Like ear cropping, this is a controversial surgery because some people think it is unnecessary, too painful, too prone to post-op complications, and even psychologically damaging.
Are these people right? Well yes, to some degree. But their argument is usually way overstated. The surgical procedure has been improved to the point that pain, inflammation, and post-op problems are minimal. Most young cats that we declaw are running around playing in 24-48 hours. I think that psychological depression is mostly in the minds of people guilty of anthropomorphism. Depression certainly isn't obvious except in the case where an older cat used to bullying other cats is bumped from it's bullying dominant position. Opps...now I'm guilty of using human ideas like bullying. And declawed cats continue to knead with great contentment. The statements that declawed cats can't knead and are therefore deprived of psychological satisfaction are simply wrong. At any rate, any problem, either physical or psychological, in my experience of seeing hundreds...no, thousands of cats...has been very minor or short lived. Especially in the last ten years with all the improvements made in anesthetics, pain medications, non-painful surgical glues, and local nerve blocks.
After I posted the above comments, which was quite a while ago (Fall 2002), I found I've was getting quite a bit of hate mail for having the politically incorrect gall to say anything positive about declawing. One argument given by anti-declaw fanatics is "How would I like my finger tips cut off?"
Here are my short answers:
First, please believe that I, like most vets, am a great animal lover and am very attuned to minimizing pain and trouble in my patients. I don't take this subject lightly. On the other hand, we vets are used to dealing with animal trauma on a major scale on a daily basis, and for people to go crazy about a controlled surgical procedure as minor as a declaw seems a little silly. Surely, you must know that cats, while cute and cuddly on the one hand, are by nature one of the most successful and cruel predators themselves, often causing great pain and suffering to others of their species not to mention all the baby rabbits, chipmunks, and squirrels out there. The animal suffering they cause with those claws is likely to be much worse than the controlled, short term tenderness of the typical declaw site.
How about the cutting off of the finger bit? Comparing the first joint that we amputate in a declaw operation to the first joint of a human finger. Well, I know some of you will find this difficult to mentally grasp, so I'll use some examples:
Horses hooves are very different from human fingers.
Bear feet and claws are different from human fingers.
Racoon fingers happen to be similar to human fingers.
Sheep feet are different from horse hooves, racoon hands, and human fingers.
Here it comes...
Cat paws are very different from all the above. They have retractable claws that stick out, and unlike human fingers, we can snip them off without cutting through the tender pads that correspond to our fingertips. Cats are different than humans, and when the declaw procedure is professionally done, it would be more accurate to compare the pain and possible surgical complications to the removal of a cyst or bad tooth. Not pleasant, but not terrible at all when done with modern methods. Although, I must admit, prior to the common use of local nerve blocks (in addition to general anesthesia) and post op pain medications, this procedure must have hurt moderately for a couple of days. And prior to the use of surgical super glue, post op bleeding was a problem and the sight of blood is disconcerning to many people although not necessarily painful to the cat.
How about the claim that declawed cats can't knead? It's a false claim and easily proven so by simply watching a declawed cat knead.
I'm also a little surprised that people who rant and over-exaggerate about the agony of surgical pain when it comes to declawing don't seem to make any fuss when it comes to neutering. The most painful organs in the whole body are ovaries and testicles!
Body piercing, tattoos, vaccinations, dentistry, neutering, ear mite flushing, ear cropping, declawing, minor surgeries...all these things hurt to some degree, it's true. Some of these things in life are worth the benefits and some are not. Some of the human body piercing stuff is just plain nuts. Like most vets, I will concentrate on making any patient as comfortable and pain free as possible, if for some reason a procedure is needed.
My hope here is not to promote declawing. I'm not a big fan of it myself, but to deflect any animal welfare zeal you might have to something more meaningful...the declaw issue is a minor one and full of the false and misleading information that seems so typical of political agendas these days. There is a lot of animal suffering and neglect out there that needs attention. Veterinarians are at the forefront of the battle to reduce animal suffering and don't deserve to be screamed at by animal rights extremists whenever we don't toe their political agenda lines.
Back to the subject. But is declawing needed? Often not, and that brings us to:
But why do it at all?
For the vast majority of our cat clients, the procedure is neither needed nor performed. But individual cats vary tremendously in their personalities and propensity for inflicting pain and destruction. And individual people vary tremendously in their tolerance of sharing their home with a cat.
There's no denying that a declawed cat is much more likely to be an enjoyable addition to the household...and therefore
-more likely to become a bonded and well cared for family member
-and much less likely to be kicked out of the house
What about the problem of being defenseless if allowed or forced outdoors. The idea that the poor cat wouldn't be able to climb a tree and get away from a pack of dogs. Or that it will be picked on by other cats.
There might be some truth to this long standing warning...but I'm beginning to wonder if it's a myth. I've been in a very busy practice for over 23 years and can't recall a single declawed cat that was mauled because it was declawed. And I know of a lot of declawed cats that spend a portion of their day outside. Of course, most declawed cats are also neutered, which greatly decreases fighting. On the other hand, I treat about 10 cats a week for serious bite wounds....99% of the time from other cats....and guess what, these are mostly intact cats, in this case intact meaning not declawed. Cats that live outdoors have a much higher death, fighting injury, illness, and accident rate. So if this minor surgery means a lot more cats are accepted as indoor pets; then I'm all for it.
But aren't there alternatives?
Alternative # 1: simply accept and live with a cat with claws. Most cats don't do that much damage, most can be trained not to knead on your flesh or favorite furniture, and most can be trained to scratch on scratching boards etc. It all depends on how much effort you're willing to make, on how much you're willing to tolerate, and on the individual cat.
Alternative # 2: Claw coverings. "Soft Paws" If you're not familiar with Soft Paws, they're a brand of vinyl claw covers that you superglue over the claws. It's painless and fairly effective, but the expense and nuisance of reapplying the covers every couple of weeks is the big drawback. These claw covers are very appropriate during the destructive "teenager" weeks while you are training your kitten not to climb the curtains, not to climb your legs, and not to kneed your favorite furniture.
Alternative # 3: A surgery called a tendonectomy where we leave the claws intact and instead sever the tendon that allows the cat to bare it's claws. I honestly don't know how successful this is, whether or not it might lead to lameness, and whether or not it is a less painful surgery. I simply haven't any experience with this procedure.
The Surgical Procedure:
Pre-surgical and pre-anesthetic exam for general health and to make sure vaccinations and deworming are up to date. Preanethetic blood work is recommended by many vets to maximize anesthetic safety.
Pre-anesthetic sedation, antibiotics, and pain medication
Surgical prep of the surgery site.
We are now also using a local nerve block to maximize post op pain relief
Carpal tourniquets applied to minimize bleeding at the surgical site
The surgery itself is straightforward; we amputate the last joint of the front claws being careful not to cut through bone or the nearby pads.
In the past, the bleeding was controlled with either a suture or by cautery which led to a fairly high incidence of post-op tissue irritation caused by the stitch or pain and tissue sloughing caused by the cautery. But now we have surgical super glue which is very successful; painless, effective, self dissolving, and with the added bonus of sealing the wound. Even more effective and successful is laser surgery, but most vets, including me, don't have surgical lasers yet.
Removal of the tourniquets and bandaging if needed
Careful monitoring and nursing until recovered
Clean up and instrument sterilization
Cage rest for 12-48 hours to minimize post-op bleeding and swelling, and to speed healing.
Medication for pain and inflammation
Discharge with instructions for owners to watch carefully for limping, swelling, or excessive tenderness over the next week. Most vets recommend shredded newspaper as a litter during the healing period to prevent litter granules from getting into the healing incision, but it turns out that that recommendation is not as important now that the incision is sealed with super glue.
Well, there's always the risk of anesthetic death or trouble as there is with all surgeries but this is very rare. The newer anesthetic agents are much safer.
The most common problem is that the surgical glue doesn't hold long enough for the incision to heal completely. This doesn't seem to bother the cat much, but it can make a mess of your carpets and furniture before the leak clots.
Another occasional problem is infection at the surgery site. It's usually easy to tell because the toe will swell to double size and the cat will hold that paw up because it will be tender. The problem is easily solved by squeezing out the little bit of pus, using an antiseptic wound wash, and putting your cat on antibiotics. Your vet will take care of this for you.
One more thing...a small percentage of declawed cats will re-grow claw tissue (called spurs) about 6 months to a year after the surgery. This is because there were remaining cuticle cells left in the surgery site. This is usually NOT the result of sloppy surgery. This is because the tiny amount of remaining cuticle producing cells were bound to the second digit which we can't amputate without disfiguring the paw. If your cat does grow out spurs, half the time nothing needs to be done...the spur tissue isn't a claw, it's just a little horny tissue (like a corn or bunion) and doesn't cause any irritation. On the other hand, the other half of the time, the spurs are irritating to the cat...perhaps like an ingrown toenail...and will need to be removed with a minor surgery.