Is It Time to End Cat Declawing??
By Ken Byrer
Recently, Maryland joined New York in outlawing cat declawing, a procedure also known as Onychectomy. In addition to those two States, several localities have also said “no more” to this operation. Should Virginia and Alexandria consider similar laws?
For most our centuries with cats, we wanted them fully armed and operational to eliminate vermin and varmints. A declawed cat made as much sense as a dog that couldn’t bark or herd, or a horse that couldn’t bear a rider or pull a wagon. But when cats moved from mainly coworkers to mainly companions, humans established procedures to reflect that change. Some of these practices, like spaying and neutering, remain valued by experts, while declawing has come to be increasingly seen as harmful.
People only developed declawing sometime around 1948, and possibly as part of dogfighting as much as keeping the family wing chair intact. As spaying and neutering countered natural cat behaviors of yowling and spraying, declawing addressed the natural cat behavior to scratch – now inside, in homes with stuffed sofas and lacquered wooden chair legs. A joke in the declawing ban discussion holds that upholsterers, at least, support cats having claws.
The American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AMVA) brief on declawing thoroughly discusses the issue. The strongest pro-declaw argument holds that human guardians who cannot get their cat’s scratching under control may relinquish them, although a study in British Columbia from 2021 found no significant increase in owners giving up their cats after that province’s ban. Despite its appraisal that the issue needs more hard scientific evidence to reach a definitive conclusion, the AVMA “recommends that the procedure only be performed after exhausting other methods of controlling scratching behavior or if it has been determined that the cat’s claws present a human health risk” and also notes bans in several localities, one State (at the time), and the entire European Union. That said, in testimony to the Maryland General Assembly on its ultimately successful declawing ban, the trade association wrote, “We have grave concerns about legislative and regulatory actions that remove the professional judgment of veterinarians in determining when to perform specific veterinary procedures.”
A local vet contacted for this piece could only think of one instance in her experience where medical need required the declawing procedure. “The one I can think of is the polydactyl cat ([that] had 3 thumbs) where I removed two of the three thumbs on both front feet because they were growing directly into his skin and both front feet were very infected,” she wrote.
All existing bans on declawing include a provision for medical necessity.
While it is difficult to find hard numbers on the rate of declawing surgeries, most sources see the procedure falling out of favor among veterinarians. Danielle Bays of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) told the Washington Post, “While the U.S. veterinary community is increasingly opposed to declawing, we can’t continue to wait for the profession to end declawing on its own.” Its position paper declares the group “opposes declawing except for the rare cases when it is necessary for medical purposes, such as the removal of cancerous nail bed tumors.”
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) concurs. “The ASPCA is strongly opposed to declawing cats for the convenience of their owners or to prevent damage to household property. The only circumstances in which the procedure should be considered are those in which all behavioral and environmental alternatives have been fully explored, have proven to be ineffective, and the cat is at grave risk of euthanasia,” the group says in its position statement.
Pet welfare organizations agree that serious harm results from declawing. The PetMD website says negative results from declawing include the potential for botched surgeries, infection, refusal to use the litter box due to paw sensitivity, paw pain and nerve damage, lameness, back pain caused by changes in how they walk, and behavioral changes. A study from 2017 in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery identified similar issues. The Paw Project declares that declawing fundamentally damages cats, who normally walk on their toes, and compares the result to a human walking with pebbles in their shoes. The group also notes that “claws are the primary defense cats use to protect themselves, so declawed cats will resort to other means of self-protection such as biting when they feel threatened or antagonized.”
The chief means to minimize damaging scratching is to provide plentiful and proper scratching opportunities through scratching posts that meet the cat’s needs, as Catster details. The HSUS offers other tips on cat scratching. They stress keeping cat claws trimmed to minimize damage to household items and providing stable scratching posts and boards around the home. Having both vertical and horizontal posts of different materials provides variety, which owners can further make attractive by adding toys and catnip. To play a little defense, consider covering other areas with two-sided tape to discourage clawing the furniture. If conditions require further steps, ask a veterinarian about soft plastic caps (like Soft Paws®) that are glued to the cat’s nails.
Still, no one can expect perfection from their cat. During discussions on the Maryland law, sponsor Senator Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery County) said, “If people are uncomfortable with sometimes getting scratched or sometimes having the furniture get scratched, they probably shouldn’t adopt the kitty.”
Invented to address human convenience many decades ago, new attitudes reflect human compassion and empathy. The consensus view holds that declawing inflicts permanent physical and behavioral damage to address a problem that training, patience, and common equipment can almost always solve. Virginia and the City of Alexandria should begin the process of ending the practice of declawing for non-medical reasons.
Ken Byrer is a writer living in Alexandria, VA.