Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Declawing Debate

The procedure of declawing cats is one with impassioned views on both sides of the issue, as this article points out (which provides a fairly reasoned synopsis). For those of you unfamiliar with the procedure or the debate, and why it has relevance to all animal-lovers, not just the cat fanciers, here is the low down:

The Procedure:

Feline declawing (scientifically called onychectomy), is the surgical amputation of the tip of each of the cat's toes. Under a surgical level of anesthesia, the veterinarian removes the tip of each digit at the level of the first knuckle. Pain medication is required (oral and/or injectable) at the time of surgery and for several days thereafter. Many vets (including myself) also inject local anesthetic in the paw in specific points that will provide a "nerve block," completely numbing the paw for several hours to help with pain control. This procedure effectively and permanently removes the cat's claws. The red dashed line to the right shows where the amputation is made. The whole bone attached to the claw (marked as "3" on the diagram) is removed. The procedure is acceptable according to the standards of care recognized by the American Veterinariy Medical Association (the largest veterinary organization in North America) as well as all state veterinary boards (as of right now). Several towns in California have banned the procedure citing animal rights/welfare concerns, and there is movement in other communities to do the same. (picture source)

The Pro-Declaw Side:

So, why would someone want to do this to their cat? Several reasons are typically given:

1. To protect themselves and family members (especially children and elderly people with frail skin) from being scratched. Even nice cats with claws will use them in play, and are very likely to leave scratches on people.

2. To protect furniture and drapes. In order to keep their claws healthy, cats will scratch them on a variety of surfaces. The favored surfaces are those that are vertically situated, and provide good resistance. Couch corners are favorites, especially leather ones. (picture source)

3. To keep cats from climbing. Again, this is a protection issue. Some cats that are able will try to climb everything, including drapes, coat racks, even walls.

4. People do not like trimming cat claws. Cats can be difficult for nail trims, especially if you don't have someone around that can effectively hold the reluctant kitty.

The Anti-Declaw Side:

It is fairly obvious why there are people against this procedure. I'll outline them along with the basic reasons why the veterinary boards still allow the procedure:

1. It is disfiguring. There is no doubt...this procedure is an amputation, and any amputation is disfiguring. However, there are several other somewhat similar procedures such as ear cropping and tail docking that are also currently acceptable procedures.

2. It is painful. Again, it is an amputation. We try to control pain during and after the procedure with injectible, oral and local nerve blocks. And, from my perspective, most of the cats (especially if they are less than 9 months of age at the time of the procedure) seem pretty comfortable when they wake up. Most of them are clearly irritated with the bandages, and struggle to move around. Many veterinarians (including myself) work especially hard to persuade people against the procedure in cats that are older than a year old. By that time, their complete musculature and anatomy has grown and developed accustomed to claws, and the procedure is clearly more painful (and somewhat more difficult) in mature cats. (picture source)

3. It makes cats more aggressive. This argument is often made, citing the observation that - removed of their claws and the natural behaviors that accompany the using and maintenance of those claws - makes declawed cats more likely to bite. Subjectively, I would agree with that. I worry about clawed and declawed cats biting me, but declawed cats seem to be more eager to do so. However, objectively, studies have not supported this observation.

4. It is unnecessary. With providing proper scratching posts and keeping the claws trimmed, most of the issues that people are trying to avoid by declawing their cats can be minimized. Cat claws are much easier to trim than dog claws. Besides proper care, people can use a product called Soft Paws which are caps that can be glued onto cat claws.

The Bottom Line:

From my perspective, I am against animal disfigurement. I am an avid opponent of ear cropping and tail docking in dogs (topics that I will cover at another time). My position as a veterinarian means that I need to be an advocate for animals, and to recommend and perform procedures that are in the animal's best interests. So, it would follow that I would also be as vehemently anti-declawing.

However, I am not against declawing.

In a perfect world, we wouldn't need to declaw cats. In a perfect world, there would be no homeless dogs, cats or other domestic animals. In a perfect world, I would have won the family football pool.

However, it is not a perfect world. The plain truth of the matter is that, without the option of having their cat declawed, many people would not own cats. People do not want to be scratched up, especially people who need to be careful to avoid skin infections. People don't want their furniture and fixtures ruined. There would be a lot more homeless cats. (picture source)

When people ask me if they should get their kitten declawed, I always make sure they have all of the information. I am very straight-forward with people and make it clear that, yes, it is an amputation. Yes, it is painful. The way the procedure is done, and the medications that are used help reduce the discomfort. I've done enough of them to be confident in my technique and how I control that pain. I show people how they can trim their kitten's nails, and recommend scratching posts and Soft Paws where appropriate. Some people decide to have their cat declawed, some don't.

Though it is a procedure I don't necessarily like to do, it is one that I will happily do if it means that a cat has a home.

No comments: