When I was in High School (1990), I started working at a small animal practice. I had no previous experience in veterinary medicine other than the few minutes a year when we took our dogs in for check ups or when they were sick. I always knew I wanted to be a veterinarian and that work opportunity allowed me at a very young age to learn what it was really about. Everything I learned was new and, as a young person, everything I was taught I believed to be ok. Having no frame of reference or point for comparison, I accepted that everything we did was what should be done. This included elective procedures, such as declawing and ear cropping. It was the way things were. If you got a cat, you scheduled a declaw. If you got a Doberman or a Boxer or a Pit Bull you got their ear’s cropped. Everyone did it. It just was what you did.
As I went through Vet School, I was surprised to learn that they didn’t teach how to do ear cropping and that declawing was rare in the university setting. I only saw one declaw performed there during my surgery rotations. Still, it didn’t seem to be a matter of ethics or humane treatment. It seemed more of a procedure that was left to the general practitioner to do. I learned to declaw but not to do ear crops. Although I thought that dogs looked better with their ears cropped, I realized that it was because that is what I was used to seeing. That was my visual memory of what the breeds were supposed to look like. Given how I could not see a health benefit to outweigh the pain and risks from the procedure, I never learned to do elective ear crops. The only ear crops I have ever done have been due to health problems (i.e. ear flap masses/tumors or injuries), which are the recommendations of the AVMA (click here for information on the AVMA’s position on ear cropping).
Is there a benefit to declawing?
Compared to ear cropping, declawing was a different story. Although there was no direct health benefit to the cat, the demand for the procedure was immense. Almost every cat presented for spay/neuter procedures was getting declawed as well. And not everyone had experienced the cat being destructive in the home. Declawing was being done before the cat had a chance to do anything. Somewhat of a “guilty” sentence just because they were born cats. Given that the alternative was the owner kicking the cat out of the house or having it done at another facility that may not have been as strict about pain control protocols as I was, I searched for ways to make the procedure as safe and painless as I could. I worked very hard on both technique and pain control and the patients seemed to do great after surgery.
Still, I was not happy with what we were doing to these cats. I invested in a CO2 laser to make the procedure even less painful and recovery faster. With the laser there is less bleeding, less pain, and cats can usually go home the same day. Overall, cats were doing better since there was no need for bandages in many of them and bleeding was minimal if at all present. However, some patients were showing occasional expected complications like infections and long term behavioral problems were still occurring. It was clear that it was not how the procedure was performed but the procedure itself that was the problem.
Scratching is part of a cat’s normal behavior. Eliminating their ability to express this behavior can result in serious behavioral problems, like aggression and inappropriate urinations. A technician at one of the shelters we work with shared with me that most of the cats surrendered for elimination problems are declawed. She said that she has seen cats that were adopted and had no problems, but the new owner had them declawed and the cats were surrendered back to the shelter for urinating outside the box. These are cats that do not thrive in a shelter environment and that are likely to have long term behavioral problems and sadly they are euthanized.
A more disturbing case was from an acquaintance of mine who had his adult cat declawed because of the rules in the apartment he was moving to. Although the cat had never been destructive, the policies stated all cats must be declawed. The cat was declawed with a CO2 laser and given proper pain medications. There were no health complications from the surgery. However, the cat became fearful of the other cats in the house and was in hiding most of the time. Within a month, he started to urinate outside the box. When anxiety medications did not work, the owner tried to rehome the cat, but can you think of anyone who would welcome a cat that will not use the box? The cat ended up being euthanized. A cat who had been a great pet and companion now dead because of an apartment policy created by individuals without the qualifications and knowledge to make such request.
Cases like this are many. However, not everyone euthanizes their cat for urination problems. Most of these cats will eventually end up as outdoor cats. But now we are sending out a cat with no ability to defend himself and decreased ability to climb to escape predators. We have taken care of the urine inside of the house, but we have not done anything for the cat. Yes, he is still alive, but no he is not necessarily better off.
Cat owner education is key!
A few years ago we started to increase our client education efforts against routine declawing. The AVMA guidelines provide great information about the procedure and recommendations for alternatives. Although there were still people asking for declawing, the numbers were decreasing. We then started to evaluate the patients themselves to decrease risk of health and behavioral problems, so we decided against declawing adult cats (cats 8 months or older). We had quite a few angry people complaining about our decision, but most pet owners were understanding and appreciated learning about the procedure and what it could do to their cat.
Soon we had very few individuals asking to declaw cats, and the majority were tiny kittens coming in for spay/neuter. These kittens were not even given a chance. It was clear that the procedure was just for convenience (not having to spend time trimming a cat’s nails) and not to correct a problem the owner’s saw. I could no longer stand to cause pain and possible long term behavioral and health problems for no good reason other than convenience, so I decided to stop elective declawing. I was a little concerned of how people would react, but I don’t feel that it has affected our practice. Our staff does a good job at explaining to owners why we don’t do it and discusses how, if they choose to have it done at another facility, they need to ensure proper pain management is being used.
Declawing is not just cutting off a nail permanently. It is the amputation of the bone that holds the nail. It can result in long term discomfort. The cat’s inability to express itself can lead to serious behavioral problems, and an escape artist or outdoor/indoor cat can suffer serious injuries if declawed. Having a scratching post and trimming your cat’s nails regularly is the best way to protect the home and the cat. We love our cats. Not doing something out of convenience that can harm them physically and emotionally is a great way to show that love.
For cat owner information about declawing from the AVMA, check out their informational flyer at avma.com.
If you would like to submit a topic or specific question you would like for Dr. G to address in this blog, let us know by sending an email with Rascal’s Corner in the subject line.
Email to askDrG@generationwags.com
To view all posts in Rascal’s Corner click here!