New research suggests that declawing cats increases the risk of long-term or chronic pain, leading to negative behavior problems.
Declaw surgery (onychectomy) is an elective surgery wherein the distal bone of the toe is removed. The short-term effects of declaw surgery have previously been studied. However, this research marks the first attempt to explore the long-term effects of the procedure.
To conduct the study, researchers studied 274 domestic cats: 137 non-declawed cats and 137 declawed cats that had been declawed on all four feet. All of the cats were examined for signs of pain and barbering (licking and chewing the fur), and researchers reviewed each cat's medical history for reports of undesirable behaviors such as aggression, elimination outside the litter box, and excessive grooming.
Researchers discovered that declawed cats were prone to these behavioral problems at much higher rates than non-declawed cats. They were seven times more likely to eliminate outside the litter box, four times more likely to bite, and three times more likely both to show aggression and over-groom themselves.
Additionally, they found that a declawed cat was nearly three times more likely to receive a diagnosis of back pain. This is likely due to an altered gate as a result of the shortening of the declawed limb and/or pain at the surgery site leading to a weight shift over to the pelvic limbs.
READ MORE: The Truth About Declawing Cats
For declaw surgery, the Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons recommend removing the third distal phalanx (P3) in its entirety; it is the most distal toe bone. However, in the declawed cats studied, 63% still had P3 fragments (an indication of suboptimal surgical technique). The medical histories of these cats indicated higher rates of back pain and undesirable behaviors.
The authors of this study emphasize that even the best surgical technique still comes with risks. Removing the distal phalanges forces weight on to the soft ends of the middle phalanges (P2), where previously, they were protected by joint spaces in the paw pads. Discomfort in the declawed limbs means a cat is more likely to seek out soft surfaces, such as carpet, rather than a hard, uneven surface such as would be found in a cat litter box.
Moreover, a cat in pain might react negatively to touch and respond by biting, as it no longer has claws with which to defend itself. The recovery time of this major surgery is also of note, and there is always risk of infection, nerve damage, issues with the immune systems, and other medical complications.
Lead author Nicole Martell-Moran, a veterinarian at a cat-only clinic in Houston, Texas believes this study is an important first step in gaining a deeper understanding of the implications of what, to this point, has been thought of as a relatively straightforward surgical procedure.
READ MORE: How to Know If Your Pet Is in Pain
"The result of this research enforces my opinion that declawed cats with unwanted behaviors may not be 'bad cats,' they may simply need pain management. We now have scientific evidence that declawing is more detrimental to our feline patients than we originally thought and I hope this study becomes one of many that will lead veterinarians to reconsider declawing cats," says Martell-Moran.
Rather than a surgical alternative, The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the United States Human Society suggests attempting to train the cat to direct their natural scratching behavior toward a scratch pad or pole. Cat owners are also encouraged to use clippers for regular nail trims or vinyl nail caps to minimize destructive scratching and destructive clawing.
The study was published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery and you can check it out here.
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