There are pros and cons to the surgery being done. The positive effects include stopping the destruction of household property due to scratching and possibly decreasing the risk of cat inflicted injury. However, the possible negative effects of the surgery far outweigh the good. There are many behavior issues that can arise from declawing a cat which include, but are not limited to, litter box issues or avoidance, a higher occurrence of biting and using teeth for destruction or defense, and anti-social seclusion behavior—all of which are top reasons owners surrender cats to animals shelters around the world. In a study published in JAVMA in January of 2001, it was found that 13 out of the 39 cats that underwent onychectomy had at least one behavior problem that began after surgery.
Many veterinarians oppose declawing on the basis of it being a convenience surgery in the same category as devocalization and tail docking. A convenience surgery is a procedure that inhibits an animal’s natural behavior in such a way that the animal becomes less problematic for its owner—in this case, declawing inhibits scratching behaviors so that cats cannot cause any damage to furniture in the house. . These procedures are always done at the expense of the animal. Declawing cats has been outlawed in 25 countries and 8 US cities due to the controversy that surrounds this surgery and the growing opinion that it is unnecessary and inhumane.
It is common knowledge that natural feline behavior includes activities such as scratching and digging. When cats are declawed, it may cause chronic pain issues that lead to the cat not using its paws properly. Even if pain is not involved, the cat is aware that parts of its paws are no longer there, and may react to this weird realization by not using their paws properly and not performing normal behaviors such as scratching and digging. The absence of these behaviors can lead to litter box issues because the cat will either not bury its excrements or stop using the litter box altogether if the litter is irritating to the paws.
Incidence of Surrender of Declawed Cats
As mentioned previously, behavior issues such as litterbox issues are a top reason for owners to surrender cats to shelters. Within the last year at Dane County Humane Society in Madison, WI, it was found that 36.5% of cats that were surrendered for litterbox issues were declawed. At first glance this percentage may not look impressive, however, it has to be compared to the estimate that only 20-25% of cats in the US are declawed. If the argument is to be made that declawing does not cause behavior issues, then the percentage of cats declawed along with the cats surrendered for litterbox issues should be proportionate. One possible conclusion that is easy to surmise is that the additional 11.5-16.5% difference is attributed to the cat being declawed. This percentage is also thought to be lower than the real value because owners are usually afraid of their cat being euthanized in a shelter if it has behavior or litterbox issues in the home, so they will give another reason for surrender such as “allergies” or “moving”. This is then suggestive that the 36.5% should be seen as an underestimation and the true percentage of declawed cats getting surrendered to animal shelters for litterbox issues, or any behavioral problem in general, is much greater.
So what does this mean to local animal shelters when private practice and academic clinics are the places where declawing occurs? Firstly, there is an increased burden on the shelter. When receiving cats that have litterbox issues, behavior modification will be attempted in order to resolve this issue. However, since being in a shelter is an extremely stressful environment for cats to be in, this action is hard to accomplish. Secondly, with an increase in cat intake due to behavior issues of declawed cats, there is a potential for increased euthanasia rates at shelters that either humanely euthanize for time and space or non-resolvable behavior issues.
Nevertheless, there are steps shelters can take in order to hopefully decrease the number of declawed cats coming into shelters in the future.
Counselling pet adopters is a huge targeting point for accomplishing this mission. If adopters understood what the surgery actually entailed and what potential complications could arise, fewer cat owners may choose to declaw their cats. Additionally, shelters need to counsel about the alternatives to declawing such as training the cat to use a scratching post, regularly trimming the cats nails, or using soft paw nail caps. An easy way to bring this into conversation with adopters would be to offer these products along with the adoption fee of the animal, or at least have them available for purchase at the shelter. This way, the client has the product in hand when they leave with their new cat and are more likely to listen to the advice about not declawing their new pet. Thirdly, shelters could take a more drastic step and include in their adoption contract that cats leaving the shelter are not allowed to be declawed. Lastly, it is important for shelter veterinarians to raise awareness in the veterinary community that declawing is having negative medical impacts on the cats entering the shelter. Shelter veterinarians are in the best position to produce change in the views of private practice opinions of declawing. If these veterinarians were aware of the harm they were inflicting on their patients, they would no longer take the surgery as lightly as many veterinarians do.
Overall, it is easy to see why the procedure is surrounded by controversy not only in the veterinary world and the pet owning community, but in animal shelters as well. Humane societies and animal shelters fill many roles in their community from intake of surrendered and stray animals, educating the public about proper pet ownership, but also by forming new human-animal bonds by the many adoptions that occur daily. To ensure that this bond is as strong as possible, shelters should thoroughly discuss alternatives to declawing and methods of redirection with adopters and ensure adopters understand exactly what the declawing surgery entails. Hopefully by doing so, less cats will suffer behavior issues from declawing and, more importantly, shelters will intake fewer cats and have more resources to allocate elsewhere within their shelter.
Attitudes of owners regarding tendonectomy and onychectomy in cats. Seong C. Yeon, James A. Flanders, Janet M. Scarlett, Stacey Ayers, and Katherine A. Houpt
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, January 1, 2001, Vol. 218, No. 1 , Pages 43-47. (doi: 10.2460/javma.2001.218.43)
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