Feline onychectomy, or more commonly known as declawing, is a medical procedure in which the claws are amputated from the toe bones of a cat. This surgery, widely practiced in North America, has left 25% of cats on the continent declawed (Patronek, 2001). Yet, in many European countries, such as Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Estonia and Switzerland, the practice is considered abuse. In the United Kingdom, declawing was outlawed by the Animal Welfare Act of 2006, “unless for the purposes of medical treatment.” The same goes for Brazil, Israel, Australia and many other countries. However, in the US, the procedure is frequently practiced by their owners, who want less dangerous and lower risk pets. Nevertheless, onychectomy is understandably becoming more and more ethically controversial within the veterinary community, as not only does it lead to behavioral differences in the cat, it also provides a moral question that both cat owners and veterinarians should ask themselves.
Onychectomy is performed when a surgeon excises the fingernail or toenail of the patient. The surgery is most popularly performed on cats, although humans can undergo this procedure due to an ingrown nail or severe toenail fungus. In human onychectomy, only the nail is removed. In cats, the bone develops germinal tissue (which allows the nail to grow back), therefore adjacent bone must be amputated as well. This leaves the cat without bone in the front of their paws, not unlike losing the distal phalanges of one’s hand (the furthest bone in the fingers). Possible complications of surgery include hemorrhage, swelling, infection, abscess, tissue necrosis, dermatitis, lethargy, palmigrade stance (walking on wrists), paralysis and more. Scratching is a normal behavior in cats, however following onychectomy, cats can be faced with a number of behavioral changes, such as biting and self-mutilation. This procedure can also negatively affect balance, climbing and social interaction. Although considered necessary by some cat owners, onychectomy is undoubtedly a painful and distressing experience for the cat.
Why do owners choose to declaw their cats? Some owners argue that declawing is in the cats’ best interest. Feline onychectomy is necessary for some apartment residential rules, whereas some declare that the surgery is merely convenient for the cat owner. According to oocities.org/declawing, the author of the site stated that owners declawed their cat because of reported corneal abrasions of the owner and the risk of injury to others. The main reason, however, is that the cat owner wants to keep the furniture scratch-free. Rather than take the time to train or discipline the cat to refrain from scratching the tables and couches, the owners simply choose to take the cat to be declawed. This surgery is highly controversial, and ultimately decided by the owner.
Due to the ethical arguments raised by veterinarians, the United States has been trying to pass laws to outlaw, or at least control the increasing amount of feline onychectomy. In 2003, the first ever ban in the US on declawing cats was enforced in West Hollywood, California. A highly controversial law, although it sparked a revolution of sorts in the community of cat owners. In 2006, the US Department of Agriculture enacted a ban against declawing of all exotic animals in the United States (USDA, 2006). In 2009, the California state legislature passed a measure stating that all other cities could not enact bans similar to West Hollywood, but due to its late effective date, it allowed seven more cities to ban declawing of domestic cats (Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, Burbank, Santa Monica, Berkeley and Culver City). In 2012, another California bill was enacted that prohibits landlords from requiring feline onychectomy as a ‘condition of tenancy’ (Pavley, 2012). Although a small victory in the anti-declawing community, additional measures could be taken to put an end to this abuse.
Known to lead to both behavioral and physical changes in a declawed cat, onychectomy also raises moral questions about the well-being of the feline. Considered abuse by many countries around the world, the US still has not enacted national laws regarding the declawing of domestic cats. California has begun to take action against feline onychectomy, but nonetheless, despite the mutilation and behavioral repercussions, this elective surgery is performed daily. Declawing is not just ‘another option,’ it is apparent and recognizable abuse.