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Declawing Cats



Cats have a number of very powerful biological urges.  Scratching is one of them.  They scratch to sharpen their claws, and to mark their territory.  It is a powerful urge with many social implications for cats.  Cats are, shall we say, more emotionally complex than dogs.  Click here to go to The Indoor Cat Initiative, a website that discusses in detail the many needs of cats. 

There is some controversy both domestically and world-wide about whether it is ethically and morally right to declaw cats.  In many European countries, for instance, declawing is either not done or outright illegal.  In America, most (but not all) veterinarians agree that when done properly, declawing can be a benefit to both the cat and the people involved.  Without a doubt is is a painful procedure, and absolutely must be done in conjunction with excellent pain control.

Declawing involves the surgical removal of the claws, generally all ten of the claws on the front paws.  There are several surgical techniques in use.  At Sunnyside Veterinary Clinic, we use a technique that involves surgically amputating the claws with a CO2  laser.  The laser is widely accepted by most veterinarians as the best way to perform this procedure.  There are practitioners out there who are able to do the procedure well without the laser, but I personally feel that laser declaws are dramatically less painful than the older methods.

It is widely accepted to be a very painful procedure no matter how it is done.  That means that pain management is vital.  At Sunnyside Veterinary Clinic, we use a multi-modal, pre-emptive pain management system.  Multi-modal means that we use several different methods of providing pain control.  The different modes of pain control act synergistically to provide more complete pain control than any one or two modes could provide.  Pre-emptive means the pain medication is given before the painful stimulus.  When pain medications are given this way, the pain response is greatly dampened. Multi-modal, pre-emptive pain management techniques were pioneered in human hospitals, and have been adapted for use in animals by progressive veterinary clinics.   Click here to go to an in-depth review of pain management.

Declawing has a number of potential complications.  The first is persistent pain. Rarely, some individuals will experience pain long after the post-op pain should have resolved.  Occasionally, the pain will persist for life.  We suspect that the cats feel phantom pain in their amputation sites, just as some human amputees feel phantom pain for years in limbs that are no longer there. We routinely use a medication called gabapentin for all our declaws, which helps reduce the chances of this happening.  The second complication is that very rarely, some cats will not be able to stand normally on their paws.  The tendon structure never heals normally, leading to an abnormal posture.  Finally, infection is possible, though rare, even though the cats walk around on the surgical sites post-op.  To give you an idea of the approximate frequency of these complications, I can tell you that I have had one maybe two cats over the years with phantom pain, none with posture problems, and an infection maybe every couple of years or so.

Young kittens do the best and have the fewest complications.  Cats of up to 1 year of age typically do quite well.  Older cats are much more likely to have complications, including excessive pain, infection, and long-term pain.  The older they are, the more likely they are to have problems.  It is vastly different declawing a 5-year-old cat than a 6-month-old kitten.  It would take some extremely extenuating circumstances to convince me to declaw a ten-year-old cat.

While I am not opposed to declawing cats, I think it is best to try and resolve the problems non-surgically if possible.  This is true of any medical condition:  If a viable non-surgical alternative exists, it should be tried before surgery.  If the main reason you want to declaw your cat is to protect the furniture, it may be worthwhile to investigate some other options.  However, if you have delicate skin, diabetes, are on blood thinners, have other bleeding issues, or No Descriptioncompromised immune system, declawing may be a very good idea and you may not want to spend a lot of time risking injury while trying non-surgical options.

Non-Surgical Options


If Shredder the Cat is making your green sofa look like the image at the right, it may be possible to find an acceptable scratching alternative.  I refer you to a website called  The Indoor Cat Initiative for more information.  Click on the box at the upper left called "What Indoor Cats Need" and you will find a section on scratching.  There is also product called Soft Paws that is an alternative to declawing cats.  Click on the link to go to their home page.



Our standard protocol goes like this:
There is no doubt that declawing is a very painful procedure.  At Sunnyside Veterinary Clinic, we feel that it is very important to do all that we can to make your cat's experience as pain-free as possible.  We use a balanced, multi-modal, pre-emptive pain management protocol.  Balanced means that we use low doses of several different medications in order to minimize side-effects and to increase efficacy, and multi-modal means that we use several different kinds of medications that act in different ways to attack pain from different directions.

Step 1:  The cats receive a pre-anesthetic injection of buprenorphine, an excellent long-acting pain drug for cats, combined with nalbuphine, a short-acting injectable pain medication.  Depending on the cat's temperament and mood, sedatives may be added as well to control anxiety pre-op and to provide additional pain relief.  This type of opioid medication is mode 1, and it is given in a pre-emptive pain fashion.

Step 2:  Anesthesia is induced with injectable IV drugs, and then the cat is placed on inhalation anesthetic.  The injectable drugs are chosen to take advantage of their inherent pain control properties.  This is mode 2, and it is also done pre-emptively.  The cat's blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and expired CO2  are monitored.

Step 3:  Nerve blocks are done with local anesthetic.  This is mode 3, and it is also done pre-emptively.

Step 4:  The surgery is done with a CO2  laser.  This instrument seals nerves and blood vessels to reduce bleeding and pain.  The incisions are closed with tissue glue.  This is mode 4.

Step 5:  After recovery, buprenorphine pain medication is given orally, and continued for the next five or six days.  To this we add gabapentin, another pain medication that works by a different mechanism and which is particularly effective on nerve and phantom pain. This is mode 5.

Step 6:  Some cats need more pain medication than what is listed above.  For these cats, we use fentanyl patches.  These patches let fentanyl, a powerful pain medication, be absorbed across your cat's skin.  They last for three to four days.  This is mode 6.

The cost to declaw your cat will vary with each cat, depending on their individual needs.  We will discuss these needs during the pre-surgical exam.  In general, the least expensive way to go costs about $178 and the most expensive (in other words, the safest, most comfortable way) costs about $262.