The act of scratching is a natural feline behaviour. Not only does It condition the claws to provide defense from attack, but it also acts as both a visual and as a scent marker of territory (Landsberg, 1991). However, excessive scratching on surfaces or objects can become hugely undesirable in the home and many cats run the risk of relinquishment, euthanasia or both if the behaviour continues long-term. One alternative that has garnered popularity in some parts of the world, is a surgical procedure called Onychectomy – also known as ‘declawing’ (AVMA, 2016).
Declawing is usually an elective procedure in which all or a part of a cat’s toe bones and the attached claws are surgically removed (Kogan et al, 2016). As it is a surgical procedure that carries with it several negative welfare impacts and important ethical considerations, the procedure is banned in some countries around the world, and while the UK and most of Europe appear on that list, the USA and Canada do not (Birdsall, 2018). Although the welfare impacts are widely known, and alternative methods are available to those who look, it has been estimated that approximately 24.4% of owned cats in the US are declawed (Kogan et al, 2016) though this statistic varies between reports (Lockhart et al, 2014).
Many view declawing as an act of mutilationas the procedure carries with it not only the risk of surgical complications, but also of short and long-term pain. Declawing is thought to have a painful healing process, though assessment of pain in cats is difficult so there is continued debate regarding the degree of pain experienced, both long and short-term (Merola and Mills, 2016). Additionally, reports of postoperative complications also vary, with one study revealing that only 3% of 76 cats required further medical attention after being declawed (Pollari et al, 1996), while another observed postoperative complications in 50% of 163 cats (Tobias, 1994). But of those reported, issues included haemorrhage, infection, distal limb ischemia, and in some cases temporary paralysis (AVMA, 2016).
Declawing also inhibits the natural feline behaviour of scratching, and with that comes the risk of increased stress and frustration (Atwood-Harvey, 2005). As a result, some cats may display what owners classify as ‘problem behaviours’, such as increased biting and inappropriate toileting (Patronek, 2001). However, there is limited scientific evidence to support or refute this claim as, once again, the results vary significantly from study to study (AVMA, 2016).
Although illegal in the UK, it must be remembered that declawing is legal across much of the world, including Canada and the USA. In the states, the argument for declawing goes as far as to say that, in certain situations “declawing may be justified in order to maintain the cat-human bond” (CFA, 2003). It is understood that without the opportunity to declaw their cats, many owners may decide to relinquish, rehome or even euthanise (Atwood-Harvey, 2005). It could even be argued, in that case, that declawing can save a cat’s life! And of course, this is true, but there are many alternative solutions. The provision of scratching boards and posts, combined with the use of a calming pheromone spray for particularly stressed cats, has been known to decrease inappropriate scratching while also keeping their claws at a suitable length (Swiderski, 2002). Furthermore, the majority of cats living as pets in the USA and Canada are kept exclusively indoors (International Cat Care, 2017). It could be argued that this creates a vicious cycle between declawing and ‘problem behaviour’; Cats become stressed when confined, stress can increase scratching, leading to declawing, which can again lead to a further increase in ‘problem behaviours’.
In summary, declawing is still an issue that is heavily debated among welfare activists, vets and pet owners in the USA and much of the world. However, there is very limited scientific support for or against the use of declawing. Technically, it bears no physical benefit for the cat and could be viewed as a mutilation. However, in some circumstances, it could save the cat, not only from being relinquished to a shelter and undergoing a great deal of stress and psychological upset, but also from being euthanised. Thankfully, the act is illegal in the UK and many owners here understand that with a cat comes claws. This message should continue to be sent to cat owners all over the world, along with the guidance that if the cat cannot go outside, it should receive suitable enrichment within the home allowing it to exhibit natural behaviours such as scratching.
If you live in the USA and want to become an advocate to ban declawing across the whole of the United States, or if like me, you live in a country where declawing is already banned but feel like you need to help the effort, then please follow this link: http://www.pawproject.org/what-you-can-do/
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AVMA. (2016) Welfare implications of declawing of domestic cats. Available at: https://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/LiteratureReviews/Documents/declawing_bgnd.pdf [Accessed 20/2/8].
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