Creature Comforts: To declaw or not to declaw

I’ve known Warren since the day he was born. Let’s just say he’s perfectly self-sufficient, but still lives with his mother. Further, although he has a rebellious nature, he happily allows others to continue to support him. He’s always in trouble, but his mother’s always there to give him a thorough tongue-lashing or to lick his wounds, whichever seems appropriate at the time.

While their situation really doesn’t involve me per se, Warren and his mother reside in my parents’ home, and have been taking advantage of them for the past six years.

Despite all the ingratitude and Warren’s careless disregard for their stuff, my parents will never ask them to leave. Being that Warren and Shelley are my parents’ cats, this is not at all weird.

When my parents scheduled Warren for a declaw procedure while he was still pretty small, nobody who knew Warren was surprised or offered a protest on his behalf.

It was abundantly clear that if he was to remain indoors and living with people, things would go a lot better without his menacing claws.

Many people reach a point in their cat ownership in which they are faced with this big decision.

To some, finding drapes or corners of couches shredded and wooden moldings gouged beyond repair is enough to schedule the surgery immediately.

To others, declawing seems a cruel and unusual punishment. For owners of cats that are particularly destructive or aggressive, it is a legitimate and humane option as opposed to sending the cat outdoors permanently or relinquishing it to an animal shelter.

Declawing has been the topic of hot debate for many years, and for a short time, was even made illegal in Hollywood, California, (a ban that has since been revoked).

Why do cats scratch furniture and other stuff? Scratching objects with the claws is a perfectly natural behavior of cats. It is believed to be a marking behavior used by all cats from the small tabby sitting on your couch to the great tigers prowling the jungles.

The marks made by the claws combined with the scent left behind from the cat’s special foot glands helps to stake out territory serve as a warning to other cats.

Much like Zorro, it is a signal: “Fluffy was here, back off!” Clawing objects provides exercise for the feet, keeps the claws sharp and in good condition, and just feels good. Declawed cats still perform this behavior, presumably because they enjoy doing it.

As for aggression, some cats use their claws much more than others when angered, excited (as in play), or frightened, which can have painful or even dangerous consequences for adults, children or other pets.

So, what exactly is declawing, anyway?

Declawing, technically termed onychectomy, is a surgical procedure in which the last portion of a cat’s toe is excised (removed).

The incisions are either sutured or closed with tissue glue, and the feet are typically bandaged. If a laser was used to make the incisions, bandages are usually not necessary. Various forms of pain relief are administered pre-and post-operatively, as it is a painful procedure.

The typical recovery phase for post-declaw procedure lasts approximately 10-14 days.

Our policy has been to send home a bag of recycled newspaper litter in an attempt to avoid complications from clay or clumping litter becoming stuck to the incisions, but shredded newspaper works, too.

Of course, for some patients, changing the cat litter is very upsetting.

If using a different litter causes a cat to stop using its litter box, it is wise to call your veterinarian right away to get advice.

If you are considering the procedure for your cat, here are some things that may help you make the decision:

1. The optimum age for the procedure is from twelve weeks to two years, and the earlier the better.

The catch-22 is that at the age that seems to tolerate the procedure the best, it is often impossible to know for sure if a kitten will develop into a “mad scratcher.”.

Unfortunately, after the anesthesia wears off, older cats tend to be much more painful and can take longer to heal.

This is believed to be mostly related to size and bone development, and the amount of weight the cat carries on the feet. Pain relieving medicines usually help, but do not completely eliminate the post-operative pain in some patients.

2. If the cat will encounter other fully clawed cats in its life, it should not be declawed.

3. Cats can climb or escape danger better with claws. Although they can still climb without them, outdoor cats should not be declawed.

No claws are required for indoor climbing; assuming scaling the curtains is not something necessary for the cat’s survival.

There are instances in which declawing becomes a viable solution to a potentially very serious owner health problem.

I am reminded of my many elderly clients who own cats, and especially those taking coumadin (a blood thinner) who have tissue-paper thin skin and bruise exceedingly easily.

Even innocent play with their cats can lead to serious injuries and infections. Chemotherapy patients, also, have greatly increased risk of infections from even minor cat scratches.

Oh, and hey, those of you who remember the Ted Nugent tune, “Cat Scratch Fever”: Yeah, it’s real. There is an actual disease by that name that is caused by a bacterial organism (Bartonella henselae) that can be present on some cat’s paws.

Receiving a scratch from these cats can cause people to become infected with symptoms usually including a fever, enlarged lymph nodes near the scratched area of the body and a delayed healing of the scratch itself.

While this disease typically is considered self-limiting by most physicians, it becomes a much bigger deal with immuno-suppressed people like the elderly, chemotherapy patients, AIDS patients and young children.

Finally, we are occasionally asked if we declaw rabbits, ferrets and even dogs. The answer is no.

These animals do not have the same type of retractable claws that our feline patients do, and the same procedure performed on, say, a dog, would have debilitating effects.

We do amputate extra toes in dogs, known as dewclaws, which may cause problems to the animal. This is not the same thing as a cat declaw procedure.

Are there alternatives to declawing?

Yes. But, you’ll need to wait two weeks for the next installment of this column, sorry. I know – I hate waiting, too. Rest assured: Declawing and its alternatives do not involve a frying pan – that was Warren’s idea. I said he was rebellious. I didn’t say smart.

Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column prints every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section.

She can be reached at