Why you really shouldn’t declaw your cat—and what to do instead


“Declawing” may sound like a relatively benign procedure, like getting your nails trimmed. But declawing a cat so she’ll stop scratching the furniture involves removing the bones at the tip of her toes. The process can result in long-term problems for your feline friend, a new study concludes.

Cats who’ve been declawed are more likely to have a difficult time walking—with the ends of their toes removed, they’re forced to walk on the soft cartilage that was previously a part of their joints. These cats are known to chew at the stubs of their paws, and may suffer from chronic pain. In addition, many owners find that their cats become more aggressive after the surgery.

To study the long-term consequences of declawing, researchers examined 274 cats of various ages, half of whom had been declawed. Studying animals in shelters and others who had been brought in for veterinary appointments, they examined the cats for signs of pain (which, in cats, manifests itself as potty problems, flinching in response to touch, body tension, and excessive licking or chewing of fur, among other things). They also looked at the cats’ medical histories and behavioral reports from their vets and owners.

They found that declawed cats were seven times more likely to pee in inappropriate places, four times more likely to bite people, three times more likely to be aggressive, and three times more likely to overgroom themselves. In addition, the declawed cats were three times more likely to be diagnosed with back pain (possibly because they had to modify their gait due to their missing toe bones) and/or chronic pain in their paws.

Declawed cats may be more likely to urinate on soft surfaces like carpets or clothing because it’s less painful than the gravel in the litterbox. Having no other way to defend themselves, they may resort to biting when in pain, and unfortunately for their humans, bite wounds from a cat may be more likely than scratches to cause infection and hospitalization.

The study would be stronger if the researchers had been able to study the cats before and after the declawing procedure, to work out for certain whether these negative effects were caused by the declawing procedure. However, those studies are more expensive and more difficult.

Lead author Nicole Martell-Moran is a Texas veterinarian and a director at the Paw Project, an organization whose goal is to end cat declawing.

“The result of this research reinforces my opinion that declawed cats with unwanted behaviors may not be ‘bad cats’,” she said in a statement, “they may simply need pain management. We now have scientific evidence that declawing is more detrimental to our feline patients than we originally thought and I hope this study becomes one of many that will lead veterinarians to reconsider declawing cats.”

Try training instead

Declawing is outlawed in many developed countries, but not the U.S. or Canada. However, many American veterinary associations are opposed to declawing, except as a last resort.

Before you resort to declawing your cat, try training her first. Yes indeed, cats can be trained! And it’s not as hard as it sounds. Here are some tips:

  1. Get at least one scratching post (or make your own!). If it’s a vertical scratching post, make sure it’s tall enough that your cat can stretch to use it. And make sure it’s stable.
  2. Position the post near your cat’s favorite sleeping spot, and/or near the furniture she likes to scratch the most.
  3. Cover the post in catnip or toys so that it’s more attractive than the sofa.
  4. Reward the cat with a cheek scritch or a treat every time she uses the post.
  5. Don’t hit her if she scratches the sofa. Just say ‘no’ firmly and relocate her to the appropriate scratching post, and reward her for using that instead.
  6. Talk to your vet if the problem persists.

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