The New Jersey Assembly just passeed a ban on a onychectomy, a surgical procedure commonly known as declaw. The law now goes to the NJ Senate for passage where its fate lies in question with many experts divided in the merits of the bill. The declaw procedure involves removal of the last segment of the feline digit where the claw emanates from. It is typically performed only on the front paws, rarely on all 4 paws (most veterinarians will not do 4 paw declaws). This prevents cats from damaging furniture, clothing, and other valuable items that some cats will scratch on and potentially damage.
Many people and organizations world wide opposed the procedure deeming it cruel due to the pain of the procedure, some cases where chronic pain lingers for much of the cat’s life, taking away its natural tendencies to use the claws to hunt and climb, or being unable to defend itself if it escapes outside. Other claims are more sensational and not based in the fact, such as declawing cats can lead to permanent nerve damage of the limb, causes aggression and urinary disease, and other tales that have no basis in fact.
Truthfully, veterinarians do not enjoy doing declaws. In fact, most of us really do not care for it and try to educate owners that the majority of cats actually will not ultimately be destructive with their nails and when they are, providing them cat condos to climb on and scratching posts to fulfill any inherent need a minority of cats have to scratch certain surfaces will usually keep them from damaging the home. Thus, we caution to not necessarily preemptively put a cat though the procedure when in most cases, it will not be necessary and only choose onychectomy as a last resort. As a result, throughout my 16 year career as a veterinarian, I have witnessed a sharp decline in the number of declaw procedures done in general practice. In my fairly high volume practice, each doctor may perform 3 declaw procedures at most per year. There are some years when I do not perform any.
One may ask, if vets generally do not like the procedure, why to we do it and why do many of us oppose banning of declaw? The reason is that there are legitimate cases where people’s homes are getting destroyed by a cat and have tried all alternative means to stop them and people resort to making them outdoor cats or giving them up altogether if not declawed. I would sooner see a cat declawed than being relegated to living outside constantly exposed to the elements, wreaking havoc on wildlife populations, and getting injured or killed by cars or predatory wildlife; or being made homeless altogether and turned into a shelter.
Although declaw is not a walk in the park, done correctly with ample pain management and coverage with antibiotics to prevent infection, the procedure is not as barbarous and cruel as some would lead people to believe. “Done correctly” is the key phrase and let’s face it, not all veterinarians are created equal. I would do your research prior to having any veterinarian perform a declaw procedure on your cat.
In my clinic, prior to a declaw procedure, the cat is given an injection of a morphine derivative called buprenorphine which provides extensive pain management for 12 hours. Once under anesthesia, a nerve block is applied to the paws to numb the digits. The combination of opioid pain relief and nerve block significantly reduce post operative pain.
Bear in mind that no bone is cut during a declaw (when done correctly), it is done by cutting the soft tissue ligament that attaches the last segment of the digit that houses the claw. An absorbable suture that will later dissolve after the wound in healed is placed, and once the procedure is complete, soft light pressure bandages are placed that stay on for 24 to 48 hours. Antibiotics are dispensed to prevent infection and the cat is generally hospitalized for two days to ensure good initial healing, control of infection, and management of pain. The cat is maintained on oral buprenorphine every 12 hours for 2 weeks.
I want to be abundantly clear that I understand why people oppose declaw and empathize with them. I personally oppose it for my own cats and I discourage it for my feline patients. However, the issue is not black and white. While I respect the views and intent behind proponents of declaw ban, I fear that a blanket ban will lead to less feline adoptions, cats being let out, and cats being turned into already overcrowded shelters. I would sooner see a cat be provided a loving home indoors and get declawed, than draw a line in the sand and instead with declaw banned and faced with no other options, see cats homeless or euthanized at shelters.
Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and well regarded media personality throughout a number of subjects and platforms. In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport. He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.