Please see editor’s note at the end of this Q&A.
Q. My cat is driving me crazy with the scratching. She has ruined not just upholstered furniture but also the wooden legs on my piano. Would it really be inhumane to have her declawed? She’s a house cat and doesn’t need her nails to defend herself outside.
Kansas City, Kansas
Dear Ms. Ebbing,
A. This is a vexing one, with no cut-and-dried answer, although in general the veterinary community strongly advocates considering all other options before making the decision to declaw. It’s not surprising. The American Veterinary Medical Association points out in a position paper that declawing via an operation, known as onychectomy, “is an amputation and should be regarded as major surgery that has rare but very real risks of anesthetic complications, blood hemorrhaging, infection, and pain.” The association also points out that scratching is a normal feline behavior, a means for cats to mark their territory both visually and with scent, and is used for claw conditioning (“husk” removal) and stretching activity.
In other words, scratching is a built-in feline behavior. To that end, before discussing declawing with a veterinarian, owners should provide cats with ample acceptable surfaces for scratching — scratching posts, cardboard boxes, lumber or logs, and carpet or fabric remnants affixed to stationary objects. Implements should be tall or long enough to allow full stretching, and firmly anchored to provide necessary resistance to scratching. Cats should also be positively reinforced in the use of these implements. They need to get good feedback from their owners for doing the right thing.
Trimming a cat’s claws every couple of weeks will also help prevent damage to household items not meant for scratch marks.
All of these steps, while they need to be tried, should be weighed against the fact that cats with destructive scratching behavior are more likely to be euthanatized, or more readily relinquished, released, or abandoned, thereby contributing to the homeless cat population.
The bottom line: if you have truly tried everything (including wrapping your piano legs) and are at your wit’s end, talk to your veterinarian about surgical declawing.
Note: For cat owners who are elderly, have diabetes, or a disease that compromises their immune system and truly cannot afford to be scratched and risk infection, declawing may be a medical necessity.
Editor’s note July 2019:
After receiving feedback from some concerned readers, we want to clarify that Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University does not teach declawing procedures to its students and does not perform the procedure in its hospitals. The article was intended to educate our readership about declawing and, because declawing still remains legal in most of the country, mentioned the circumstances under which some owners might consider the procedure after consulting their veterinarian. The article was not intended as an endorsement of declawing. We apologize for the lack of clarity, and we thank those readers who voiced their concerns.