Declawing Cats Q&A: Positives, Negatives, and Alternatives

WebMD veterinary experts answer common questions about declawing cats.

By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Katherine Snyder, DVM

Declawing cats is a very emotionally charged and controversial topic in the cat world. So WebMD asked Atlanta veterinarian Drew Weigner, an American Board of Veterinary Practitioners certified specialist in feline medicine and a past president of the Academy of Feline Medicine, for more information on the topic.

Q: What is the actual procedure involved in declawing a cat?

A: There are several different techniques, but they all involve one thing. You have to remove the claw, and you have to remove the little piece of bone that the claw grows from. If you don't, the claw will try to grow back.

The less you remove, the better, and that's where the differences in techniques come in. The way cats are normally declawed, there's an instrument with a sliding blade, almost like a guillotine, and it cuts a straight line through the joint between that little piece of bone and the next piece of bone, which is much bigger.

When you do that, right underneath that is the pad, and you actually cut that right in half, too. So it's like cutting the tip of your finger off.

With cosmetic declawing, you use a tiny curved blade to go in and dissect out the claw and the tiny piece of bone. The pad is intact; all the soft tissue is there. So the cat is walking comfortably very quickly because its pads are fine. When the pads are cut in half, the cat can't walk on them without discomfort. That's what cats put their weight on. And they can't walk on them comfortably for weeks. Most of the pain comes from the trauma to the soft tissue.

But cosmetic declawing is not an easy procedure to do: It's time consuming, so not many veterinarians do it.

Q: Many people are opposed to declawing. Why?

A: Some people feel it's unnatural to remove a cat's claws, and it's done for the owner's benefit and not for the cat's benefit. There are many other arguments you can make for this - the pain they go through, the complications after declawing. But I think it really boils down to, cats are born with claws and they should keep them.

Q: Are there good reasons to declaw a cat?

A: There are a couple of good reasons. Medically, sometimes you have to remove a claw if the claw is damaged beyond repair or if it has a tumor.

Sometimes it's also trauma to the owners. There are people whose immune systems are suppressed or the elderly on blood thinners who can't be exposed to the bacteria on a cat's claws.

But the majority of declawings are due to social issues, where cats are being destructive and tearing up furniture.

Q: What are the positions of the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Feline Practitioners on declawing?

A: They both say about the same thing, which is while it's not considered medically necessary for the cat, it can be considered appropriate for cats that otherwise would be given up or for whose owners are immunocompromised.

There are alternatives to declawing, and I think everybody, including veterinarians, look at declawing as a last resort. But if it keeps the owners from giving up their cats, euthanizing them, or making them outside cats, I think it's a realistic option.

Q: Does declawing hurt the cat? How long does it take a cat to recover?

A: It depends on the procedure. Any surgery involves some degree of pain or discomfort. Pain management is an important part of any procedure.

That being the case, the recovery time is much faster for some techniques than others. Cosmetic declawings heal much faster, usually within a week. The guillotine method of declawing a cat, you're talking two or three weeks or longer.

Q: Can declawing lead to any medical complications or problems?

A: Like any surgery, infection is a possibility, especially because this is not a sterile surgery. You can't sterilize this area. And if it's not performed properly, the claw can grow back, but it won't grow back properly and that can cause abscesses.

Q: Will declawing change my cat's personality?

A: They truly have looked at these issues and found nothing. You'll hear stories that cats start biting more or develop litter box problems, but there's no evidence of it even after numerous studies.

Q: Do declawed cats sometimes develop litter box problems?

A: I hear the stories just like everyone else. But every study they've done has shown there is no evidence of this, that there aren't any changes in litter box habits after declawing.

Q: Can I allow a declawed cat to go outside?

A: No, it's not appropriate for obvious reasons. Letting your cats outside after they've been declawed would be cruel because they can't defend themselves properly. Therefore, owners have to be committed to keep the cat indoors for the rest of its life or to find a family that can do so.

Q: Isn't it better to declaw a cat rather than get rid of it?

A: If that's the only option, absolutely. If the cat is going to be given up, the lesser of two evils is declawing the cat. There's no two ways about it. And, if you're going to start letting your cat outside because it's a destructive cat, you're probably better off declawing it and keeping it inside because it will live considerably longer being an inside declawed cat than an outside, undeclawed cat.

Q: Are there other solutions to scratching problems? What are they?

A: One is training, which is primarily for kittens. When somebody brings us a kitten, that's one of the things we talk about - how to train them to use a scratching post. It's very effective. But it's much less successful with adult cats.

There's also those vinyl nail caps for cats (aka soft claws). They can be used successfully. The caps are put on with surgical adhesive and the cats usually get used to them within a day or two. But the glue has to be applied properly. I've had people glue a few toes together. And the hardest part is that you have to trim your cat's claws before you put them on, and most people can't trim their cat's claws. They last about a month. They're especially good for cats that need to be kept indoors for a short period of time. But it can be done long-term if done properly.

Trimming nails, if you do it weekly, can help if the problem is scratching people, but it won't stop a cat from damaging furniture. Think about the reasons cats scratch: to stretch and to sharpen their claws. So if you cut their claws, they just want to sharpen them more.

Q: Isn't declawing cats illegal in some other countries?

A: Yes, some countries have banned declawing due to ethical concerns. I know the United Kingdom has, and so have Australia and New Zealand. And there are others. Some of these countries ban it outright, while more often the policy says it should not be done, but if a vet determines it's medically necessary it's OK to do it.