This Vet Says: Please Don’t Ask Me to Declaw Your Cat

Years ago, a veterinarian would be in the minority if she refused to declaw a cat. Now it’s common for a vet to refuse to do the procedure.

Veterinarians hate talking about declawing.

For us, it’s like talking about abortion, religion or politics in a hostile environment. Opinions are strong, and most of us who still perform declaws readily admit that we hate to do them. But our main reason for performing them is to provide great homes for more cats, even if those great homes insist on declawing.

I’ve been in rescue and shelter situations where unwanted cats sit in cages for years or wind up in kill shelters. I would rather perform a few declaws a year and have those kitties in safe homes than think about the alternative. But many other veterinarians, particularly newer grads, simply refuse to do declaws. The procedure is outlawed in the United Kingdom, so many English veterinarians here in the United States think the idea of surgically removing a cats’ toes is absurd and inhumane.

Ten years ago, a small animal veterinarian would probably have been in the minority if he or she refused to declaw cats. Now it is commonplace for a veterinarian to refuse to do the procedure. The same is true for ear cropping and tail docking.

When I began practicing, back in the dark ages, declaw appointments were made routinely like spay, neuter or dental appointments. No questions asked. Spay/declaw and neuter/declaw combinations were commonplace for young cats. Urban practices always did more declaws than suburban/rural practices, and still do since these cats are 100% indoor (we hope).

Now many veterinarians put the client requesting a declaw through a rigorous crash education course on the nature of the surgery, and the pros and cons associated with it, making sure the client knows what declawing means. Here’s what it means:

  • We actually surgically amputate 10 toes.
  • There is always some degree of pain and discomfort despite pain medication.
  • There is a relatively high complication rate as compared with other “routine” procedures.

Finally, we educate the client on trying to retrain the cat to use various types of scratching posts, trimming nails, Soft Paws, etc.

Clients fall into three categories:

  1. Those adamantly against declawing, believing it is cruel (the majority);
  2. Those having second thoughts about declawing but extremely worried about an issue they believe is legitimate (like their furniture or their toddler’s face);
  3. Finally, there are clients who believe a house cat is an acceptable pet only if it doesn’t have its front claws (the minority). Some vets still declaw all four paws. I believe this is wrong. Nobody can make an argument for serious damage done by rear claws.

Public awareness of the controversial nature of declawing has changed dramatically in the past 10 years, all for the better. When we began “counseling” clients who requested a declaw a decade ago, we were usually met with anger and resentment. I’m quite sure I lost a handful of clients because we tried to “talk them out of it.” That’s okay. If they are not willing to discuss important ethical issues with me, they don’t belong at my practice.

Now, for the most part, cat owners either know cats are not routinely declawed or are very receptive to hearing about the pros and cons of the procedure. They are still surprised to learn that many veterinarians refuse to do the procedure. That makes my job easier. They realize that this is a serious matter that deserves a lot of thought.

So You Want to Declaw Your Cat?

Yeah? Let me put you on hold for a moment…

When clients call my office to make an appointment for a declaw, they are told that they will have to speak with a technician first, and a doctor second, before the surgery. Some people are surprised but usually receptive. One of my very knowledgeable and seasoned technicians discusses declawing with the owner, and, happily, many owners change their mind right away. Caveat: It is important to let owners know that we declaw only young cats so, in my practice at least, they cannot come back in a year or two and request a declaw unless there are extreme circumstances.

Declawing is much easier on a young cat than an older or overweight cat. In a young cat (4-5 months), there is much less bleeding and much less pain. The kitten is usually carefully walking around the next morning after surgery, eating and attempting to play. But why have many veterinarians simply decided to stop declawing? Imagine the adorable little kitten sitting in that cage looking at you after its declaw, both feet possibly bandaged up to the elbows, afraid to put either foot on the ground. That is not a good feeling. The veterinarian takes an oath to save animals from suffering. Is that what we just did by declawing that kitten?

So why do it, you ask? Great question. My answer? I do it to save cat lives.

The most compelling reason for declawing is to get more cats in happy homes so we have fewer homeless cats, fewer cats in shelters and fewer cats needlessly euthanized. Plain and simple. Declaw or be homeless. Or dead. Which is better? In the cases where the client is aware of the declaw controversy, is still  set on doing it, but, in my opinion, will be a very good owner, I will do the procedure. Thankfully, I am put in this position only a few times a year. Ironically, most people who insist on a declaw are great owners; they just have a blind spot: They love perfect furniture.

That’s My New Leather Couch!


Clearly, the majority of owners wanting to declaw their cats are worried about damage to their furniture, rugs, woodwork, etc. When it comes right down to it, I don’t have the same value system about my house furnishings, but I can understand it. Many owners adore their cats but also adore their leather chairs, Brazilian floors and oriental rugs. If the cat is going to live in the lap of luxury in an adoring home without claws, I have to say okay.

Many people are willing to learn to clip claws, discuss Soft Paws (although this isn’t for everyone) and experiment with scratching posts. Also, many cats do less damage as they age. Most cats turn happily into couch potatoes after a few years. Damage to surfaces decreases as the cat ages.

Of course, most cats still have that favorite piece of something they claw on until it or the cat is no longer on this earth. Currently, my cat’s favorite claw-thing is a freestanding pine linen closet upstairs that looks naturally… distressed. Actually, so much wood has been scratched from one side, it looks like it might fall over. I love it. So do my cats. My Leaning Tower of Linens. And my living room furniture looks… tired. I keep my lighting low for guests!

If a client is extremely house proud and obsessive about his or her surroundings, none of the behavioral modifications and nail clipping will solve the problem. A veterinarian who refuses to declaw would ultimately have to admit that the people who love their furniture and drapes and rugs so much don’t deserve to have a cat. Maybe this is valid.

Cats With Attitude

Some owners are afraid of cat scratches and believe declawing will fix the problem. Most cats do not scratch their owners. If the cat is aggressive, a cat bite is often a bigger worry than a scratch. Really aggressive cats will use their claws to grab onto your hand, but it’s the bite they inflict while holding your arm that’s the real problem. Many owners eventually let these difficult cats outside to try and defray aggression. If the cat is declawed, letting it out is a real problem for self-defense.

If the owner has a serious medical concern, where a cat scratch poses a health risk to the owner, I will declaw the kitty. This is probably the only time I will make an exception  and declaw an older cat. Say an owner has had a cat for five years but the owner’s diabetes has become severe. A casual cat scratch could cause a life-threatening infection and put the owner in the hospital. In order to keep that cat with the owner, I think declawing is a valid option.

The Complications of Declawing a Cat

Many of us who have performed a lot of declaws do it because our results are excellent. There are many possible complications with a declaw and, if it has to be done, I want it done right, taking the risk that any declaw can still result in a complication.

There are a few different ways to perform a declaw, and now we’ve added laser surgery to the mix. Carefully removing the nail and small bone attached to the nail (P3) is important. If the nail is not removed perfectly, it can grow back in a deformed and painful manner, causing infection and growing through the skin. Removing too much bone, or hurting the pad, also makes for an unhappy result. So it is important to find a veterinarian who is very proficient at declawing and has excellent results.

Even when everything is done perfectly, there can still be complications with healing. Cats may limp after surgery. They may hold up a paw for years. There are very upsetting and misunderstood complications such as neurologic pain, “phantom limb” pain and paralysis. It is thought that declawed cats may suffer from arthritis later in life because their natural gait has been altered. Some cats react to the suture material or glue if it is used. They develop horrible swellings or infections.

Unfortunately, there seem to be more complications with healing now that much more pain control is used! Why is this? The cats feel so good, they start using their feet without enough time to heal. The answer might be more cage rest for the first week, but remember I said we declaw only young cats. I’ve had kitties climbing up the cage door within hours of having their little bandages removed. So I’m happy they’re feeling so good, but worried about their healing! Ugh.

If they’re feeling that rambunctious and happy, I build a little “padded room” for them and always keep every declaw in the hospital for two days post-surgery. I never send them home unless the feet look great. Unfortunately, some cats can develop problems a year or more after the initial surgery. Anyone who chooses to declaw takes the chance of creating a complication. Any owner who chooses to declaw his or her cat should be fully aware of the possibility that the procedure may cause the animal harm.

Wow. What a depressing topic. My hope is that the overwhelming majority of cat owners will put their furniture in perspective and learn how to live with a cat with claws — THE WAY THE CAT WAS BORN! For the exceptions, those people who love their cats but can’t live with any damage to their home, may the declaw surgeries go smoothly and cause the least amount of pain. The mission: more homes for more cats. May they be homes with carefree furniture! Shop at Ikea. It’s disposable furniture!

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

Please share this with your friends below:

Also Popular