a barbaric procedure simply because they don't fully understand the procedure and its implications.
On November 28, 2011, Israel’s legislature passed a bill that outlaws the practice of declawing cats--and that imposes a $20,000 fine and up to one year in jail for those who break the law.
While declawing has long been a common practice in the U.S. (according to an article for Time, it is estimated that about 25% of American cats are declawed), the procedure itself is actually quite gruesome, which is why Israel joins countries such as Brazil, England, Italy, Germany and many others in enacting a ban against it.
"Declawing is pretty much an American thing," says Dr. Christianne Schelling, DVM. "It's something people do for their own convenience without realizing what actually happens to their beloved cat. In England declawing is termed 'inhumane' and 'unnecessary mutilation.' I agree."
The Declaw Procedure
Called an onychectomy, declawing involves much more than just removing the claws. In fact, the procedure requires a veterinarian to remove the entire third toe joint--the equivalent of cutting off your fingers, bone and all, at the top knuckle. Because the claw develops from germinal tissue deep within the third phalanx, amputation of the bone is necessary to remove the claw. Phalangectomy--excision of toe bone--would be a more appropriate term than "declawing".
And when you consider that the procedure is an amputation of highly necessary toe bones, you will begin to realize why this mutilation often carries with it a host of problems much larger than the scratched sofa that might have led to the procedure in the first place.
Watch a brief video on the declaw procedure below, courtesy The Paw Project:
Unlike most mammals that walk on the soles of their feet or paws, cats walk on their toes, which bear the weight of their bodies. They rely on the joints of the toes to provide them with balance and agility, as well as the vertical stretching and exercise that keeps them healthy. "Your cat's body is perfectly designed to give it the grace, agility and beauty that is unique to felines. Its claws and toes are an important part of this design," says Dr. Schelling. "Amputating this important part of their anatomy drastically alters the conformation of their feet. The cat is also deprived of its primary means of defense, leaving it prey to predators if it ever escapes to the outdoors."
According to The Paw Project, a nonprofit humane education organization, declawed cats not only lose their natural movements, abilities and defenses after the procedure, but can also experience extreme pain supporting their body weight when standing or walking when the tendon attached to the retained segment of the third phalanx pulls that bit of bone under the foot. The displaced bone fragment produces a painful "pebble-in-the-shoe" sensation when they stand or try to walk.
In a study published in the veterinary journal Vet Surg, between 50 and 80% of cats at a teaching veterinary hospital had one or more medical complications post-surgery. 19.8% developed complications after release. And in a survey published by Vet Forum, 34.8% of 320 veterinarians reported long-term complications from the procedure.
I personally witnessed this after adopting Misty, a longhaired gray cat, from a shelter. Her guardians claimed she'd been a wonderful cat prior to declawing her, but began biting and growling at family members post-surgery. After she bit one of their children, they dumped her at the shelter.
I'll discuss these psychological wounds of declawing next, but for the rest of Misty's life, she walked flat-footed and tenderly as if in constant discomfort. She would cry when she wanted lifted down from a high surface, as jumping down caused her extreme pain in her front feet. This poor, sweet kitty had been mutilated for life, then left at the nearest shelter--left alone to deal with a lifetime of pain she never deserved--likely because her family didn't know any better and had not looked into alternative options.
Of course, as a means of survival, cats are masters at hiding pain, so many times guardians fail to notice the extent of their cat's post-surgery suffering--and they suffer in silence.
Like Misty, following a declaw surgery, many felines exhibit changes in behavior, personality and habits. Kitties who were once lively, playful and social may become shy, withdrawn and depressed. Suddenly robbed of their natural means of self defense, they feel helpless and can become fearful, anxious and even aggressive, often biting as a way to feel safe. Add these psychological scars to the physical trauma, and you may well have one very unhappy and unhealthy cat on your hands.
Many cats will forgo roaming about the house and, like Misty, will live out the rest of their lives hidden in closets or perched atop shelves where they feel safer. Some even develop aversions to the litter box due to associated paw pain, and may urine mark as a means of control in the face of their physical loss.
The Importance of Scratching
"Scratching is important and more complex than you may realize," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a world renowned cat behaviorist based in Murfreesboro, TN and a Nashville Paw contributor.
In her article, "Furniture Scratching", she explains, "You may be under the misconception that scratching is merely kitty’s attempt to sharpen his claws to razor-sharp perfection or that the behavior is based on a willful attempt to get back at you or destroy his surroundings. In truth, scratching serves many purposes. In addition to conditioning the claws, it’s a very effective way for the cat to stretch his back and shoulder muscles. Scratching also serves as a marking behavior for cats. The marks left on an object when the cat rakes his claws vertically create a visual sign for others who pass by."
She adds that scratching is also used as an emotional release or displacement behavior. She says, "When your cat is anxious, happy, excited or frustrated, he can release some of that built-up emotion by scratching."
Humane Alternatives to Declawing
I do understand the hell of uncontrolled cat claws. I used to have a rescued cat named Pierre, who shredded everything from our living room furniture to bedding to drapes. I was desperate for a solution, but knew enough as a former vet tech that declawing was not a humane option.
Trimming Pierre's claws on a weekly basis was somewhat effective but time consuming and stressful for the both of us. Needless to say, I was elated to find two humane and effective solutions.
Soft Paws (pictured below) were designed by Dr. Toby Wexier, DVM and work wonders. These fitted nail coverings slide harmlessly over your cat's claws and remai in place for four to six weeks, allowing the claws to fully extend and retract. They are available in various sizes and colors at all major pet stores and online, and once your kitty is accustomed to wearing them (it can take a few days), he likely won't even notice them anymore.
Another great option is investing in a proper scratching post. "The height of the scratching post should enable the cat to get a full stretch," advises Bennett. "If the post is too small the cat has to hunch over to use it and that doesn’t allow for a good back and neck stretch. If that’s the case, kitty will probably seek out a taller option, and I’ll bet you can figure out what that option will be – your sofa! Make sure the tall post is also very stable. A tall post needs a wide base in order to prevent it from toppling over the first time kitty leans against it."
I was thrilled to find just such a post online, created by Dr. Schelling (mentioned earlier in this article). The Purrfect Post (pictured here) is 31.5 inches tall--tall enough to allow cats to fully stretch their back and shoulder muscles to get a satisfying and healthful scratch. It's also constructed to provide extra stability so it won't topple and frighten or cause injury. Finally, tempting sisal provides a great dig-in scratch, and complements the beautiful wooden bases to match any home decor--bonus!
Of course, even the best post won't attract attention if it's not properly located in your home. "Even a great scratching post will just gather dust if you stick it in some far off location," says Bennett. "When a cat needs to scratch he’ll look for the closest object that meets his needs. Keep the post where kitty likes to spend time." She also advises to have more than one post for multiple cats.
Seeking Humane Legislation in the U.S.
With so many risks involved in cat declawing, and with so many humane options available, it is disturbing to many pet lovers that the United States is far behind the humane curve of the rest of the world. Israel has banned this brutal procedure--will we be next?
That depends on you! If enough of us demand to put an end to this needless and harmful procedure, we can make a change for felines. Our friends at The Paws Project have created this great list of ways you can make your voice heard, so weigh in and help America become the next country to go humane for our feline friends!