Pet Points: Declawing of cats a divisive issue

Veterinarians are asked to perform many different services. We occasionally have to take a moral stand. Almost every veterinarian in practice will euthanize a pet. But if the pet is young and healthy, many veterinarians may refuse to perform what we call convenience euthanasia. Likewise, we spay animals, but if the pet is pregnant and very close to full term, we might refuse to perform that service.

The procedure of declawing cats is one that divides the feline lover's community. Some cat lovers and some veterinarians will hiss and spit at the thought of declawing a cat, while others see it as necessary to prevent destruction of property.

In a recent survey of veterinarians published on the Veterinary Information Network, 83 percent of the 2,559 vets who responded said they routinely declaw cats. Of the 17 percent who did not, more that half refused to declaw due to personal beliefs, ethics or clinic policy. Some of the other veterinarians were not in a small animal practice.

One-third of veterinarians would not perform a four-paw declaw. Of those that do all four paws, 29 percent said they would do the declawing in two separate procedures. Removal of the hind claws is rarely needed to stop a cat from scratching furniture.

The survey continues with a discussion of specific details of the procedure. When we declaw a cat the nail, nail bed and a small S-shaped bone are removed. There are many variables when declawing a cat. The type of anesthesia and the way pain is controlled is critical. After removal, some veterinarians will use a skin adhesive while others will suture the incision. A few will not use any skin closure. The time cats are kept in the veterinary facility will also vary.

There are a number of arguments when discussing declawing. Most veterinarians would agree that except for barn cats acting as rodent control, cats should always be indoor pets. Wildlife experts report that an outdoor cat does damage to the local songbird population. However, when cats with claws start to destroy furniture, climb drapes or scratch they are often shown the door to the outside.

It is my understanding that some shelters will not adopt to prospective owners if that cat will be declawed. Even with the possibility of euthanasia, the cats are not adopted. The argument is made that the declawed cat is more likely to have inappropriate urination and then is less adoptable if it is returned to the shelter. I can find no scientific basis to this claim.

Cat owners are advised to provide appropriate scratching posts. At a recent stop at a local pet store, I saw an entire aisle devoted to scratching devices. There are also sprays available to keep cats away from furniture. Feliway spray or catnip can be used to attract cats to an appropriate scratching post.

Veterinarians occasionally get calls from owners of older cats begging for help. Even after providing a variety of scratching posts, their pets destroyed couches. Some were locked up in a third floor, isolated from the family, furniture and drapes.

Over my years in practice, I have seen poorly performed declaws where the incompletely removed nails have started to grow back. Other complications can include infection, bleeding and chronic pain. I have heard horror stories of cats released from the veterinary facility too soon with bandages to be removed by the owner the next day.

The official position of the American Veterinary Medical Association is that "declawing of domestic cats should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively or when its clawing presents a zoonotic risk for its owner(s)."

Veterinarians believe that the procedure causes less pain for kittens than older cats. The procedure performed on 4- to 6-month-old kittens has a significantly decreased pain and complication rate than that of an older cat. Declawing is often done at the time of spaying and neutering, performing both procedures while the cat is under anesthesia.

As veterinarians, we always try to what is right for the pets and animals that we care for. Deciding what is "right" is always the hard part.

Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column returns today after a summer hiatus. It is intended to educate pet owners and consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you'd like addressed in Pet Points, email Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.