If your cat scratches you all the time, or you have furniture you don’t want ruined, you may want to declaw your cat. But is it a good idea? Does declawing hurt cats, or is it OK?
Should you declaw your cat? You shouldn’t, because it is painful for your cat. The surgery required to declaw a cat (onychectomy) involves removing the nail, the nail bed and the bone beneath the nail bed so that the claw never grows back. It takes a long time for this to heal, and since your cat puts pressure on its paws as it walks, it’s painful. Declawing also stops your cats from displaying natural behaviors e.g. in self defence, clawing at things, hunting and climbing. Consider alternatives like providing a scratching post, removing scratchable things from the home, or letting your cat outside.
The guide below first considers each of the reasons you SHOULD and SHOULDN’T declaw a cat in depth. It will then look at one of the many alternatives you can choose from instead!
Should You Declaw a Cat?
People don’t declaw their cats for no reason. You can at least say that. The most common reasons given include:
- You have children, and you don’t want the cat to claw your kids.
- Your cat destroys your furniture by clawing it.
- Your cat gets defensive and scratches you sometimes.
- It’s what your family have always done with their pet cats.
Every decision you make regarding your cat’s welfare should be made on balance. That’s why many people keep their cats inside, despite the cat’s instincts telling it to go out; the cat doesn’t understand about traffic or disease, and will have a much longer lifespan when kept in. So we make a decision that’s in the cat’s best interests, on balance.
Declawing a cat is not one of these decisions. There is no way that it’s in your cat’s interests to do so, and if anything, it ensures that your cat’s quality of life will be worse. You may also notice that any rationale behind declawing a cat is about how the cat affects you: it’s nothing to do with the cat’s interests or choices.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at what makes declawing an actively bad decision.
Is Declawing a Cat Like Cutting Its Nails?
This is an area of confusion for some people. They imagine that declawing a cat is like trimming its nails: a painless procedure that’s a normal part of our lives. This confusion comes from the fact that there are two different things you can do to a cat’s claws: trim them or remove them.
Trimming a cat’s claws is, itself, a little controversial. It’s not necessary so long as the cat has access to a scratching post. But people do it anyway with special cat nail clippers, or have groomers do it for them. Cats can have ingrown nails, and if they can’t keep their claws short another way, then clipping is necessary. The controversy comes from the fact that it’s easy to accidentally cut into the ‘quick’, which is the same as when you cut your nails too short and it hurts.
Declawing is another process entirely. It involves surgery to not only fully remove your cat’s claws, but the nail beds that cause more claw to grow. The vet will cut away at the bone in the toe with a laser or a scalpel; you could compare it to removing the top joint of each of your fingers or toes. This is necessary because if you only remove the nail, it will grow back within weeks.
Does Declawing a Cat Hurt?
The physical process of declawing your cat won’t hurt it. That’s because declawing is a form of surgery that’s done under general anesthetic. That means your cat is unconscious when the procedure is done, so it doesn’t feel anything.
The problems start when your cat wakes up. The aftermath of the surgery is painful for your cat for more reasons than one. That’s why people think you shouldn’t declaw cats.
Why Does Declawing a Cat Hurt?
When questions like this come up, it’s always a good idea to put yourself in your cat’s shoes. Why do you think it would hurt?
There are two parts to the answer. The first is that it’s a medical procedure that cuts deep into your cat’s tissue, and even its bones. It therefore takes a long time for each individual wound on each individual toe to heal. If you’ve ever lost a nail, then you’ll know that even just that takes a long time to get better; now imagine if you lost the nail bed underneath and even some of the bone.
What makes this even more painful for your cat is that it then has to walk on these wounds forever. Imagine if you lost all of your toenails, but then couldn’t rest and recuperate in a hospital bed; instead, you have to go about your normal life walking around. You’d be in a lot of pain, and so too would your cat. This will hurt even after the wounds are healed.
This, then, is the main reason why people think declawing a cat is wrong. You essentially force your cat to endure a lifetime of pain for the sake of keeping your furniture neat, or so that your cat can’t scratch you when it’s annoyed. While it would be good if your cat didn’t ruin furniture or scratch you, that hardly seems a worthy trade-off for putting your cat through such pain.
And as a note: some people are insistent that animals don’t feel pain, or at least not in the same way as we do. That’s entirely bogus. Cats have a nervous system that detects pain in the same way that ours does (as all mammals do). They have similar numbers of nerves throughout their skin as we do. The pain-processing part of a cat’s brain lights up when it is hurt in the same way as the pain-processing part of our brain does. So that’s simply not up for debate!
Cats’ Claws and Instinctive Behavior
The fact that declawing is painful isn’t the only reason people speak out against it. There’s also the fact that declawing prevents cats from displaying natural behaviors.
There are lots of behaviors that rely on claws. One is, of course, hunting. Claws help your cat catch prey: while your cat will break its prey’s neck with its jaws, it will hold onto the prey and keep it still with its paws. The claws act like Velcro hooks to keep the prey in place. Even if your cat is an indoor cat, it will still use its claws when it simulates hunting, i.e. when it plays with its toys.
Another behavior cats like to display is climbing. Cats climb trees, furniture and ledges with the help of their claws. Without claws, they have a more difficult time. There’s also scratching things like scratching posts to consider.
It’s critical to your cat’s well-being that it can display natural behaviors like these. As a rule, the more natural behaviors your cat is able to display, the happier it will be. The fewer it can display, the more likely it is to become depressed or at least unhappy. Declawing your cat can therefore affect your cat’s quality of life in that way, too.
Cats’ Claws and Balance
It’s also thought that declawing a cat could affect its balance. Again, since the top joint of the toe is removed, this means that your cat doesn’t have the full use of its feet. It would be like if the top parts of each of your toes were cut off: it would make it more difficult for you to walk. It’s thought that declawing has the same effect on cats. This is a less serious point than the real pain declawing causes, but it’s still worth considering.
Alternatives to Declawing a Cat
Your cat isn’t an object you can do what you please with. It’s a living, breathing creature. Something silly like dyeing your cats hair is a gray area, because doing so doesn’t cause your cat any pain or suffering. But declawing is painful when it’s done, it’s chronically painful going forward, and thereby has a significant effect on your cat’s quality of life.
You therefore have to balance your cat’s experience with your negative experience. Is it better for you to experience momentary pain from a small scratch, or for your cat to experience lifelong (and much worse) pain from declawing?
As such, one of your options is simply to deal with whatever problems your cat’s claws present. If the problem is that the cat scratches you, learn to deal with scratch wounds, respect your cat’s boundaries when it clearly isn’t happy, and stock up on wound dressings and saline solution so you’re always prepared. If your cat scratches your furniture, either accept that or pick another of the alternatives below.
Buy Your Cat a Scratching Post
Your cat will need to scratch no matter what you do. Otherwise, as described above, it could develop ingrown claws/nails. And whatever the case, scratching is an instinctive behavior that you can’t train your cat out of.
As such, perhaps the best idea is to give your cat a way to redirect its scratching behavior. Rather than trying to stop it from scratching, encourage it to scratch something suitable like a scratching post. Scratching posts are made from the perfect tough-but-scratchable kind of material that cats love scratching, and they certainly work to stop your cat’s claws growing too long.
The trick is to get the cat to start scratching it in the first place. Most cats would scratch the post occasionally, but also carry on scratching the carpet, the walls or the furniture too. Remember, in your cat’s head, there’s no reason for it not to do that!
The best way to train a cat to do anything is with clicker training. Clicker training is where you use a clicker in conjunction with treats to teach a cat to display certain behaviors. It involves recognizing when a cat is about to display a behavior, watching it while it does, then immediately clicking the clicker and offering your cat a treat. This helps your cat build up a sense of cause and effect: I scratched the post, and was instantly given a treat. I should scratch the post some more! The idea is that you do this every time you see your cat scratch the post, but not when it scratches anything else.
Unfortunately, this is your only way of training your cat. You can’t punish a cat to make it stop certain behaviors; all that does is teach the cat to resent you.
Remove Scratchable Surfaces
If that doesn’t work, you could consider removing scratchable surfaces that you desperately don’t want the cat to scratch. Or, you could at least make them inaccessible to your cat.
Take an expensive piece of furniture as an example. Let’s say that you tried training the cat, but it wouldn’t stick, and it still scratches anything it likes. If you don’t want your cat to scratch the furniture, and rehoming the cat is not an option, then you’ll have to rehome the furniture. You could sell it, gift it, loan it to somebody, or move it to a room the cat isn’t allowed in. Other things you could consider include:
- Replacing your carpets with solid flooring
- Replacing your wood or fabric bed frame with a metal one
- Replacing wallpaper with solid wall that the cat can’t scratch
These things are easier said than done, but they are a potential solution. Just bear in mind that your cat will still need something to scratch, so you should only do this if you already have a cat scratching post.
Let Your Cat Outside
If it’s an option, you should consider letting your cat outside. That’s because cats normally keep their claws short through natural behaviors outside.
One way they do this is simply by walking on rough surfaces. Walking on bricks, rocks, gravel, bark and similar surfaces gradually wears down your cat’s claws. If your cat is indoors and walking on soft carpet all day, it doesn’t get that benefit.
Cats also scratch things outside to keep their claws trim. The behavior cats display when they claw things—where they lower themselves down with their behinds in the air, stretching out their forelegs and repeatedly scratching a scratchable surface—is one they developed in the wild. But instead of scratching furniture, your cat’s ancestors would scratch tree trunks. Your cat will do this if it’s let outside.
Of course, it may not be an option to let your cat outside. You may live somewhere that’s dangerous for cats, for example; or your cat may have been indoors for its entire life, so isn’t used to the threats it would encounter outside. If either of these points is true, you should look to other alternatives instead. But if letting your cat out is an option, it would help.