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Declawing Cats

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Removing the claws of domestic cats is a procedure banned or considered inhumane in many countries around the world including the UK, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and Poland. It is widely available in the United States and other countries where the degree of public information about the procedure is limited.

Unlike humans, cats walk on their toes. Whereas our weight is spread across the soles of our feet for balance, a cat's weight is exerted upon a very small area. They use their claws to help them keep their balance by stopping their paws sliding and also to exercise and tone the muscles in their back and shoulders. They do this by gripping hold of a solid object and pulling. The entire physiology of the cat has developed to incorporate claws. Removing the claws means the paws meet the ground at an unnatural angle, creating stresses in the muscles and tendons and leading to long-term disability.

A cat's claws form part of the last digit of each toe. It is not possible to remove the claw without amputating the bone, ligaments and tendons. The declawing process thus involves 18 separate amputations. Each amputation is a complex process and the chances of complications are high. Some of the complications include, but are not limited to1:

  • Excruciating pain
  • Postoperative haemorrhage
  • Necrosis of the second phalanx
  • Abcesses
  • Accidental shattering of adjacent bones
  • Abnormal regrowth of nerve endings
  • Damage to the radial nerve
  • Painful regrowth of deformed claws
  • Chronic back and joint pain

While recuperating from the operation, a cat's instincts will influence its behaviour. In the wild, any sign of weakness might invite attack2, so the animal will not display visible signs of pain despite the fact that the severity of the procedure ensures that it will be in considerable discomfort for weeks. During this time it will have to move about on the painful stumps and, if it is an indoors cat, it will have to scratch in a litter box each time it needs to relieve itself.

In fact, the cat is now forced to be a totally indoors pet as exposure to the outside world will be extremely hazardous, even after the wounds have healed. A cat's chief defence when faced with danger is flight. Cats are not particularly fast runners so they rely upon their claws to allow them to climb fences, trees and the like to escape danger. When cornered, they use their claws for defence and can inflict a painful scratch upon an aggressive dog. Without claws, a cat can neither flee nor defend itself.

Declawed cats often develop behavioural problems. The stress of feeling defenceless can cause high blood pressure and heart disease. Traumatised animals will often suffer from depression and develop weight problems. Many will seek security positions on the top of tables or wardrobes - anywhere they can still climb. The whole personality of the cat may change as the animal feels fearful and insecure.

Reasons to Declaw a Cat

It is quite rare to find trees in the home which a cat can use to dig its claws in while exercising, so the animal will use convenient substitutes such as sofas, tables and door frames. They also have glands in the paws which they use to scent favourite spots and they will use the clawing action to spread their scent on carpets and the like. The cat's claws also grow in an unusual way. Unlike fingernails which grow lengthways, the claws are discarded in layers and thus grow in an annular fashion. As the claw becomes worn, the cat will grip surfaces and pull in order to tear the old layer off and reveal the fresh layer beneath. In this way the claws are kept razor-sharp.

This is quite destructive when applied to household furniture. In order to avoid the expense of replacing furniture, some owners will have the cat's claws removed. They may also judge the risk of scratching, particularly to young children, to be high enough to warrant painful surgery. Painful for the cat of course, not the owner.

Alternative Solutions

It is possible to trim the claws, but this is a short-term measure and needs to be repeated at regular intervals. This does little to alleviate the destructiveness of clawing and again renders a cat unable to climb or adequately defend itself as does applying small plastic caps to each claw. The caps stop the cat damaging furniture but also stop it from being able to retract the claws and this in itself can cause discomfort and pain.

The standard solution is to offer the cat an alternative to the furniture. Cat scratching posts are widely available and consist of a sturdy post often covered in rope or sisal to provide an attractive surface for the cat. They can also be covered in catnip to further attract the cat. Home-made versions using the cardboard inner from a carpet and a carpet tile are just as effective. Putting double-sided tape on the corners of furniture also discourages cats from clawing, as they do not like the sticky surface. Training a cat may be a little more time-consuming than training a dog, but it is possible and brings tangible rewards.

If you are in the position where you are seriously considering declawing a cat, consider the alternatives. As we have seen, these include training, trimming and the use of caps and scratch posts. Declawing is irreversible and the animal is crippled both physically and psychologically as a result. There are a great many charities and animal welfare institutions who will help find a new home for your cat if there is no realistic alternative. In the UK these include the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) and Cats Protection. For other areas, check your local phone directory. Organisations such as these may also be caring for declawed cats. Such animals are difficult to rehome as they could have behavioural problems and it is essential that they be kept indoors for their own safety. If you can provide the right kind of home, this may be a far better solution than carrying out unnecessary surgery on a healthy animal.

If you are thinking of getting a cat for the first time, remember that they can be loving, loyal pets which bring comfort to millions of people worldwide. They are also demanding, insolent, obstinate, obstreperous, cantankerous and downright loveable. Like any pet, part of the unwritten contract between the animal and you is that in return for all the qualities you desire of him or her, you undertake to protect and care for him or her.

Cats have claws. If you don't want the claws, you probably shouldn't even consider having a cat.

1Numerous scientific studies have been carried out worldwide on the after-effects of onychectomy.2Desmond Morris, Catwatching, Ebury Press, ISBN-10: 0091812941.

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