Scratching with the front paws is a natural and instinctive action for cats, but some people decide to get their cat declawed because of destructive or aggressive behavior. This is a serious decision and should be considered very carefully in consultation with your veterinarian. Declawing should be done between three and six months of age.
Claw Anatomy and Function
Cats instinctively scratch with their front paws to shed worn-out nail coverings and to mark territory. They also use their claws to capture prey. Perhaps most importantly, they use their claws to defend against predators by fighting or fleeing -- such as by climbing up trees. Though scratching behavior can be destructive in a home, it is physically and psychologically important for the cat. A decision to declaw should not be considered lightly, because it is not like trimming nails. Rather, it is surgery performed under general anesthesia that amputates the last joint of each of your cat’s toes.
The Declawing Procedure
Declawing is performed either by severing the foremost joint of each toe with a scalpel or a guillotine clipper, removing the bones and claws and stitching the wounds closed. The amputation may also be performed with a laser, which cuts by vaporizing tissue. Laser surgery wounds are automatically cauterized and do not require stitches. Each technique requires general anesthesia, post-surgical pain management for a significant length of time after the operation and possibly an overnight stay. Most vets will not declaw kittens under three months of age and will only declaw kittens over six months and adult cats for particularly good reasons, such as danger to human health. Responsible vets require a pre-surgery consultation with the owner to discuss possible negative aspects of this decision.
Reasons for Declawing
Possible reasons to declaw a cat include: continued scratching to the point of causing injury to people or other pets despite training efforts; introduction of the cat into a family with other declawed cats; illness in a household member where getting scratched by a cat could be life-threatening; aggressive behavior by a cat in a household with infants or young children; and situations where the owner will relinquish, release or abandon the cat if scratching behavior does not cease.
Arguments Against Declawing
Veterinarians are all too familiar with having to treat severe injuries to a declawed cat who got outside, then had no way to defend herself against a dog or other predator and could not escape up a tree due to lack of claws. If you decide to declaw, it’s best to leave the back claws intact -- most veterinarians will not remove them in any case. Those who oppose declawing also note the severity of the surgery and the risk of serious or fatal anesthesia side effects, infection, complications, lasting pain and permanent disability. Some animal advocates are also concerned that the experience of amputation and permanent inability to engage in natural scratching behavior may psychologically damage cats.
The Experts' Take
People have been routinely having their cats declawed since the 1940s, but by the 1980s, the practice had become controversial. Some people question whether the surgery should ever be performed at all, particularly when only for the owner's convenience. The American Veterinary Medical Association now opposes the declawing of domestic cats except in situations where a cat has proven impossible to train and will otherwise be relinquished by the owner or when a cat's clawing poses a risk to human health through possible disease transmission. It condemns declawing of all wild and exotic cats (which include certain domestic crossbreeds, such as the Bengal) under all circumstances.
Most kittens can be trained not to scratch in inappropriate places. If your cat likes scratching on carpet, try providing a nubby-textured rug or a scratch post covered with carpet. If the cat seems more interested in wood, you can buy or make wooden scratch posts or provide a small log. You can attract your kitten to the preferred area by dangling toys there or sprinkling catnip. When she scratches appropriately, give her a special food treat. Cats learn quickly and tend to be very motivated. Nevertheless, if the cat's behavior is causing a serious problem, it’s better to go ahead with declawing than to take more drastic measures. Most kittens recover quickly and resume jumping and playing non-destructively. According to the AVMA, most declawed cats appear to be just as happy as cats with all claws intact.