Let’s start at the beginning: why do people declaw cats? There are three reasons:
1) The cat in question is damaging belongings and furniture with their claws,
2) The owner in question is immunocompromised, and has been advised that the best way to reduce the risk of (in their case) a dangerous situation is to get rid of the claws altogether, and
3) They’re moving and their new landlord will only accept declawed cats.
We talk to people all the time about declawing, and the truth is that there are a lot of folks who’ve just never learned what exactly declawing does, and the lasting effects it can have.
The dirty details
See, declawing isn’t just like trimming nails. It’s a much more involved surgery than that; technically, it’s an amputation of part of the toe. When you frame it that way, it sounds much less appealing, doesn’t it? But it’s the lingering effects that can really be the problem.
See, cats are digitigrade, which means they walk on their toes; their entire musculature is in tune with the way they walk. It’s what makes them capable of such big, graceful leaps. Declawing changes all that, and in fact can lead to back problems because of how it changes the way they walk and how they carry themselves.
Declawing also removes a cat’s primary means of defense. Even if they’re an indoor only cat, if the unthinkable were to happen and they escaped or otherwise found themselves displaced, they’d be unable to defend themselves, and that’s not a situation we ever want to see a cat in.
Cat scratching behavior is perfectly natural; in addition to it being a means of marking something with their scent (they have scent glands in their paw pads!), it allows them to sharpen their claws so that if they need them, they’re ready. It’s also a way for them to relieve stress. It’s easy to redirect scratching behaviors; in fact, we wrote a whole article about it.
Even though there are different types of declaw surgery, none of them are without the risk of bone fragments being left behind, which makes walking painful. Often declawed cats end up with behavioral problems like urinating outside the litterbox; this is because of the pain they’re in. Cats are notoriously good at hiding their pain. In the wild, showing weakness can put a cat in danger among competition for food or mates; this behavior carries over into their much calmer domestic life, so just because a cat isn’t showing very obvious signs of pain doesn’t mean there isn’t something going on.
The legal issue
So why is declawing legal? That’s a great question. It’s illegal in a lot of places: Brazil, most of Canada, Israel, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the UK all have outright bans. In the United States, New York State is the only state with a full ban. Denver, along with several Californian cities, have bans on it. Bans are currently being considered in Michigan and New Jersey as well. But the United States has been slow to adopt the humane position that there’s no real reason to allow this practice to continue. We still have landlords who refuse to rent to people whose cats have claws in this country, which seems especially inhumane to require an extra expense for their tenants that will likely result in even further expense down the road when behavioral or back problems start.
So it’s been up to animal organizations to pick up the slack. VCA hospitals just announced they would no longer do declawing in their clinics in the US (they’d decided to do so in their Canadian hospitals last year), joining Banfield and BluePearl. In addition, the AVMA, the AAHA, the AAFP, and the ASPCA all have position statements against declawing.
Clearly, on the professional level, there’s a consensus: animal welfare has evolved, and we don’t need to do this to cats anymore. So why is it taking so long for us as a nation to reach the same conclusion as so many other places? Is it simply because we Americans are so legislation-averse that we prefer to let cities and states decide on their own, rather than the decision be made from the top-down?
Or is it that we haven’t done a good enough job getting the word out? Position statements are great, but your average pet owner isn’t looking through an organization’s website to find out what they think about declawing; they just know someone whose cat was declawed, and are considering it an option. Or they grew up with declawed cats and never learned any other way. Or they simply don’t understand the damage they’re doing to their furry friend. That’s when it comes down to education. And while organizations are pushing from the top, we’re pushing from the bottom, one client, one cat-owner at a time. We hope to get there soon.