Image: cat wearing Soft Paws
Janet Winikoff/Humane Society of Vero Beach  /  AP
Cashew the cat wears Soft Paws at the Humane Society shelter in Vero Beach, Fla. Shelter workers say they periodically put Soft Paws on their cats to demonstrate alternatives to declawing.
updated 3/4/2008 2:38:59 PM ET 2008-03-04T19:38:59

For two years, Kara Johnson tried it all: scratching posts, bottles of citrus spray, blasts of canned air, even little plastic covers for the nails of her two cats. Nothing deterred them from doing serious damage to her house — and each other — with their tiny claws.

Sofas were reduced to shreds, shoes to tatters. The cats inflicted three serious eye injuries on each other. And then, Johnson and her boyfriend couldn’t find an apartment without proving the pets were declawed.

Finally, last month, they were — during a routine surgery that removes the nails and part of the bones they grow from. For Johnson, ultimately, it was necessary. For animal-rights activists, it was nothing short of torture.

Such is the polarizing debate over cat declawing. Veterinarians across the country perform the procedure daily, sometimes marketing it in conjunction with spaying or neutering. But the opposition is vocal: “It’s permanently crippling and it should never be performed by anyone,” says Laura Brown, an animal care specialist at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Some proponents see laser declawing — more widely used in the last five years — as a good compromise. It simplifies the surgery and minimizes recovery time and pain. But that hasn’t quelled the debate: A portion of the cat’s toes still has been removed.

Statistics on veterinary treatments other than rabies vaccinations are hard to find, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. But the declawing surgery, while common, “has slowly been considered less acceptable” in recent years, says Gail C. Golab, director of animal welfare for the AVMA.

New research in animal behavior has led to other methods for eliminating destructive scratching, she says. And anti-declaw activists may be dissuading some veterinarians from offering the procedure. One group lists the names of doctors who declaw in an online “hall of shame.”

Pet owners seeking hard facts about declawing — the technical term is onychectomy — will find much conflicting data. Opponents say cats are permanently disfigured, unable to walk properly, and likely to suffer severe joint and back pain. They also mention high rates of depression, aggressive biting and post-surgical complications among declawed cats.

But according to the Humane Society on its Web site, “there is just as much evidence to support the case against declawing as there is research to support it, with some studies finding few or only short-term adverse reactions to the surgery and others finding medical complications and significant differences in behavior.”

Anti-declawing activists say the procedure often causes cats to refuse their litter boxes. But “there’s not a cause and effect relationship that’s been demonstrated there,” says Golab.

Both the AVMA and the Humane Society suggest that pet owners try as many other options as possible before declawing. But neither organization wants the procedure banned.

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“In a situation where either the cat goes or the claws go, there’s so much at this point in terms of improved surgical technique, with laser surgery and with pain control, that you really can do the procedure with a minimal amount of discomfort to the cat,” says Golab. “I don’t think there’s any comparison between cats enjoying a life in a household and putting them in a shelter to avoid declawing.”

Nancy Peterson, feral cat program manager for the Humane Society, urges vets to educate cat owners about destructive scratching.

“Cats start to scratch at a very early age, about 8 weeks or so, which is often the age they’re being adopted into a family,” she says. “If that family, right from the get-go, is providing acceptable scratching objects and making the couch or the chair not so inviting,” she says, it often solves the problem.

But Peterson says many vets reflexively offer surgery and give little information about alternatives. “It has become so routine that oftentimes a client will think, ‘Oh, this is just a routine surgery. What could be wrong with it?”’ she says. “Many people don’t realize exactly what this surgery is.”

Johnson, though, realized fully. After exhausting other options, she researched the procedure and even sought information on the rate of depression among declawed cats. She then chose a veterinarian with care, opting to drive two hours from home to use a doctor she trusts.

She also bought extra treats to smooth her cats’ recovery. Declawing isn’t something she wanted to do, but she’s comfortable with the decision and believes her cats will remain happy.

“They need to stay together,” she says. “I’ve had people tell me when I’ve mentioned declawing them things like, ’You should give them up to a no-kill shelter’ rather than declawing them. Why would I put my cats into an environment where they’d be living in cages? ... They have a very loving home.”

Before declawing, Johnson spent much of her free time spraying the cats with canned air to stop their scratching. Now, she says, those hours can be about play.

“We don’t have children and don’t plan to have children,” she says, “so they are our children.”

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