Why You Should Never Take Away Your Cat's Claws

Having one's claws plucked out is no walk in the park.

For a cat, the procedure begins and ends with pain. There's pain medication before the operation. There's pain medication immediately after the procedure, typically delivered intravenously for three days. Then there's another week of pain medication at home - assuming, of course, there are no complications, like a condition known as "phantom pain" that can affect declawed cats later in life.

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Is all that worth saving the couch from a clawed cat's wrath?

Increasingly, veterinarians and people involved in animal care are falling on the same side of the debate: Keep those claws because, well, they're part of what makes a cat a cat.

A clinic in Toronto announced this week it would no longer be declawing cats, calling the procedure an unnecessary "amputation."

"This is a procedure that is not medically necessary, it does not benefit our patients in any way," Suzanne Lyons, a veterinarian at Bloor Animal Hospital, told CBC News. "When we sat down to think about it, we just couldn't justify continuing to do such a procedure."

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The clinic joins scores of offices across Canada and the U.S. refusing to declaw cats unless medically necessary. The list of countries banning the practice outright is also growing. Currently, according to advocacy site declawing.com, more than 25 countries, including the UK, Israel and Sweden, have made the practice illegal.

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In the U.S., declawing bans are left to municipalities, resulting in a decidedly mixed bag of bans across the country.

People who work in rescue don't mince words.

"Our view is that this is cruel and unnecessary surgery and we won't perform it," Rob Halpin of MSPCA-Angell tells The Dodo.

None of the organization's three adoption centers in Massachusetts will declaw a cat.

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The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has also long been a vocal opponent of the practice, claiming it offers no medical benefit for a normal, healthy cat.

Worse, HSUS states on its website, too many people see the procedure as a manicure rather than a surgical mauling.

"Declawing traditionally involves the amputation of the last bone of each toe, the organization notes. "If performed on a human being, it would be like cutting off each finger at the last knuckle."

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These claws are made for clawing. And sometimes, that's just what they'll do - whether that's your new couch, an unlucky bird in the yard or an overly inquisitive dog's snout.

But while they're often associated with the mean end of a cat's business, claws are actually used for so much more than menace.

"Cats need their claws as they walk on their toes, unlike humans who walk on their heels, and need them to be able to stretch and scratch, which is a normal, healthy behavior," Amy Haas-Gray, founder of Hardin Eldora Animal Rescue Team (HEART), tells The Dodo.

Her organization makes potential adopters sign a contract ensuring they won't declaw a cat they take home.

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Despite the growing ranks rejecting the procedure, it remains a source of heated debate among veterinarians.

Jennifer Conrad, founder of The Paw Project, and longtime opponent of the practice, estimates declawing is performed on between 25 and 45 per cent of cats in the U.S.

Also a veterinarian, Conrad puts much of the blame for those numbers on her own field's reliance on quick-fixes through surgery.

"Vets are like, 'Oh, there's a behavior problem? We don't know how to deal with behaviors. But we do know surgeries. So there you go. We will do surgery,'" she explains to The Dodo.

"And that is inappropriate."

Some veterinarians see it a little differently.

"I can see both sides of the issue," Sonja Olson, a veterinarian at BluePearl Veterinary Partners, tells The Dodo. "I've had this conversation so many times."

Declawing "can definitely harm cats," she says, but she also acknowledges that she's seen lots of cases where the owners were either going to declaw their cat - or drop him at a shelter.

"Some families simply can't have cats who scratch," she explains. "Especially if they scratch another pet in the home, or even a small child. That behavior could get cats sent to shelters and possibly euthanized."

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For some families, she notes, "declawing may be the only thing that keeps some cats out of the shelter, especially considering there already are thousands of cats across the country who need homes."

Conrad, on the other hand, says it's just the opposite - more declawed cats end up at shelters than their intact counterparts.

That's because, among other behavioral issues declawed cats may develop, not using the litter box can rank among the most return-to-sender-worthy among some owners.

"Cats are the type of animal that they know where they received pain," she says. "They know a litter box is causing pain. They don't perceive it as 'Oh it's just after surgery and my paws hurt.' "They think its painful to use it now - so they don't want to use it any more."

It's all the more tragic considering cats with claws can easily find other outlets for a good, healthy raking. It doesn't have to spell the end of your furniture. No couches need be carved up. No drapes diced. In fact, there are a host of things you can do to keep your cat - and those precious claws - content.

The HSUS recommends keeping claws trimmed. You can clip them yourself or have a veterinarian do it. But intervals should be no more than four to six weeks.

Consider also the miniature miracle that is a scratching post, a simple outlet that you can make yourself out of cardboard or wood that lets kitty unleash all that pent-up scratchitude.

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You might also find relief in products like Soft Paws, tiny plastic shoes attached to a cat's nails that are designed to minimize furniture maulings.

Want to learn more? Check out The Paw Project, a group that advocates for laws that would keep those mitts intact across the U.S.