It may be the most contentious issue in veterinary medicine, and also amongst cat lovers: to declaw or not to declaw.
For years now, catfights are breaking out all over the country, which has caused even more acrimony. Though new data might also be a game changer.
It’s an undeniable fact that cats are hardwired to scratch in order communicate. It’s what cats do, from tigers to tabbies.
They leave both visual and aromatic messages (a cat’s paws have scent glands that deposit smell-o-grams, which we can’t read but cats can). They also scratch to remove worn nail sheaths from their claws. And, they scratch because it feels good—it’s an emotional outlet.
Various tools are used by veterinary professionals to declaw, but no matter how you cut it, a declaw (onychetomy) is an amputation. During the surgery, the veterinarian amputates the end section of the last bone which contains the growth plate along the nail.
Declaw is an elective surgery. According to Dr. Ron Gaskin of Shakopee, Minnesota, the idea of declaw surgery was first presented in a letter to the editor in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association back in 1952 by a Chicago veterinarian without first studying short- or long-term effects. It was just an idea. And the timing for that idea couldn’t have been better.
Over time in the U.S., declaw soared in popularity as more cats were now being kept indoors only. Declaw was then (and is still thought by many) as a way to prevent indoor-only cats from damaging the home, therefore preventing relinquishment and unnecessary euthanasias. That is because when cats “act badly,” they’re more likely to be given up.
At first, many veterinarians were called butchers for the techniques used and for the lack of pain medication. Today, proponents profess techniques to be more precise, and pain meds are now routinely administered.
Still, many countries around the world have banned the surgery, including Australia, Belgium, England, Germany, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, and Wales. It’s important to note that in at least some of these nations, cats are indoor-outdoor, and leaving them declawed would leave them defenseless outside. Also, scratching more outside the house, they’re often not as destructive indoors.
In the U.S., declaw was once so routine that is was offered as a “two-fer” with spay or neuter. You might even receive a coupon for a discount.
Several years ago, the American Association of Feline Practitioners took a stand against this practice. However, according to Dr. Jennifer Conrad, who has a special interest in exotic animals, especially large cats, at least some veterinarians do continue to offer “specials” to declaw while cats are under anesthesia for spay/neuter surgery.
The American Veterinary Medical Association declaw position statement suggests client education (on behavior modification) should happen before declaw. Obviously, these veterinarians are not following the profession’s guidelines.
Dr. Bill Folger of Houston, Texas, a feline practitioner and president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics worked on the original AVMA declaw position statement. He does not do declaws himself, but he believes many veterinarians who do declaw surgery truly believe they’re doing the right thing.
“Of course, veterinarians don’t want to damage cats, and want to prevent possible relinquishment when cats or kittens are doing damage,” he says.
The elephant in the declaw surgical suite is money. Conrad says some veterinarians and veterinary practices are paying more attention to their pocketbook than overall cat welfare. Others argue there isn’t evidence to demonstrate declaw is truly detrimental. And they’re right: Several studies demonstrate no physical or behavior detriments to being declawed. And, one argument persisting through the years is that declaw keeps cats in homes of intolerant owners.
In 1999, Conrad, who lives in Santa Monica, California, felt so exasperated by the lack of movement in the profession to stop declaw that she founded the nonprofit called the Paw Project.
“I can assure you that if it was true that declaw kept cats in homes, I wouldn’t be fighting like this,” Conrad says.
And fight she has. The Paw Project has certainly garnered attention, and a loyal and significant entourage of cat-loving followers who have become, frankly, quite militant. Veterinarians who declaw, and even employees at these clinics, have been attacked maliciously on social media by Paw Project followers. Death threats have even reportedly occurred. The American Veterinary Medical Foundation’s benign contest for Veterinarian of the Year was called off a few years ago because of attacks regarding some finalists. In social media, they were called “butchers,” “mutilators,” and worse.
Folger is appalled, “I know it’s an emotional issue but there is never a place for hateful attacks in social medial. I support education of both cat owners and the profession.”
Conrad doesn’t deny that these attacks do occur from supporters of Paw Project. However, she says the The Paw Project actually opposes these fiery responses.
According to the Paw Project Facebook Page, “Occasionally, we will post information about animal hospitals or individuals who promote declawing or, in our opinion, trivialize or misrepresent the effects of declawing. We do this to inform the reader, and these posts are not intended as calls to action. Comments intended to educate are helpful, but attacking businesses, writers, and practitioners is likely to make them defensive and more resistant to change. That is just human nature. Don’t make them the victims by threatening them.”
However, one veterinarian who was attacked says, “It was hell; they know by calling out veterinarians who declaw what their followers will do—it doesn’t matter how they backtrack.”
Having said that, Conrad herself has also been attacked. “I’ve even been called a terrorist, that’s pretty inflammatory language in this day and age,” she says.
While all this fervor continues, Gaskin is working on scientific evidence.
Several studies have shown that declawed cats are no more likely to have behavior problems, specifically to have accidents outside the litter box or to bite. With that said, Gaskin has given more than 18 declawed cats with a history of missing their litter boxes a two-week trial of a pain relief drug (Buprenorphine), and 80 to 90 percent of those receiving the drug begin to use their boxes regularly again.
Even more compelling and, at some level disturbing, Gaskin notes that many declawed cats develop hyperflexion, or club-footedness. A callous on the hyperflexed digit paw pad is very common and is an abnormal condition. He says walking on the amputated toe tips is very painful, and this chronic pain worsens over time. He says the pain is so intense that there’s a relationship between cortisone levels heightened daily due to pain and increased diabetes in these cats, not to mention that they might urinate outside the box, and being in pain may cause changes in personalities so many are likely to bite or hide. With a change of gait, arthritis may be more likely to occur as well.
So far, Gaskin has done 14 flexor-tendonectomy surgeries, what he calls a salvage surgery. Obviously, there’s no way to correct the amputation but he does correct the club-footedness abnormality it created. He states that these declawed cats get relief from their pain.
“Once published, this work will be a game changer,” says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman.
The AVMA did condemn declawing exotic and wild cats in 2012, and there’s clearly a chorus in the profession as well as among cat owners supporting the notion that domestic cats are next.
Still, there are medical doctors who ask patients with illnesses like leukemia and cancers (because drug therapy that suppresses the immune system) to get their cats declawed or lose the cats.
“This is, in my opinion, ignorance,” Dodman says.
Certified cat behavior consultant and Paw Project Advisory Board member Jacqueline Munera says, “The doctors are discounting the good cats are doing for their clients—it’s risk benefit, I believe. But are the doctors considering the benefit?”
Munera, who has worked at shelters, adds, “In my experience most declawed cats that are given up to shelters are suffering with undiagnosed pain, even phantom pain, related to their declawing.”
And increasingly, animal shelters have in their cat adoption contract that declawing is not allowed, though there are limited means to enforce this.
Human amputees report a phenomenon dubbed phantom pain. Of course, no one knows if cats have the same issue.
Dodman, who is also on the Paw Project advisory board, says, “You can only stick your head in the sand so long. You want science—it’s here if you want to see it, and more is on the way. Deny all you want, but defending declaw is getting harder to do.”