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Declawing has probably become the most controversial of all the elective surgical procedures commonly performed by veterinarians. While it is normal for cats to scratch things (to mark territory as well as to condition their claws) this behavior can destroy the bond between an owner and pet cat. Cats, especially adolescent cats, have a tendency to "play rough," scratching their owners or other pets sometimes violently in play. Claws serve to mark territory and assist in communicating territorial messages to other cats though this behavior can be undesirable when it is directed against furniture. The declaw surgery represents a permanent solution to these problems; however, a number of adverse conditions can result from declawing. Pet owners need to sort out the facts from the rumors surrounding this procedure, as well as try to understand all of the options involved.

More to the point, why do they scratch your prized possessions? Understanding your cat's need to scratch is the key to channeling Kitty's efforts to more acceptable areas.

Scratching is a territorial instinct by which cats place their mark and establish their turf. Through scratching, cats mark their domains with more than just visible signs of claw marks. Cat's paws also have scent glands that leave their own special scent on their territory. And this is why they mark the most visible portions of your house. It's Kitty's way of adding her own personal touch to your (and her) home. Her version of interior decorating.

Scratching also serves to keep your cat in shape. The act of scratching stretches and pulls and works the muscles of a cat's front quarters--a cross between a feline gym workout and Kitty Yoga.

Hey! It feels good to scratch. So give up the idea of reforming Kitty's desire to scratch. Re-channel her into scratching where you want her to. You'll both be happier.

Understanding Declawing (Onychectomy)

The anatomy of the feline claw must be understood before one can appreciate the severity of declawing. The cat's claw is not a nail as is a human fingernail, it is part of the last bone (distal phalanx) in the cat's toe. The cat’s claw arises from the unguicular crest and unguicular process in the distal phalanx of the paw (see diagram). Most of the germinal cells that produce the claw are situated in the dorsal aspect of the ungual crest. This region must be removed completely, or regrowth of a vestigial claw and abcessation results. The only way to be sure all of the germinal cells are removed is to amputate the entire distal phalanx at the joint.

Contrary to most people's understanding, declawing consists of amputating not just the claws, but the whole phalanx (up to the joint), including bones, ligaments, and tendons! To remove the claw, the bone, nerve, joint capsule, collateral ligaments, and the extensor and flexor tendons must all be amputated. Thus declawing is not a “simple”, single surgery but 10 separate, painful amputations of the third phalanx up to the last joint of each toe. A graphic comparison in human terms would be the cutting off of a person's finger at the last joint of each finger. Now think about the way a cat walks on it's toes and then you can understand the type of painful recovery involved for a cat that has been declawed.

Onychectomy in the clinical definition involves either the partial or total amputation of the terminal bone. That is the only method. What differs from vet to vet is the type of cutting tool used (guillotine-type cutter, scalpel or laser).

Below you will find information regarding the different methods for declaw that are available.

This is probably the most common method used by veterinarians to declaw cats as it is associated with the fastest surgical time. It involves the use of a sterile nail trimmer to cut through the bone of the third digit of the toe. The cat loses the part of the bone from which the claw grows. The incision is either sewn closed with suture material or closed with a surgical glue.

This procedure is often referred to as the guillotine method.

  • Two nights in the hospital are required for this procedure (one nioght with bandages on the paws and one night without).
  • Some spotting of blood is normal from the toes during the first few days at home.
  • Shredded paper or pelleted recycled newspaper litter (such as Yeterday’s News®) is recommended for 2 weeks after surgery. Conventional clay or sand litters can impact inside the tiny incisions and cause infections.
  • Pain medication is needed, especially for larger or older cats The amount of weight carried on the feet (the size of the cat) is the biggest factor in postoperative pain. We recommend the use of a Fentanyl patch for post-operative pain control.
  • Occasionally not enough of the third bone is removed and the ungual crest of the nail remains (the area from which the claw grows). If this happens the claw may be able to partially grow back. When this occurs, infection is generally inevitable and the remaining bone must be removed with a second surgery.

This procedure is a bit more difficult to master as it involves the delicate disconnection of all the tiny ligaments holding the third bone in place. The entire third bone is removed in its entirety using a scalpel blade. The incision is either sewn close with suture material or closed with a surgical glue.

  • Because the entire third bone is removed, there is a zero possibility of the claw growing back; however, the cut ligaments allow for a subtle drop in the way the foot is held.  Most owners do not notice this change in posture.
  • Two nights in the hospital are required for this procedure (one night with bandages on the paws and one night without).
  • Some spotting of blood is normal from the toes during the first few days at home.
  • Shredded paper or pelleted recycled newspaper litter (such as Yeterday’s News®) is recommended for 2 weeks after surgery. Conventional clay or sand litters can impact inside the tiny incisions and cause infections.
  • Pain medication is needed, especially for larger or older cats The amount of weight carried on the feet (the size of the cat) is the biggest factor in postoperative pain. We recommend the use of a Fentanyl patch for post-operative pain control.

Recently, the “laser declaw" has received a great deal of attention. In this surgery, a laser rather than a scalpel blade is used to disarticulate the third toe bone. Advantages of laser surgery include virtually no bleeding (during surgery or afterwards), less post-operative pain, and in many cases, no bandages. So what makes this procedure controversial? First, there is the cost of the laser equipment: $20,000 - $40,000. To justify such an expense, the laser must be able to generate substantial revenue for the veterinary hospital. This means that the cost of the laser declaw to the pet owner is likely to exceed the price of the conventional declaw.

Second, the issue of operator experience becomes important. Commercial laser machine companies are marketing heavily to the veterinary profession. These companies present the laser equipment they are trying to sell as being simple to operate, and provide all-day seminars for training. The problem is that a laser is a sophisticated piece of medical equipment and there is a learning curve involved before it can be utilized perfectly. Complications such as the burning of tissue and delayed healing are more likely with a less experienced user. If you are interested in the laser declaw (and the extra expense is not a deterrent), be sure to ask your veterinarian how long they have been performing the laser declaw, how many they have done, and (if possible) visit a recovering patient in the hospital. The bottom line is that the laser declaw has a great deal to offer but at this time may not be the best choice for every patient.

Please remember a declawed cat has lost its ability to defend itself and should not be allowed outdside. The Roslyn Greenvale Veterinary Group feels strongly that declawed cats should be housed indoors only.

Many cat owners struggle with cats who want to scratch the furniture, drapes, and carpeting.  However, before declawing your cat, consider using one or more time-proven techniques to train your kitty to scratch only where you want her to!

First we must understand why cats scratch.  Your cat's DNA is still programmed to catch prey, and scratching also sharpens his claws so that he can "provide for himself."  In doing this, the claw's outer sheath falls away to reveal a new, sharper claw that has grown underneath (much like a snake shedding its skin).

When a cat scratches, he is also marking his home by releasing pheromones (chemicals that trigger responses in other cats) that are stored in his paw pads. Pheromones are undetectable by humans but other felines can tell where your cat's territory is! (Cats also have these glands in their cheeks, which is why they rub anything new or old that they feel belongs to them--including you!)

And sometimes a good scratch just feels good.  

So...because we can't suppress our cats' natural instincts, how can we direct them to scratch in the right place?

Scratching posts are essential to a cat's environment. Even if your cat goes outdoors, he must be provided at minimum with one scratching post inside the house. Preferable is a post in multiple areas of the house, particularly by areas that your cat is prone to scratch. Research shows that cats' favorite scratching materials are sisal rope or matting or cardboard. They actually prefer these types of scratching posts to carpet or furniture because these surfaces mimic the texture of tree bark that would be their natural outdoor choice. Posts made from carpet or fabric are usually not recommended as they may train your cat to scratch similar surfaces.

It is very important to consider putting a bit of extra money into a quality scratching post. Many posts are short and poorly constructed; the sisal is cheaply glued and the posts themselves are made from cardboard or lightweight plastic tubing and easily tip over. In the wild, cats would stretch out to full length to scratch and most scratching posts today are almost 2/3rds too short for this.

Still have problems with scratching?  Before giving up, try flat and angled scratchers as well, and make sure you've given your cat a choice of surfaces (sisal, sisal fabric, cardboard, etc.) to choose from.  Like people, cats are individuals with unique preferences.

  • Remember that an important part of scratching is the cat's desire to mark a territory, so a scratching post should be in an area that's used by the family, not hidden in a back corner. Place the post in a room where the cat spends a lot of time. Cats often like to stretch and scratch when they wake up from a nap.
  • To introduce the post to your cat try using catnip as a lure. (For most cats a lure is unnecessary, but fun.) Rub catnip onto the sisal material and call the cat over to the post.
  • Scratch your nails along the surface of the material. This will attract the cat and at the same time teach him where to scratch. After your cat begins to scratch, praise him and give him a food treat. (Small kittens can be trained to climb the post by showing them food treats and placing it at the top of the post.
  • Have her chase a string or a toy around the post or attach toys to it, which will result in her digging her claws into it. Eventually she will learn to love it and regard it as her own.
  • Security is a major factor in making the post appealing to your cat. If it topples or shakes, she won't use it. It should either be secured to the floor or have a base wide enough and heavy enough to keep it stable.
  • If your cat has already been scratching a piece of furniture, place the post directly in front of it. Temporarily cover the previously scratched areas with a few strips of double-sided carpet tape or clear double-sided tape strips that are designed for this purpose. This will help redirect your cat's scratching activities to the post.
  • Cats have an aversion to citrus odors. Use lemon-scented sprays or a potpourri of lemon and orange peels to make her former scratching sites less agreeable to her.
  • If Kitty still persists in scratching the furniture, try squirting her with a water gun or a spray bottle set on stream. Another option is a loud whistle or other noise-maker. You must employ these deterrents while she is scratching for them to be effective. The point is to establish an aversion to the spot you don't want her to scratch.

Feliway and Comfort Zone are two innovative products that mimics the pheromones that your cat naturally produces when scratching. These sprays (also available in air diffusers) are used both for calming anxious cats and to discourage scratching. When an area is exposed to Feliway/Comfort Zone, the cat considers the area already "marked" and does not feel the need to leave her scent. These products are carried in major pet stores, veterinarian offices, and even large retailer chains like Wal-Mart.  It is safe for people and animals, but should not be sprayed directly on cats!

StickyPaws is an odorless, double-sided tape that cats don't like the feel of under their paws.  It can be used on countertops, furniture, or virtually any other off-limits surface.  It is recommended that tape be replaced every 4-6 weeks or until the unwanted behavior has stopped. StickyPaws retails anywhere from $14 per role or $20 for several sheets.

Clicker Training is a longer-term training tool that can be applied to many behaviors, including scratching.  It is a positive re-enforcement program that focuses on rewarding pleasing behaviors rather than punishing negative ones.  It is widely used on many animals including dogs, cats, horses, dolphins, birds, and even fish, and many books, articles and support groups are available at the following website:


For some cats, simply keeping the nails short is adequate control, but many people do not know how to trim their cat's nails. In fact, the non-pigmented nail of the cat makes it easy to see where not to cut. Here is a video presentation showing exactly what to do:

Nail Trimming Video Demonstration

SoftPaws is the newest alternative to declawing. These soft, flexible vinyl caps are slipped onto your cats claws every 4-6 weeks. They are relatively inexpensive (about $20.00 per pack of 40, which will last 5 applications if only applied to the front paws) and come in a variety of colors, including clear. SoftPaws was developed by a veterinarian and have saved millions of cats from declawing. They are sold in most major pet stores and can also be purchased online. (SoftPaws or SoftClaws). These websites have informative FAQ and Testimonial pages.

SoftPaws Video

Please remember that the Doctors and Staff and Roslyn Greenvale Veterinary Group always recommend trying alternatives to declawing whenever possible. If you have questions regarding the declaw procedures performed at Roslyn Greenvale Veterinary Group please call 516-621-4010 to schedule a consultation with one of our doctors.

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