Alternatives to declawing and surgery

What you should know about your cat's claws.

A cat's claws perform several functions. Your pet uses them to mark its territory, defend itself or attack (in nature, a cat is both prey and predator), move around (for example, to climb trees) and keep its balance. Its claws are also useful to it when playing or stretching. Unlike a dog's claws, a cat's claws are retractable, which means that they can be extended and withdrawn at will.

If your pet lives exclusively indoors, where it has no predators to fear and no need to hunt, it does not need its claws to defend itself, to fight or to catch prey. However, cats are highly territorial and assert possession of their domain by making scratch marks on certain items in their environment. These marks send out a message (even to the cat itself!), and scratching also allows the cat to wear down its claws, which grow continuously.

Onychectomy, commonly called declawing, is a surgical procedure to amputate the claws, thus preventing them from ever growing back. This form of surgery used to be widely practiced, but in recent years our knowledge of cat behaviour has greatly advanced and nowadays cat owners have a range of options that can greatly reduce the damage caused by their pets' claws. Below are some simple tips that allow your cat to continue expressing its natural behaviours while protecting you and your environment. You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but with the right strategies you can in fact teach an adult cat to change its behaviour.

The first step is to provide your cat with a scratching post that it can use to its heart's content. Be sure to locate the post in a part of the house that the cat regularly frequents, close to where the action is. The post should be tall enough to allow your cat to stretch to its full length, and should be made of, or covered in, a material the cat finds enticing, such as sisal, jute, leather, fabric or wood. While we do not like our cats to shred the couch or our favourite armchair, it is easy to see why these pieces of furniture are so irresistible to them. They provide a solid vertical surface, right where the family hangs out, and are covered in fabrics that make them ideally suited to a cat's claw-grooming regimen. One way of making the scratching post more enticing is to make the couch or armchair less appealing for the first little while. This can be achieved by covering them in aluminum foil until the cat has switched its allegiance to the scratching post, a behaviour you can reinforce by rewarding your pet with a treat whenever it uses the desired item. Please note that a scratching post placed in a remote corner of the basement will not produce results. Think of yourself when you are dieting: you keep the fruits and vegetables conveniently close to hand, not stashed at the back of the pantry.

A second option is claw caps. There are several brands of these small plastic covers that one glues to the cat's claws and that remain in place for 4 to 6 weeks until the claws become too long and the caps fall off. Claw caps come in several colours, which allows you to be creative and give your cat's paws an amusing "pawdicure" without causing the cat any discomfort. Your veterinary team can affix them for you, and can teach you how to apply them at home.

Lastly, trimming your cat's claws is easier than you might think. Once again, positive reinforcement - a lavish use of treats - is the key to success. If you want to get off to a good start, have your veterinary team show you how to do the job. If your cat objects to the procedure when you try to perform it at home, bear in mind that there is no need to trim all its claws in one go: sneak up while it is snoozing, gently squeeze one claw into view and trim it, then leave the cat alone for a while before continuing. Don't forget to trim the dewclaw (the "thumb"), as it is not retractile and can become stuck in the upholstery.

If these alternatives don't work for you and you decide to have your pet declawed after all, make sure the cat is given proper analgesia (painkillers) during the operation and throughout the recovery period. Although declawing is always performed under general anesthesia, it is a major procedure that requires good pain control once the cat wakes up. In fact, local anesthesia before the surgery is also possible, much as your dentist freezes you before filling your cavities. In the case of your cat, it is the nerves at the ends of its paws that are frozen for a few hours. Several forms of painkiller must be combined in what is known as multimodal analgesia, which is the absolute best way to control the cat's pain. These drugs must be given to the cat for several days after the surgery, because a single injection is far from sufficient to make your pet comfortable. A laser can also be used instead of a scalpel to excise around the claw; this reduces bleeding and inflammation and promotes quicker healing. In all cases, the form and duration of analgesia is determined by the veterinarian and must never under any circumstances be left up to the client.

It is important to note that declawing is more painful for older cats than for kittens. No veterinarian wants to declaw an adult cat, especially if the cat is overweight. In such cases, declawing should be considered only as the last alternative to euthanasia.

A decision to declaw should be given serious thought. Declawing is no longer the automatic procedure it was in decades past. However, both our knowledge of cats' behaviour and our options to relieve pain have made great strides in recent years. Feel free to discuss your own circumstances with your veterinarian, who will be able to give you personalized advice so that you and the feline member of your family can live together in happy harmony.


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