In North America, declawing—known, medically, as onychectomy or partial-digital amputation—came into general practice in feline medicine around the 1970s.1 The procedure was promoted as a way to protect owners’ furniture and carpeting from cat-caused damage. Additionally, it was thought declawing would prevent infection in immunocompromised people and, potentially, prevent shelter relinquishment of pet cats.
Recent studies, however, have demonstrated previous thoughts on the topic are not substantiated by any data. As veterinary patient care and medicine evolve, it is time we update our perspective on the relevant information.
In Canada, onychectomy has been largely banned nationally, with the exception of Ontario. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), along with the majority of provincial veterinary medical associations, have position statements strongly opposing the practice on both ethical and medical grounds.2 This is an important move as we see Canadian medicine progress and move toward congruency with the rest of the world—indeed, the practice no longer exists in more than 30 nations worldwide. The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, ratified by 24 countries, also prohibits the procedure.3
To condense the available information and provide a framework on which we can build a new foundation, what follows are corrections to three significant misconceptions related to declawing, including what the science says, as well as talking points for how veterinary professionals can successfully advocate for their feline patients.
1) Declawing does not prevent shelter relinquishment or surrenders
One common misconception is banning onychectomy will increase rates of pet abandonment. This concern stems, primarily, from veterinary professionals who worry if they do not declaw a feline patient when a client requests, the owner will, in turn, surrender the cat to a shelter. This assumption places a burden on the veterinarian, pressuring them to act on the client’s wishes rather than do what is in the best interest of the patient.
To explore the validity of these concerns, a research team based in British Columbia analyzed data collected from animal shelters in the province over a six-year period—three years before the College of Veterinarians of British Columbia enforced a ban on onychectomy and three years after.
The research study, which looked at data related to 74,587 cats, found:4
- There was no significant difference in surrender for destructive scratching. This was, in actuality, an uncommon reason for pet owners to give up their cats (in the six-year period, only 50 of the nearly 75,000 cats were relinquished with this reason cited).
- There was a decrease in cats entering shelters after the ban was introduced, as well as a decrease in owner-requested euthanasia for their cats.
- Cats, overall, spent less time in shelters, waiting to be adopted, after the ban was enforced.
What this means is claims for declawing for the reason of risk of euthanasia or shelter relinquishment are not substantiated by any data.
“The author team was proud to be able to analyze shelter data to finally help dispel a fear-based myth that has been perpetuated for years to justify a procedure that is known to impact cat welfare,” says the study’s first author, Alexandre Ellis, DVM. “While many shelter professionals have known this for a long time, it was great to have the data to back it up and speak for ourselves and for the cats.”
Indeed, this highlights important information as it relates to the relationship between onychectomy and surrendered cats.
Namely, the top two reasons to relinquish a cat to a shelter are:5
1) Inappropriate elimination
Further, the top two negative behavioural consequences of declawing are:
1) Inappropriate elimination
When the data is considered as such, it suggests the continued declawing of cats has the potential to increase the likelihood of shelter abandonment.
2) Declawing does not protect immunocompromised owners
Many individuals who support onychectomy argue those who are immunocompromised can benefit from having their cat declawed, as this would lessen risk of contracting disease. Given the data, however, this argumentation is misconstrued. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend declawing to protect against cat-scratch disease.6
There is a documented increase in biting behaviour in declawed cats, which can lead to more serious diseases as compared feline scratches.7 One study of cat-inflicted wounds on humans found no evidence of scratches resulting in infection; bite wounds; however, became infected in 20 per cent of cases, with several people requiring hospitalization.8 Infection rates for cat bites can be as high as 50 to 70 per cent.9
Given a high percentage of cat bites cause infection, and declawing increases biting behaviour, it behooves us to use caution when utilizing outdated lines of thinking regarding infection prevention in immunocompromised people. Declawing may, in fact, increase the likelihood of these owners becoming seriously injured.
3) Declawing leads to negative physical, behavioural consequences
It was once believed cats fared well without their last phalanx (i.e. the digit removed during onychectomy). As evaluation techniques improve, however, it is clear declawing results in significant biomechanical and negative behavioural changes in an animal. This includes an increase in the likelihood of both back and premature pain, as well as the potential for regrowth of leftover bone fragments and higher instances of negative behaviour as a result of the procedure.
In a published study of 137 declawed cats, 63 per cent were found to have retained P3 fragments.7 Additionally, when researchers compared the two declawed cohorts (86 declawed cats with retained P3 fragments versus 51 declawed cats without retained P3 fragments), it became apparent the group with retained P3 fragments had higher odds of back pain (3.9 times), inappropriate elimination (9.9 times), biting (5.5 times), aggression (4.7 times), and barbering (4 times).
Further, even when optimal surgical techniques are employed, the likelihood of resulting unwanted behaviour persists. In the same study, the declawed group which did not retain P3 fragments (and, thus, received optimal surgical technique) had higher odds of biting (3.1 times) and inappropriate elimination (3.9 times).
The patients’ best interest
Upon review of the most recent research, it becomes evident onychectomy:
- increases negative feline behaviour (e.g. inappropriate elimination, aggression), making it so pet cats are more likely to be surrendered;
- puts owners at greater risk of being injured; and
- causes unnecessary, life-long pain for cats.
Further, contrary to once-held beliefs, declawing:
- does not increase feline shelter abandonment;
- does not protect immunocompromised people; and
- increases negative outcomes for feline patients.
Given there is no demonstration of a positive or net benefit to patients or clients, it would seem wise to stop the practice of declawing for non-medical reasons. As stewards of animal health, veterinary professionals are trusted to provide pet owners with the most up-to-date and relevant medical knowledge available and to communicate what is in the patients’ best interest.
Sadly, we have a precedent among us, which is based on dated medical knowledge, and we must now face it. The beauty of medicine is its development is founded on updating our knowledge and understanding of the data in front of us. At present, we have a plethora of evidence available to point us in a better direction—it is simply a matter of looking at it.
Alexandra Yaksich, BSc., AHT, wears many hats. She is currently working as a freelance writer, communications consultant, content creator, and relief animal health technician. Follow her on Instagram (@alexandra.yaksich) or connect with her via LinkedIn.
|In January 2021, this article’s author, Alexandra Yaksich, started a petition to change Québec’s Animal Welfare and Safety Act and ban feline onychectomy, canine tail-docking, and other non-essential veterinary procedures. After amassing nearly 22,000 signatures, Yaksich submitted the petition to the National Assembly, which put the provincial ban into motion. Effective Feb. 10, 2024, non-essential cosmetic procedures (including declawing, tail-docking, ear-cropping, and debarking) will be illegal in Québec unless a veterinarian deems them medically necessary.|
1 See, https://www.catwatchnewsletter.com/features/declawing-then-and-now (Accessed 24 October 2022)
2 See, “Partial Digital Amputation (Onychectomy or Declawing) of the Domestic Felid” (CVMA). https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/policy-and-outreach/position-statements/statements/partial-digital-amputation-onychectomy-or-declawing-of-the-domestic-felid (Accessed 24 October 2022)
3 See, “Position Statements Against Declawing.” https://www.spca.com/en/position-statements-against-declawing/#:~:text=The%20Canadian%20Veterinary%20Medical%20Association,pain%20it%20causes%20to%20cats (Accessed 24 October 2022)
4 Ellis A, van Haaften K, Gordon E. Effect of a provincial feline onychectomy ban on cat intake and euthanasia in a British Columbia animal shelter system. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 2021 Sep 13; 24(8): https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1098612X211043820
5 Eagan BH, Gordon W, Fraser D. Reasons for guardian-surrender of cats to animal shelters in British Columbia, Canada. 7th National Animal Welfare Conference, 2020 May 20-21; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HKb9de8Wp4 (Accessed 24 October 2022)
6 See, “Bartonella henselae or cat scratch disease (CSD) FAQs” (CDC). https://www.cdc.gov/bartonella/bartonella-henselae/faq.html (Accessed 24 October 2022)
7 Martell-Moran N, Solano M, Townsend H. Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 2018 Apr; 20(4) 280-288: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28534655
8 Dire DJ. Cat bite wounds: risk factors for infection. Ann Emerg Med 1991 Sep; 20(9) 973-979: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1823783
9 Mitnovetski S, Kimble F. Cat bites of the hand. ANZ Journal of Surgery 74(10) 859-862: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1445-1433.2004.03189