Should declawing be banned?

By Terri Perrin

Without a doubt, when it comes to publicly discussing the subject of declawing cats, the claws come out! Here is what you need to know about this controversial surgery.

What is declawing?
Declawing – or onychectomy – is not to be confused with a manicure. It is a surgical procedure done under full anaesthetic and is the amputation of the end bones of the toes, from which claws grows. Considering that cats scratch mostly with their front claws, it is extremely rare for a veterinarian to remove a cat’s back claws. As with any surgery, there are medical risks for the cat, including pain, excessive bleeding, infection, and the risks associated with anaesthesia.

Like people who have lost a limb, it is believed that some cats may experience “phantom” pain in the last section of the toe, even though that section has been removed.

Why would ANYONE do this?
Medically, you may have to remove a claw if the claw is damaged beyond repair or if there is a tumour on the toe. Sometimes, declawing is done to protect people. Individuals with compromised immune systems or the elderly on blood thinners, for example, can’t be exposed to the bacteria on a cat’s claws.

Sometimes, despite every attempt to teach a cat to not scratch the furniture, and failed attempts to use protective nail caps and/or trim the cat’s nails, there comes a time when some people are faced with the difficult choice whether to euthanize their cat, surrender it to an uncertain future at a shelter or rescue or declaw. While there are exceptions, most people who opt for surgery do so reluctantly. Know that this is not a decision that should be reached without careful consideration and consultation with your veterinarian.

I, for example, acquired my mother’s 18-month-old cat in 1997. Dusty’s playful, yet destructive behaviour had made it impossible for my terminally ill Mother to keep her. The cat took great pleasure in clawing and biting at the condensation bubbles in Mom’s oxygen hose. Not a good thing!

Despite many years attempting to train Dusty not to aggressively scratch the furniture and carpets, nothing worked. I did not want to get a divorce over the cat, and I was not willing to sit on stainless steel furniture for what would turn out to be the next 15+ years. After considerable soul searching, I reluctantly opted for surgery. I chose her life over her claws.

As my beloved cat woke up from the operation, I held her in my arms and I wept. I still cry now, as I write this, but years later; I do not regret my decision. Dusty wasn’t enjoying life with everyone in the household screaming at her to “STOP!” Neither were we. Now age 19+, I know that Dusty has had a good, long life. I know that she is loved very, very much. And I know that I am not a “bad” person.

How does it affect the cat?
While it has not been my experience, some cat lovers (including some veterinarians) maintain that a cat may have permanent trouble walking or balancing after a declaw procedure. Or, that a cat’s personality may change when its claws, which are a natural defense, are removed. Some say the cat will resort to biting, rather than scratching.

Humane aspects aside, there is also the concern that if allowed outdoors, a declawed cat will no longer be able to defend himself from other animals or easily climb to safety. This puts him at higher risk for serious injury from other animals. This, we should all agree on.

Should declawing be banned?
In 28 countries around the world, excluding Canada, declawing cats is banned outright. (Unless performed for medical reasons.) While declawing was recently banned in the province of New Brunswick, some veterinarians in other regions still do the procedure.

The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS) is opposed to declawing, as indicated in the following Position Statement: “CFHS opposes the surgical mutilation of animals, except procedures performed by a licensed veterinarian to alleviate suffering, or for reasons of injury or health. The declawing of cats can only be condoned if done after consultation as to other options with a licensed veterinarian in circumstances when the animal would be denied a home or face euthanasia.”

In November 2011, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) also issued a public statement of its view of declawing: “The CVMA strongly discourages onychectomy (declawing) of domestic cats for routine purposes. Surgical amputation of the partial digit prevents cats from expressing normal behaviours and causes pain. Veterinarians should inform clients of the potential negative consequences of declawing and educate them about tools and techniques available to prevent and minimize personal and property damage so that the procedure may be avoided.”

Enid Stiles, DVM, Sherwood Park Animal Hospital, Quebec, has made her position on declawing loud and clear. “When I speak with veterinary colleagues in Europe and Australia, I am simply embarrassed,” says Dr. Stiles. “I live in this wonderful country, where we are often leading the way of research and innovation in animal health and welfare. And yet, we still declaw cats. Twenty-eight countries (and counting) have made declawing illegal and consider it inhumane. I have to ask, why is Canada so far behind?

“I know that my Canadian veterinary colleagues hate to declaw, “ adds Dr. Stiles. “When I ask them why they still do it they answer: ‘I would rather perform the surgery than have another cat abandoned at a shelter’ or ‘I would rather do it myself, so I know it is being done well and with proper pain management.’”

Dr. Stiles goes on to say, “As long as our clients have the option to declaw they will and so will some veterinarians. Some of my friends and family members have cats that are declawed. I don’t believe in it, and they all know that. All I can do is speak the words and promote a change in our behaviour.”

Dr. Stiles says that Canada is unique in that every province has its own veterinary medical association and, if people want to see declawing banned, they will have to lobby provincially. And, she adds, there is no data supporting the claim that there would be more cats abandoned at shelters if declawing were illegal. “In fact,” says Dr. Stiles, “we see fewer abandoned cats in countries where declawing is prohibited. You just have to go to a local cat shelter to see that even declawed cats are abandoned (or get lost).”

The general consensus is that declawing should not be routinely done as a convenience, at the time of spaying or neutering. The decision to declaw should be made only as a last resort, or not at all.

For more information about declawing, visit www.declawing.com, and www.pawproject.org.