New Mexico's Pet Resource WINTER 2003


CAT CHAT

WHY DECLAWING ISN'T THE SOLUTION

by Nancy Marano

Shredded carpets and couches. Drapes in tatters. Claw marks carving extra grooves in your wooden tables and chairs. This destructive behavior causes many cat companions to pack their cat off to the shelter or head to the veterinarian's office to have the cat declawed. Before you take either of these drastic steps, let's examine what's happening. To a cat, scratching is normal, appropriate, and necessary behavior. The trick is getting your cat to perform these normal tasks where you want him to rather than anywhere he chooses.

WHY CATS SCRATCH

A cat's claw is surrounded by a sheath or husk that becomes frayed during your cat's everyday activities. Scratching is a natural way to remove this outer sheath and expose the smooth claw underneath. It is similar to a person filing her fingernails to get rid of jagged edges. Marking territory, both visually and with scent, is another reason to scratch. Other cats see the scratch marks but, just to make sure they understand that this object is already taken, there are glands on a cat's paw that release scent during scratching. These markers say in no uncertain terms, "STAY AWAY." A nice stretch feels good when you wake up, and a cat's scratching and stretching session provides the same pleasure. It also provides necessary exercise to tone his muscles.

WHAT IS DECLAWING?

Look at your hands. Now imagine that each of your fingers ended at the first joint. You wouldn't have tips on any of your fingers. In essence this is what happens when a cat is declawed.

Declawing, or onychectomy, is the surgical removal of the first bone of the toe, and is performed under general anesthesia. After the section of toe is amputated, the skin flap is stitched or glued across the exposed joint, and the feet are wrapped to promote healing. The cat is kept at the veterinary clinic for at least a night or two following the surgery then sent home to heal for the next couple of weeks. Pain medication is given until healing is complete. Some veterinarians now do declaw surgeries using laser technology.

RISKS OF DECLAWING

Most declaw surgeries are successful and cats recover without permanent physical or emotional problems. However, this isn't always the case. Studies show that sometimes the claw isn't totally removed, causing regrowth or disfigurement. Or, there may be infection, making further surgery necessary.

Declawed cats must never go outside. Without claws they have no way to defend themselves, and their ability to escape danger by climbing or leaping is compromised.

ALTERNATIVES TO DECLAWING

Many options are available to correct destructive scratching behavior. Give your cat his own acceptable place to scratch and chances are he will no longer prefer your antique chair.

Scratching post:

A scratching post is the first line of defense. Scratching posts come in many styles, heights and materials. Each cat has his own preference, so you might need to experiment to find the right scratching post or pad. It should be sturdy, tall enough for the cat to stretch, and covered with a tough material like sisal, hemp, or non-loop carpet. Train him to use the scratching post by moving a favorite toy in front of the post until the cat grabs for the toy and sinks his claws into the post. Continue this until he starts using the post on his own. You might even pretend to scratch it yourself to show him how it's done, but remember to get your fingers out of the way in time if he lunges. You also can rub catnip on the post as an enticement. While you're encouraging him to use the post, discourage him from scratching elsewhere by putting aluminum foil, bubble wrap, or a material called Sticky Paws on furniture corners or chair backs.

Trimming Nails:

Keep your cat's nails trimmed. Remove sharp claw tips every week or two to reduce the cat's need to scratch. Ask your veterinarian to show you the proper way to trim a claw. Take off only the tip, and be very careful not to trim the nail too far back or cut into the pink tissue known as the quick. You will be able to see this inside the nail. If you cut it by accident, you will cause the cat pain and the tissue might bleed. Use equipment specifically designed to trim a cat's nails. Never use a regular scissors because it will tear the nail.

Nail Caps:

Commercial products are available that cover the claws and reduce the need to trim them too often. These are put on with non-toxic glue and won't harm the cat if he eats them.

Digital Flexor Tenectomy:

This is a surgical alternative. Rather than the toe bone, a small piece of the tendon that controls the claw is removed, which keeps the cat from extending or retracting his claws. This procedure is less painful for the cat and will heal in about two days, but the nails still need to be trimmed regularly. Veterinarians don't usually recommend this procedure because cats' nails continue to grow and need to be trimmed every 2-4 months. If the person is not vigilant about keeping the nails trimmed, the nails can grow into the paw pads, causing the cat pain. Many people who use this procedure because they believe it is more humane bring the cat back later to have it declawed because they don't want to be bothered with the nail trims or the cat's nails snagging the carpet.

CONTROVERSIAL COSMETIC SURGERY

Cat associations, breeders, humane societies, animal welfare groups, and some veterinarians, do not believe in declawing because it is an elective, cosmetic surgical procedure that does not benefit the cat in any way. Declawing is done only for the owner's convenience. In many countries, including Britain, declawing is illegal or rarely performed.

Unfortunately, too many people declaw their cats without understanding the procedure or trying to train their cat to use appropriate behavior. The argument is made that declawing may allow a cat to remain in his home instead of being sent to the shelter or euthanized for behavior problems. The problem with this argument is that many of these declawed kitties end up at shelters anyway.

This is not a decision to be made lightly. Declawing is permanent and cannot be reversed. Every means to modify undesirable cat behavior, including a decision about whether to give up the cat, should be tried before declawing becomes an option. Remember declawing is always the very last resort never the first choice.

Graphics courtesy of Iams Company, "The Complete Cat Owner's Manual", Susie Page, Broadway Books, 1997, and amby.com/cat_site/catrain.html

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who lives in Albuquerque and is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.


I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul. -Jean Cocteau

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