This entry was posted on Friday, March 23rd, 2012 at 11:06 am and is filed under Cat Scratching, Declawing, Pro-Claw. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
It’s important to us that we provide you with information that will help you make the best decisions in the care of your feline family members. That’s why we’re happy to provide an article by L. Kathleen Hickman, a former Veterinary Technician, who offers an inside look at declawing, what you can do to support your cat, and why it’s critical for their care and well-being.
I’ll admit I have strong feelings about feline declawing. Many people do, whether for or against; it’s an issue that’s becoming more and more controversial among many members of the cat-owning public. Others remain on the fence, unsure who and what to believe in regard to this procedure (which is also known as onychectomy or phalangectomy). If you are a person who happens to be contemplating declawing your cat and you research the subject online, it can sometimes seem as if you have landed on a battlefield, with the veterinary community telling you that most cats recover just fine from a declaw, and a growing number of animal welfare activists seeming to say that every declawed cat is condemned to a life of suffering. In my experience of working in the veterinary field for 7 years (including 2 years as a technician assisting with surgery and patient aftercare at a state-of-the-art, feline-exclusive hospital), the truth of the matter, as with most controversial issues, probably falls somewhere in between, but the risk of a life lived in chronic pain from this procedure is real and significant (see ”Physical Consequences of Declawing” by Dr. Jean Hofve at http://www.littlebigcat.com/health/physical-consequences-of-declawing/ ), and is only one of the potential negative effects of a surgery which is, in my opinion, never justified.
I have seen some cats’ lives unquestionably ruined by this procedure, and I have seen some declawed cats that appear to be happy and well adjusted, but with cats, appearances can often be deceiving. Because they are small animals that would be prey for many others in the state of nature, cats often hide their symptoms when they are sick or in pain, and it’s this stoic nature that ironically can work against them in their status as companion animals. (Dogs, on the other hand, do not share this stoicism, and this is why declawing is generally only performed on cats, despite the fact that a dog’s claws can also scratch people and damage property. Vet students are told in school that declawing is too painful to subject a dog to, but the fact that it is notoriously difficult to determine the actual level of pain a cat may be feeling seems to make them fair game for the procedure.) Results of a number of studies done on the effects of declawing (http://www.littlebigcat.com/declawing/studies-pertaining-to-declawing-onychectomy/) are not agreed upon by everyone in the veterinary community. However, is a procedure that only ruins SOME patients’ lives one that should be as commonplace as declawing? Surgery and medicine are not perfect sciences, and every patient is an individual with a unique recovery from surgery based on a variety of circumstances, whether that patient is a human or non-human animal. Not all will do well, not all will do poorly, and individual outcomes can never be predicted with certainty. With that being said, declawing is far from being as harmless as the American veterinary community continues to claim that it is (vets in a number of other countries around the world have refused to perform declaws and have supported bans on the procedure, citing it as animal cruelty), and there is a serious failure on the part of the American veterinary profession to ensure that every person seeking a declaw is provided with all the facts necessary for informed consent to an elective surgery. This is inexcusable in my opinion, and represents a widespread breach of ethics amongst veterinary professionals. It has created a vicious circle: the demand for declawing in North America (as opposed to many other parts of the world) is such that many vets, despite their personal views, feel they “have” to offer it in order to keep cats from being dumped at shelters or on the street, but the very fact that they offer the procedure is a tacit endorsement of it as an acceptable thing to do, and even vets who have personal feelings to the contrary will often portray declawing as being beyond reproach “the way we do it” in order to protect their professional integrity, as well as to protect their clients from feeling guilty over their decision.
So we have veterinarians telling people it’s all right to declaw because they assume people want it done (and further assume that people will abandon their cats to die if there is any obstacle whatsoever to having it done), but it’s my belief that the majority of people who want their cats declawed want it precisely BECAUSE their vets tell them it’s all right and because they are not given all the facts. (For an in-depth look at how veterinary professionals rationalize the procedure and severely limit the information given to clients, see “Death or Declaw: Dealing With Moral Ambiguity In A Veterinary Hospital” by Dana Atwood-Harvey, PhD. at http://www.animalsandsociety.org/assets/library/567_s1343.pdf ).
At the same time, veterinarians are the very people with the greatest opportunity to reduce or eliminate the demand for declawing through education, yet more often than not, they fail to take that opportunity, thus helping to perpetuate the demand. To illustrate: I am against declawing today, but this was not always the case. There was a time, before I began my career as a veterinary assistant and before I acquired my first cat, when I believed (as I think most laypeople do) that veterinarians would not perform this procedure if it was harmful to cats, and I thought that if I ever did get a cat, I would probably elect to have him or her declawed. Since that time, I have worked at three different veterinary hospitals in two different states, and my position on declawing has been completely reversed by all that I’ve seen and learned.
The first vet I worked for would not perform declaw operations, stating unequivocally to her staff and her clients alike that the procedure was inhumane and unnecessary, given the number of alternative means for coping with the normal and natural scratching behavior of cats. (I will list some of these at the end of this article.) I knew next to nothing about the procedure at this time- only that it was the surgical removal of a cat’s claws by a veterinarian. I never thought about what that might actually entail or how it might be done. At this hospital, however, I was told for the first time that the declaw procedure actually involves the amputation of the tips of every digit on the paws, since the claw basically grows right from the bone, and that many cats have very difficult recoveries. I was also told by other staff members at the time that this hospital was rare in having a “no-declaw” policy, though I wouldn’t realize for several years exactly how rare. They did offer an alternative procedure called a tendonectomy, which is another controversial procedure which involves severing the tendons in a cat’s paw so that it cannot extend its claws or use them in any way. The head vet did not entirely approve of this procedure either and would not perform it on a cat without a mandatory consultation appointment with the client first, wherein they would discuss behavior modification techniques, techniques for trimming the claws at home, and other methods of dealing with destructive or aggressive behavior. The tendonectomy was done only as a last resort when the client had satisfied the vet that all the other strategies for coping with the cat’s claws had been attempted. Tendonectomies carry their own risks and side effects, one of which is that the claws still need routine trimming or else they will grow into the paw pads and cause pain and infections because the cat cannot wear them down through normal use, and as a result this surgery is believed by some to be no more humane than declawing (myself now included- it’s far more humane to simply trim the claws and skip the surgery.) But because it was not orthopedic surgery, it was my employer’s professional opinion that it was a more humane alternative than a declaw. The emphasis here is my employer’s; orthopedic surgery such as a declaw, she said, is recognized in medicine to be the most painful kind a patient (human or animal) can undergo. Cutting through weight-bearing joints cannot be compared to a soft-tissue incision, and this is why declawing cannot be compared with other elective veterinary surgeries such as spaying and neutering, which my employer strongly advocated for all companion animals. (Spaying and neutering also carry genuine medical benefit to the animal because they significantly reduce the risk of reproductive cancers, infections such as pyometra, and fight wounds associated with the mating season in males. Declawing carries no such medical benefit to the patient.)
Hearing this was enough for me; I knew from that point on that I could never have any cat of my own declawed- especially since I now had a kitten and was learning just how effective a simple nail trim is in eliminating injuries or property damage from cat claws- nor could I in good conscience ever recommend it to anyone else. Her statement would be confirmed for me at a conference of the American Association of Feline Practitioners which I attended as a technician years later in 2003. That was where I learned that an onychectomy is often used as the standard of efficacy for pain medication in veterinary medicine. (In other words, it’s believed that if a drug can manage the pain associated with a declaw, it can handle anything. One drug that is commonly used, fentanyl, is such a strong narcotic that in human medicine, it is typically only given to the terminally ill. THAT is how painful a declaw is, and this is recognized and taught within the veterinary community, but it is something that most vets will never tell a client seeking a declaw at their clinic. Furthermore, there exists in veterinary medicine no standard protocol for the type or amount of pain medication administered to patients- there are only recommendations, which individual practices can follow or disregard at will. At many clinics that perform declaws, in fact, pain medication is optional for the client based on how much they wish to pay.)
When this vet retired and sold her clinic, I went looking for another animal hospital in my area with a similar policy against declawing, and began to understand then just how few and far between such veterinary practices are. I eventually resigned myself to the fact that if I wanted to continue working in the veterinary field, I would be forced to work for a vet that declawed. For years I wrestled with my conscience, trying to balance the good that is done for animals in the veterinary field against what I saw-and still see- as the hypocritical aberration of declawing. I could not understand why declawing was apparently so widely endorsed by the veterinary community if there was any evidence at ALL that declawing could lead to long-term changes in the musculoskeletal system resulting in chronic pain. Even leaving that aside, the short-term recovery was often so bloody and traumatic that I had nightmares in which I relived having to struggle with hysterical cats to clean them up and rebandage their paws on the mornings following declaws. Most declaw patients are kept in the hospital at least one night, with some hospitals keeping them up to two or three days, and it is not at all uncommon during the first night for cats to pull off the pressure bandages intended to prevent hemmoraging, as few vet hospitals have staff on the premises to monitor patients 24 hours a day. The result is not pretty. The “slaughterhouse effect”, as I came to think of it, doesn’t happen all the time or with every declaw procedure, but I saw it happen often enough, and at enough different hospitals, to convince me that it pointed to the nature of the procedure itself rather than the standard of care at any one hospital. And every time it did happen, the cat’s owner was still told when they came to pick their pet up that he or she “did fine”. It seemed the very antithesis of what we were all supposedly there to do, and indeed, just as in human medicine, a key component of the Veterinarian’s Oath is to do no harm. I got in trouble at more than one job on more than one occasion for attempting to provide the same information to clients about declawing that I would want to have myself if I were considering the procedure for my own cat, because I remembered what it was like when I didn’t know anything about it. I was told at one job, for example, that it was “not (my) place, but the doctor’s” to discuss declawing with clients, yet I could see no evidence that the doctors were in fact actually discussing it with the vast majority of clients that scheduled their cats for the surgery. I tried talking to the doctors themselves many times over the years about the need to provide more thorough client education, always to no avail. Meanwhile, I often witnessed declawed cats being brought back into the hospital(s) multiple times for various complications following the surgery. (In the most memorable case, the cat developed an infection which rapidly spread through the remaining bones of the paw, necessitating an amputation of the entire paw at the wrist. Though they are not always this severe, infections post-declaw are extremely common, because there is simply no way to keep the amputated stumps as clean as such wounds should be kept during the healing period.) In the end, I could not continue to stay silent on the issue, and since leaving my last veterinary assistant job, I feel that I am able to do more good for cats by being free to tell the truth about my experiences than I ever could have by continuing to keep my head down and to do as I was told. I refuse to work for another vet who declaws cats ever again.
Why does the Veterinary Community support or endorse declawing?
I do believe a large part of the reason the veterinary community supports and endorses declawing is financial in nature. It is far less time consuming and far more lucrative to simply schedule an elective surgery with no questions asked than it is to provide pet owners with a thorough education about the procedure, which more often than not results in minds being changed about scheduling that surgery. The reality is that veterinary hospitals are also businesses, but when veterinarians place the needs of running a business before informed consent for pet owners, they fail in their sworn duty to both their animal patients and their human clients. Furthermore, they also fail in this duty when, financial motives aside, they take the position that declawing is a “lifesaving” procedure and that they are helpless to change the societal (as opposed to medical) factors that make that so. If, as professionals who have sworn to “relieve and prevent animal suffering”, they perceive that an indisputably painful surgical procedure is necessary to keep cats in homes, then it should be a professional priority to address this as a legitimate and significant threat to the well-being of the domestic cat, and veterinarians nationwide should launch an education campaign every bit as aggressive as those designed to get their clients using heartworm-prevention medications, for example, or having their pets’ teeth cleaned. But we do not see this happening, except for a very small percentage of vets who are willing to break ranks with the majority of their colleages. (And incidentally, many animal shelter workers are now going on record about the numbers of declawed cats they see relinquished by their owners, such as in ”Declawing As Seen By A Shelter Volunteer” at http://cats.about.com/od/declawing/a/ucfeature7.htm, which calls into question the assertion by the veterinary industry that the procedure keeps cats in homes. Shelter workers observe that declawed cats are usually relinquished for behavior problems such as biting or failing to use the litterbox, whereas cats with claws are usually relinquished for other reasons, such as “moving and can’t take him with us.” The American Veterinary Medical Association claims there is not enough scientific evidence that declawing is linked to biting and litterbox avoidance, despite the fact that a number of studies [http://www.littlebigcat.com/declawing/studies-pertaining-to-declawing-onychectomy/ ] have shown this to be the case.)
What to do if you’re worried about cat scratching…
If you are worried about your cat scratching you, your child, other pets, or your furniture, all that is really necessary to eliminate these possibilities is a regimen of regular trimming of the claws. Once a month is usually sufficient, but it can be done more often if deemed necessary; cat claws can be kept trimmed so short and blunt as to be virtually incapable of causing damage. If you have never attempted this before, there is an excellent article with photos at http://www.cat-world.com.au/how-to-trim-your-cats-claws, and a YouTube video presented by a certified veterinary technician at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGba7Cnrzfs . Your vet’s office can also trim the nails for you if you are unable to do it yourself. While I believe this is the most effective means of coping with cat claws, there are numerous other humane alternatives, such as “Soft Paws”, which are plastic nail caps that can be glued over the claws, (demonstration video by Dr. Christianne Schelling at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjVjsmTOOUo ) and ”Sticky Paws”, which are materials similar to double-sided tape that can be safely applied to (and later removed from) furniture to discourage cats from scratching there. Another technique is to fasten aluminum foil over targeted areas of furniture. Cats dislike the feeling of these materials on their paws, and it’s usually only necessary to use them temporarily until the scratching behavior has been redirected to an acceptable surface. A decorative throw blanket can also protect furniture, because it interferes with the cat’s ability to get a good purchase on the upholstery with the claws, and again the cat learns that this surface is unsatisfying. Scent deterrents to scratching can also be effective. There are commercial repellent sprays available that can be used to discourage a cat from scratching or even approaching a particular area. Citrus scents can be particularly effective for this.
As important as it is to make the furniture undesirable to your cat, it is perhaps even more important to supply the cat with an acceptable outlet for scratching, which is after all a normal and necessary part of feline behavior. Unfortunately, there are a great many scratching posts on the market that are not designed with a cat’s true needs in mind, and these poor-quality posts are responsible for the belief of many people that their cats “just won’t use” a scratching post. A good quality post doesn’t need to be expensive, but it needs to be tall enough for the cat to stretch the full length of its body upward, and heavy enough so that it doesn’t tip over easily. The type of material the post is covered with also makes a difference; one that is covered in carpeting might be giving your cat the wrong message- namely, that carpet and other soft materials like upholstery are acceptable to scratch on. Many cats also actually prefer a somewhat rougher texture. Sisal rope and corrugated cardboard are good choices; corrugated cardboard has the advantage of being quite inexpensive, and is very popular with cats. Sometimes the perfect scratching post is a natural tree branch or log that can be obtained for free! Some cats prefer horizontal scratching “pads” rather than a vertical post. Sprinkling a little bit of catnip on the post or pad will usually make it irresistible. The location of the post or pad is also important. Place them in the area(s) your cat most often seems to want to scratch. If the location your cat chooses is not a convenient one for you, be patient. The post/pad can be gradually moved to another spot, a little distance at a time, once your cat is habituated to using it- and though it may take some trial and error to determine your cat’s preferences, virtually all cats WILL use a scratching post or pad once the right combination of materials and location is found. Multiple-cat households may require multiple posts.
Given the high rate of potential complications from declawing ranging from the moderate to the severe, and given the fact that it is entirely possible not only to train cats to scratch only in appropriate places, but also to render their claws virtually harmless without amputating their toes, there is no reason why an estimated 25 to 45 percent of pet cats in the U.S. should be subjected to this procedure. As has been observed by forward-thinking vets, correcting a behavioral problem with a surgical solution went out of fashion with lobotomies. It’s time the American veterinary industry caught up to most of the rest of the First World and started living up to its oath. If your pediatrician told you it was all right to amputate your child’s fingers because the child drew on the walls or scratched you- would you believe that, too?L. Kathleen Hickman lives in New Orleans with her husband and two cats of her own.
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