Commentary: AAFPs decision to demonize declaws is bad news for cats

November 18, 2017
Robert Neunzig, DVM, DABVP (canine/feline; emeritus)

Procedure, which can be performed humanely, keeps cats in homes and humans safe from scratch-related risks.

Shutterstock.comI read with disappointment that the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) has taken a harder stance against declawing, as it is sure to result in more cats being relinquished and even euthanized. What is most disturbing is that it is based on a false premise. The AAFP rightfully states that scratching is normal behavior for cats. While that is true, the removal of a cat's claws does not prevent scratching but rather prevents the destruction of a person's property or self with those nails.

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From Facebook

My grandmother had to be on blood thinners and her cat, which she loved dearly, would race around the house and race over her legs and rip her open. In some cases declawing is necessary. Figure out a way to do it easier.

We as a society are not understanding that if done properly at the right age, declawing is not a barbaric procedure. Cats die every single day, and they get dumped because they have clawed up furniture or a small child. Yes, I am very aware that cats without front claws tend to be more mouthy, but again, ignorance is the bigger issue. I don't think older cats should be declawed nor do I believe it's necessary to do all four paws. I do, however, think everyone wants a perfect world, and that is not what we live in.

From dvm360.com

I think the people who set anti-declawing policy need to get out of their offices, go to a local shelter and put in a couple hundred 40-hour days there. Take note of the large number of perfectly good cats that are in line for euthanasia because of “aggression,” “vicious behavior” or “he scratched my baby.” I've been there. I've counted the numbers. I've made the injections. Sorry, guys, but these cats would still be in good homes had they been declawed when they were young. And everyone talks about the wonderful pain medications we have now. Well? Do we? I won't apologize for declawing cats, nor will I stop doing it.

In fact, any veterinarian who has performed declaws routinely for years-or decades, in my case-knows that cats without claws not only still scratch but can also catch mice, rats, chipmunks, squirrels, birds and small reptiles-albeit with a lower success rate, which I suspect these small indigenous wildlife appreciate. Yes, some declawed cats do get outside, but in my experience this has not caused an increased hardship for such cats, even though I do not recommend that declawed cats go outside.

Beyond the false assumption that declaws prevent scratching, I would suggest that much anti-declaw reasoning unfolds as follows: If a cat had a choice it would want to keep its claws. A cat needs its claws to protect itself. Onychectomy is a painful procedure and subject to complications. And cats that are declawed often become biters. Here are my responses to those statements.

Choice: If a cat had a choice it would also want to keep its genitals and breed, want to go outside and hunt, and certainly want to eat meat rather than dry cat food. My point is that we put our pets through a lot of things that if they had a choice they would decline. However, we selectively pick declaws to demonize.

Protection: A cat's claws do not do a great of job protecting the cat from large dogs, coyotes or other large animals, or from automobiles or poisonings. Cats rarely if ever get into fights with wildlife such as raccoons, possums, foxes or skunks. Ironically, a declawed cat that gets in a fight with another cat usually has less severe wounds as it is at a disadvantage so tends to run away rather than stand its ground. Thus the wounds are less severe and usually located on the cat's posterior rather than face, which is safer and easier to treat.

Pain: There is no question that there is some pain associated with a declaw, just as there is with a spay or neuter or any other surgical procedure. This pain is temporary and is easily managed with the proper use of analgesics, just as is true of any procedure that causes a pet pain or discomfort. So why do we selectively pick out declaws to demonize?

Complications: In regard to surgical complications, if we held spays and neuters to the same standards that we do declaws, no one would be performing spays or neuters. Complications do occur with all procedures and, as with spays and neuters, I find that most complications related to declaws are the result of surgical error or poor procedure. We should not demonize a procedure because of a veterinarian's deficiency.

Biting: It has been shown that almost half of cats older than 6 or 7 years of age develop some level of arthritis. So one must ask in regard to cats that start biting that are declawed, is it due to the declaw or to aging and arthritis? After doing thousands of declaws over my 40-year career, I can attest that declaws in no way result in a cat starting to bite.

I am not suggesting here that every cat should be declawed, but rather that it should be determined on a case-by-case basis. I also do not have an argument with veterinarians' ethical obligation to offer cat owners all options to curb inappropriate scratching, including declaws.

What the AAFP fails to recognize is the very important advantages of declawing.

Some cats will just not stop destroying furniture regardless of how many scratching posts are purchased or training efforts are implemented.

As we all know, giving a cat medication is not always easy for pet owners, and a cat without front claws does make that job a bit easier; therefore compliance is better.

Young children, often in spite of a parent's best efforts, will frequently pick up cats in precarious ways. Should the cat become frightened or just aggravated and try to escape, the risk of a facial injury to that child is real. A child should not have to carry a facial scar through life. A declaw eliminates this risk.

We have an aging population as well as a population with many more immunodeficiency diseases. Those citizens who are on blood thinners or are immunocompromised cannot afford to be scratched without the risk of significant deleterious consequences. Again, declawing eliminates this risk.

It has been shown that inside cats in general live much longer and healthier lives than outside cats. So is it not better to declaw and live with a very temporary period of discomfort if that will result many years of high-quality life away from disease and injury? I think the answer is obvious.

During my 40-year practice life I have literally performed 2,000 declaws or more. I have also declawed my own cats-I would not have a cat that was not declawed as I think they make much more desirable pets. So with decades of experience and observation I can safely say I am not aware of a single pet owner who was disappointed after I declawed their cats. In fact, I have probably received as many thank-you's and statements of gratitude from declaws as I have with any other procedure I performed.

In closing, I have no problem with the AAFP's desire to fully inform veterinarians and pet owners about options other than declaws to alleviate destructive and in some cases risky behavior. I would also suggest that the AAFP, rather than running away from declaws, develop standard procedures for the procedure and immediate aftercare when a declaw is performed. I believe this would eliminate or minimize the horror stories we have all heard or read about.

In the end, to demonize a declaw is truly tragic and will surely result in more cats being abandoned and even killed.

Dr. Robert Neunzig graduated from The Ohio State University in 1976 and achieved ABVP canine/feline status in 1983, becoming recertified in 1983 and 2003. He has owned several veterinary practices since 1980, retiring from active practice in 2009. He is currently the medical director of the Gaston County Low Cost Spay/Neuter clinic in Gastonia, North Carolina.