What is the process of declawing a cat, and how do you do it?

The medical terminology for declawing a cat is an onychectomy. Essentially, it's a process, a surgical procedure where we amputate the last bone in each toe. The last bone is where the nail originates. So, we're going in and removing that bone at the level of the joint. For a person, it's taking off the bone at the knuckle at the end of your finger.

Dr. Ryan Southard
Family Pet Veterinary Center

Is it painful for a cat to be declawed? And if so, how long is it painful for?

This is what we'd consider a more invasive procedure. For surgery, again, we're removing that bone, so there will be more discomfort involved than it would be for a minor soft tissue surgery. We take all the necessary precautions and administer different medications to minimize the discomfort. We perform nerve blocks for the feet, typically at the wrist level, and that way, the entire foot is blocked and less sensitive. Now, that's important because we're stopping that initial pain that's caused by those incisions. We also pre-medicate them with other pain medications before the procedure starts. And then, we also send home pain medications for afterwards. The discomfort from the surgery can last from a couple of days, sometimes longer, even upwards of a week. So, we send home enough postoperative medications for that, but routinely, at least a couple of days in most cases.

So they do stay overnight for the procedure then?

Yeah. Most cats will stay at least one night, even two nights, in some situations. A lot of it depends on their comfort level the following day. If they still have any minor bleeding from the incisions, we can send them home once there is no more bleeding and they seem comfortable.

Do you think declawing should be avoided?

Declawing is typically done for behavioral reasons. The most common would be scratching either family members or destructive furniture scratching. So it is most important that we address the behavioral portion of this before we consider the actual surgical procedure because there are ways we can intervene with medications, pheromones, even prescription diets, and environmental enrichment that can improve a cat's behavioral situation. So if we can remedy those issues without surgery, that's always the best option.

Why does my cat feel the need to scratch for scratching posts or furniture?

For cats, scratching is very normal behavior. One of the main reasons they scratch is actually to maintain their claws. So that gets rid of the outer layer, and it helps them keep them sharp and healthy. Also, it's a marking behavior, kind of like when they rub their face on objects and people. Those are both very normal behaviors for cats. It lets them stretch out. It also just seems to be enjoyable for cats.

What can be done to prevent my cat from climbing all over my furniture?

The first step is to provide them with something they can scratch, like a scratching post. Some cats prefer more vertical ones, others like them more horizontal, or a combination of both. Try it in different materials and different types to see what your cat likes. I know with my cats, I use nail trims quite a bit. So every couple of weeks, I make sure to keep those nails nice and short so that they aren't able to cause damage. You can also use something like nail caps to help prevent scratching.

Am I able to put nail caps on myself? How long do they normally stay on?

Yes, you can put them on at home. Essentially, you just do a nail trim and place the caps over the top. Depending on your cat's scratching behavior, it can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to about a month or so.

How may a cat feel after getting declawed?

With any surgery, there's always some associated pain. We do pretty aggressive pain management here to make your cat as comfortable as possible. But there's recovery time as with any surgery.

Is there any possibility of personality changes after my cat becomes declawed?

Yes, there is. There are a few studies out there. One suggests that cats may scratch more or have more aggressive behaviors after declawing. It also might cause a cat to be a bit more anxious. Some cats could potentially be a bit more nervous around people, but not all cats.

What are the possible long-term consequences?

As with any surgery, long-term consequences have the potential for some infection in those operations sites, and sometimes the nail doesn't get completely removed. Then you could potentially need to do a revision surgery. They could also have chronic pain. With cats, especially if they're overweight or later in life, arthritis is very common. We can do some pain management, but there are some joint changes because they have to walk a little further back on their feet instead of on their toes like they're used to.

What is the optimum age to declaw a cat? And at what age should we stop declawing a cat?

If we're having issues, it's better for most cats at a younger age. The most common time that we do the surgery is often less than six months of age. It's often performed if they're getting their neuter procedure done, so we can perform those at the same time. Generally, it's best to perform the declawing procedure at a younger age because as they get older, the surgery becomes more involved because the bones have developed further. They can also have more behavioral problems afterward when they're older. Cats get used to having those nails and function with those nails. And when you remove those in an older cat, you can actually cause more behavioral issues afterward. So we always try to perform these procedures when they're younger.

Is it more for the welfare of the owners or the animal when you choose to declaw a cat?

As I alluded to earlier, declawing procedures are typically done for behavioral issues. So from an owner's standpoint, it's a problem. They're tearing up furniture, scratching the owner, scratching children. We can see aggression issues. So it's usually a problem for the pet owner, not so much for the cat, because again, that kind of behavior for the cat is often normal. They want to scratch; they're marking their territory. So for most cats, that can be normal, although it can be excessive, which then becomes a problem at home. There are some other exceptions to declawing. We do those sometimes as well for medical concerns with household members. Some families may have individuals in the home that are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed, and obviously, scratching can be a problem because nails can carry bacteria, and those scratches can result in a lot of infections. Some of those can be very bad. So from a medical standpoint, this is something that's done to prevent those kinds of problems at home.

What are your guidelines when determining if you are willing to declaw your cat or not?

As we've already discussed, we have to address the behavioral issue first and attempt to correct that behavior with either medications and supplements, diet, or environmental enrichment. It's always necessary that we have a consultation exam first and that we review all those options and figure out if there is an alternative to declawing because, unfortunately, once you do the procedure, you can't give the nails back. So we want to make sure that we've addressed things beforehand.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (515) 224-9747, you can email us, or you can reach out on social media. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.