Your cat probably likes to scratch, but experts are asking owners to skip declawing procedures and consider options that are less harmful.

By Austin Cannon
August 24, 2020
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Credit: Frank Lodge / Getty

Some facts of life: The sun rises in the east, the sky is blue, and cats scratch. It's normal behavior, but owners might get frustrated if that habit leads to your house looking like the set of the latest Wolverine movie. 

Declawing your cat might seem like the answer, but veterinarians and cat advocates are increasingly urging owners to forgo the surgery and consider other, less invasive options to curtail scratching. 

Plus, in some places around the world—like the state of New York and cities like Los Angeles, Denver, and San Francisco—declawing is banned except under specific circumstances. 

What Declawing Involves

During the standard declawing procedure, known as onychectomy, vets will amputate the last bone on each of the cat’s toes with a scalpel, clippers, or even a laser, according to the Humane Society of the United States. For humans, it would be like a doctor cutting off each finger at the topmost knuckle, the society says.  

The claws grow from the bone, so to prevent the claws from regrowing, the toe’s outmost bone has to be removed, according to the Paw Project, an anti-declawing initiative. 

Brett Kruger, the feline team manager at shelter Indyhumane in Indianapolis, says 20 years ago, declawing was a standard offering from veterinarians along with spaying and neutering. Since then, further research has shown the procedure to be “very detrimental to the cat,” she says. “[There’s] no good way to do a declaw surgery.” 

How common is declawing cats now? That’s unknown. A 2011 Associated Press poll showed that about 55 percent of responding cat owners said it’s OK for cats to be declawed. A 2014 study showed that among cats who visited five North Carolina vet offices and clinics in a 10-week period, nearly 21 percent of the cats had been declawed. The Paw Project estimates between 25–43 percent of cats are declawed in the United States.   

Declawing Effects

Cats who are declawed can be more likely to have behavioral issues, including biting, Kruger says. Physically, they might not walk with a normal gait and lack normal balance after losing the tips of their toes. 

Declawing is a “painful procedure,” the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) writes. Some cats will take several days to recover from the surgery and hesitate to bear weight on their declawed feet. (The AVMA discourages vets from declawing cats.)

The AVMA also asserts that declawed cats can get more stressed when they can’t scratch, though some still repeat the scratching motion. 

Without claws, cats also lose their primary way to defend themselves. According to animal welfare organization American Humane, declawed cats might not be able to fight off outside predators or climb away from danger if they somehow end up outside. 

American Humane and Kruger also say declawed cats are more likely to have issues with using the litter box correctly. 

For humans, the surgery might mean that their property is saved from scratches, and it might also protect cat owners who could suffer health complications from cat scratches, including persons with diabetes, the AVMA says. 

Exceptions to Declawing Bans

In New York, vets can still declaw cats if the surgery is part of an effort to fix a related health issue like a tumor or infection, according to NPR

Some groups have argued the procedure should be allowed as a last resort—if it would keep a cat from being abandoned or euthanized. It’s what the New York State Veterinary Medical Society (NYSVMS) asked for as its state lawmakers considered the declawing ban in 2019.

“Cats that would lose their home if not declawed face a higher risk of euthanasia than if their owner were able to care for them,” the society wrote. “They also exchange a life of comfort and care to potentially spend years in conditions that may be far from ideal for long-term living.” 

NYSVMS wrote further that declawing should be allowed if cat scratching prevents “an above normal health risk” for owners or if the cat’s parents have already made an effort to stop the cat from destroying things with their claws. 

Alternatives to Declawing

There are several ways to cut down on scratching, Kruger says, and you don’t even have to go to the vet to do it. “Scratching is something you should work on in the home,” she says. “(Declawing) just isn’t a necessary procedure.” 

First off, she says a cat scratcher should be one of the essential cat items new owners purchase before bringing their cat home. That gives new cats a designated place to scratch that doesn’t harm any furniture. Try different styles of scratchers to find the one(s) your cat likes best. 

Kruger also recommends fitting nail caps on cats who are prone to scratching. The caps, which will encapsulate a cat’s nail for several weeks before needing to be replaced, can preserve your household items even if your cat still scratches. 

As with nail trimmings, if you give your cat treats while they are being outfitted with nail caps, the process can become a rewarding experience for the cat. If your cat is a kitten, Kruger adds you should make claw trimmings a regular occurrence. Then your cat gets used to it, and you have claws that cats don't feel compelled to scratch as much.

There are also ways to make scratch spots less desirable. American Humane suggests covering the areas with tape, having the adhesive side facing outward. Cats won’t like it and hopefully retire to their scratching toys.