The ugly truth about declawing cats

Experts say declawing your cats really is as cruel as you've heard. Here's why

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 13, 2022 3:37PM (EST)

Sad cat (Getty Images/LeoCH Studio)
Sad cat (Getty Images/LeoCH Studio)

Around 45.3 million American households have cats, attesting to the deep love that Americans have for our feline companions. Yet bringing cats into our homes often means compromises and frustrations, such as scratched-up furniture — or even, for particularly feisty cats, scratches on their humans' bodies, which can cause disease. In searching for a solution to scratching, some cat owners seek out a surgical procedure known as an onychectomy — or declawing their cat. 

While declawing a cat might seem like a routine procedure for a veterinarian, it is not a routine experience for a cat. Unlike trimming one's nails, a cat's claws are embedded deep in the skin; when a cat is declawed, that cat is crippled for life. As one expert put it, the cat is as mangled as a human being would be if someone sadistically chopped off the tops of all their fingers.

"Declawing is actually an amputation of the last bone on each of their toes. It's not simply removing the nail."

"Declawing is actually an amputation of the last bone on each of their toes," explains Alexandra Yaksich, a writer and veterinary technician who helped draft a bill in Québec to ban cat declawing. "It's not simply removing the nail." She notes that if a human underwent an analogous procedure, it would be like having both the last knuckles on their fingers and all of their toes cut off.

"You may still be able to learn how to walk and do things manually, but this would drastically change your quality of life," Yaksich explained. "If you were a piano player, or a runner, you may still be able to live your life and learn how to do activities you enjoy, but you would never reach your potential. You would never be able to fully express yourself." In addition, the cat will experience constant physical awkwardness and even pain both due to their injuries and their body's inability to properly engage in mechanical actions. The only way for a medical professional to declaw a cat, after all, is to permanently maim the animal's paws. 

This is because, even though the term "onychectomy" makes the surgery seem anodyne, there is simply no way to "declaw" a cat with the same casual and harmless attitude that one might use to fill a tooth cavity or lance a boil. By virtue of what the procedure entails, it is inherently destructive.

"Declawing is an invasive surgery — a series of amputations of the last bones of the ten front (and sometimes, also, the eight rear) toes," points out Sam Miller, the media relations manager at Humane Rescue Alliance. Cats are usually declawed with either a surgical scalpel, a guillotine clipper or with laser surgery. "It exposes the animal to the risks of anesthesia, infection, and blood loss as well as chronic pain, nerve damage and lameness." That will be the case even if the procedure is performed competently, which is not always the case.

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In terms of the animal's health, cats are programmed to naturally enjoy using their claws actively and creatively, just as humans are inclined to do things with our hands.

"Scratching is a normal feline behavior," Miller observed. "It removes the dead husks from their claws, marks territory, both visually and with scent glands, and stretches their muscles." Since using their claws is healthy for them, the only remaining arguments for declawing involve the owners' personal preferences — and, as Miller noted, there are plenty of more humane (and cheaper) ways of dealing with annoying cat behavior than declawing.

"For cats who are causing property damage with their scratching, they can seek assistance with behavior modification training, performing regular nail trims, and the use of nail caps that fit over the nails as a humane alternative," Miller pointed out. Even when it comes to ailments like cat scratching disease (which causes a fever and pustules), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discourages declawing as a way to protect your cat, instead urging owners to do things regularly clean their cat and keep it indoors.

"Declawing involves lacerations of the tendon that joins the tip of the fingers to the beginning of the forearm."

Indeed, when a cat is declawed, it will develop a host of lifelong problems that far outweigh whatever disadvantages existed because they have claws. By altering the biomechanics of how they move, the surgeons are taking the fundamental cat-ness away from the cat.

"If anyone has met a cat, you will know how stealthy and slick their movements are," Yaksich explained. "Cats normally walk on the tips of their toes which makes use of many musculature structures to facilitate their movement." When the declawing process is complete, they are left with countless lacerations on the tendons joining the tips of their fingers to their forearms. As a result, the cat will no longer be able to utilize their muscles properly. "The result is a weight transfer from the fingers to the palm."

"Based on the animals observed, declawed cats are up to seven times more likely to have at least one behavioral problem." 

Exacerbating matters, the cats' now-limp finger bones are simply left to dangle, forming scar tissue that further hobbles them. What is left of their fingers are often left immobile, not even able to extend. To compensate, the cats carry their weight on whatever bones remain even though they lack adequate support. The paws become less coordinated and their higher muscle groups are taxed beyond their natural capacity.

"This alone results in a cascade of negative effects, namely, pain, and a change in the way they walk," Yaksich pointed out. "Because they are forced to walk directly on a bone without support, we often see chronic back pain associated with declawing. It is very clear from many studies which show that declawing cats result in physical pain, from back pain to premature osteoarthritis, to pain associated with walking."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, cats who are thereby hobbled by de-clawing often develop personality problems. They are more likely to be aggressive and to refuse to use their letterbox correctly, as doing so is painful to their injured paws. Consequently, declawed cats are more likely to be abandoned at shelters because their owners find it difficult to adjust to their altered behavior. Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), perhaps the world's most famous animal rights group, pointed to a 2017 study in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

"Based on the animals observed, declawed cats are up to seven times more likely to have at least one behavioral problem, including aggression, biting, overgrooming, or eliminating outside the litterbox," Newkirk observed. "It's a double whammy for cats: Not only do they suffer the pain and trauma of declawing, they also often end up homeless—surrendered to a shelter or dumped on the streets—when the same people who had them declawed grow frustrated by the behavioral problems caused by this mutilation."

She added, "Recognizing the cruelty inherent in declawing, nearly two dozen countries—including Australia, England, and Japan—ban or severely restrict it, and it's outlawed in many cities, including Denver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The American Association of Feline Practitioners, which represents 3,800 veterinarians, strongly opposes declawing, and a growing number of veterinarians refuse to do it. It should be banned everywhere."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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