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Cat Claws

Cats use their claws to climb and scratch, to defend themselves, and to hunt. Displaying their claws and scratching objects are also considered by many to be a social behavior of our feline friends. Outdoor cats may scratch trees to mark their territory and to remove frayed or worn outer layers from their claws. Unfortunately, this can pose a problem when indoor cats choose their owners’ furniture or curtains as tree substitutes.

What can you do about your cat’s destructive scratching?

A variety of options are available; however, owners often choose declawing as a means to end destructive scratching in the home. Declawing is controversial, as it provides no health benefit to the cat and is done strictly for human benefit. Opponents say it is unnatural and cruel, and can result in psychological damage to the cat. Proponents say that declawing has no more negative effects than does any other surgical procedure, and that by ridding unwanted behavior, it could increase the chances for a cat to enjoy a safe, permanent indoor home.

Your options

To help caring cat owners decide the best option in their situation, we’ve provided some facts on declawing and on alternative methods that address the problem of destructive scratching by house cats.

Declawing is an irreversible surgical procedure performed by a veterinarian while the cat is under general anesthesia. Hospitalization for one to two days may be required. As the back feet are rarely used for scratching, the front feet are usually the only ones declawed.

A cat’s toe has three bones; the claw grows from the end of the last bone. In declawing, the veterinarian amputates the end section of the last bone, along with the nail. This removes the claw and prevents it from growing back. The toe is then sewn shut with absorbable sutures or closed with surgical skin glue, and each paw is bandaged snugly to control bleeding. Bandages may be removed within one to two days.

Declawed cats require special care immediately after the surgery. Pain medications are often administered for three to five days after surgery. Although difficult to do, owners need to restrict their cat’s activity, especially jumping, for several days. Until healing is complete, the cat should be kept indoors, and shredded newspaper or non-granular litter should be used. Even once the cat has fully recovered, it is wise to restrict him from the outdoors as he really has no adequate means of defense.

Complication rates are very low if the procedure is performed properly. Most cats will walk fairly well within two to three days, although the feet will be tender for about a week or two after surgery. The cat should be seen by a veterinarian if any of these signs occur: swelling, discharge from the toes, loss of appetite or some other change in the cat’s health or behavior. It is normal for a cat to initially limp or favor a paw following surgery. However, make sure to contact the veterinarian if this behavior stops and then resumes again. Additionally, keep aware of bleeding. Although some spotting after surgery may occur and is normal, if bleeding persists, the cat should be rechecked by the doctor.

Laser surgery is another option available for declawing your cat. Surgical lasers have been used for several years at veterinary colleges, but just recently has this technology become an affordable option for veterinary hospitals to offer to clients. A laser declaw surgery requires anesthesia and amputation of the bone and nails (as described above). However, a surgical laser can offer several advantages to a scalpel. As it cuts, the laser automatically seals small blood vessels and nerve endings around the cut, which means less bleeding and less pain. Patients can thus experience a quicker return to their normal activities.

It’s best to declaw cats at a young age, about two to five months old. Younger cats tend to recover more quickly and adapt more easily to the loss of their claws. Many veterinarians discourage declawing in older cats because these felines will often experience prolonged and recurrent pain.

Most declawed cats will resume normal activities, including performing scratching motions. With rear claws intact, cats can still climb small trees, hunt and even defend themselves when necessary.

Flexor tendonectomy is another surgical procedure you may choose. A tendonectomy leaves the claws intact but prevents cats from extending them. The tendon controlling claw extension is cut and a small portion removed while the cat is under general anesthesia. After a tendonectomy, owners must monitor the cat’s toenails and keep them clipped, because the cat’s ability to shed and sharpen the claws is limited.

Regular nail trimming can often diminish the destruction caused by your cat’s scratching. This is a relatively simple task that you can do, but it must be performed properly and routinely. Ask your veterinarian to show you how to trim your cat’s nails.

Nail coverings attach to the claws with a nontoxic adhesive and provide a blunt nail tip so scratching does not cause damage. About once a month, the coverings must be removed, the nails trimmed, and new coverings applied. You can do this yourself, or you can take your cat to your veterinarian to have it done.

Training your cat to scratch only certain objects, such as scratching posts, can often be accomplished. Consult your veterinarian, a pet behaviorist or a good book on cat care and training for more information on how to train your cat to scratch appropriately.

As a cat owner faced with the dilemma of destructive cat scratching, you’re now armed with some basic information on the options available to you. Before making any final decisions, however, you should discuss these options further with your veterinarian.

Copyright © 2009, American Animal Hospital Association

Reprinted with permission from the American Animal Hospital Association.