Let Them Be Cats! … Leave Their Paws Intact


by Mary Sper

Cats need to scratch. They don’t do it out of spite or for revenge. Cats scratch because it’s in their nature to do so. People unwilling or unable to accept this as an inevitable part of living with a cat need to reevaluate their reasons for adopting and, most importantly, the relative value they give inanimate objects and convenience over their commitment to a cat’s quality of life.

Claws are an integral part of a cat’s body design. Anatomically, they help with balance and proper leg, back and shoulder muscle alignment. Behaviorally, scratching is vital to a cat’s physical and emotional health, providing it a way to maintain nail condition, resistance for muscle toning, and an outlet for territorial instincts. Declawing rather than redirecting a natural behavior not only deprives a cat of what is normal and healthy, but involves a cruel and unnecessary procedure no cat should have to endure.

Declawing is not a manicure but a serious, painful surgery most commonly involving amputation of the last joint of a cat’s toe (bone, ligament, tendon, nerve, claw). In human terms, imagine cutting off your fingers at the last joint. Regardless of the pain — and cats DO feel pain – cats still have to walk, jump and scratch in the litter box during the recuperation period. How each cat processes this pain, and the physical changes that come with declawing, will determine any psychological effects they may suffer. Often underestimated in terms of health and quality of life, these effects may equal or eclipse the severity of the inevitable physical pain and any potential post-surgery complications, e.g., infection, necrosis, hemorrhage, lameness, loss of balance, and abnormal re-growth inside the paw. The mere inability to do what they did before surgery and the pain associated with it, e.g., dragging the paw through the litter, can lead to anxiety, fear or aggression. The permanent association of pain with the litter box is an obvious problem. But even declawed cats with no post-operative litter box issues per se may begin wetting on furniture, clothes or bedding simply because they no longer derive the same pleasure of digging into their favorite soft spots while kneading. The cat’s unfortunate reaction to this kind of stress is to urinate where he or she should be the happiest.

Ginny’s story illustrates one behavioral aspect of what can happen when people declaw — in this case preemptively — and deny a cat the right to be a cat. ICRA cats Ginny and her brother Poncho were adopted by a man in November 1999 at the age of three months. A follow-up in January 2000 indicated all was going well in the new home. Four weeks later, however, the man unceremoniously returned the six-month olds to ICRA, stating that Ginny had been urinating on his bed. Almost as an afterthought, he asked that the cats be placed as indoors only because they had been declawed four weeks prior. Ginny’s urination and anxiety problems began within two weeks post-surgery. A second adoption for both kittens ultimately failed as Ginny’s inappropriate urination continued off and on for a year despite many behavioral control efforts, drug therapies, and check-ups to rule out medical causes for her problem. While Poncho has since been adopted, Ginny remains an adult cat in foster care where her behavior is being managed.

This didn’t have to happen to Ginny or Poncho. Both suffered because of what might have happened to a piece of furniture or some drapes. Having them declawed traded a perfectly manageable situation (i.e., regular claw trimming, positive training, and provision of appropriate alternatives such as a sturdy scratching post) for a much graver behavioral problem that frustrates even the most tolerant caretaker. Ironically, Ginny is one of the lucky ones in that she made it back to ICRA. Others in her situation tragically end up in shelters or dumped on the street where they pay with their lives for the uninformed or selfish choices of alleged guardians.

Once you make the decision to welcome an animal into your home, you have to accept some degree of household damage — a small price to pay for years of loving companionship. Please do what is right for the cat, not what is convenient for you. Taking the time to understand why cats scratch and how to deal with it appropriately through training your cat and finding acceptable scratching alternatives will leave the trust your cat places in you as guardian – not to mention his or her paws — intact.