Declawing is a series of bone amputations. Declawing is more accurately described by the term de-knuckling and is not merely the removal of the claws, as the term “declawing” implies. In humans, fingernails grow from the skin, but in animals that hunt prey, the claws grow from the bone; therefore, the last bone is amputated so the claw cannot re-grow. The last bone of each of the ten front toes of a cat’s paw is amputated. Also, the tendons, nerves, and ligaments that enable normal function and movement of the paw are severed. An analogous procedure applied to humans would be cutting off each finger at the last joint.  Declawing, also known as onychectomy (än-ik-ek-tō-mē), is a major surgical and potentially crippling procedure that robs an animal of its primary means of defense. Declawed animals may be at increased risk of injury or death, if attacked by other animals. They are deprived of their normal, instinctual behavioral impulses to use their claws to climb, exercise, and mark territory with the scent glands in their paws.

Declawing is one of the most painful, routinely performed procedures in all of veterinary medicine. Each toe of the cat is amputated at the first joint. Declawing a cat is equivalent in a person to amputating the entire first knuckle of every finger.  Declaw surgery is so predictably painful that it is used by pharmaceutical companies to test the effectiveness of pain medications in clinical trials. Initial recovery after declaw amputation surgery takes a few weeks, but even after the surgical wounds have healed, there are often other long-term physical complications and negative psychological effects.

Pet owners typically cite protection of their furnishings as being foremost among their reasons for having a cat declawed; however, such owners may not realize that the pain and other complications from the surgery can cause behavioral problems that are even worse than the problems for which the cat’s toes were originally amputated:

  • A cat can still bite a child and may have to resort to doing so since the cat has been robbed of its primary defense: its claws.
  • A cat whose paws hurt when digging in a litter box may avoid the litter box altogether. If someone is intolerant of a cat scratching furniture, that person is most certainly going to be intolerant of a cat biting or not using the litter box!

Do people with compromised immune systems need to declaw their cats? No, people with compromised immune systems do NOT need to declaw their cats. In fact, declawing cats to prevent human illness is not recommended by the Center for Disease Control, the US Public Health Service, the National Institutes of Health, or infectious diseases experts. Robert Goldman, DVM, says, “The only people who seem to recommend declawing cats for protection of immune-compromised people are the veterinarians who make money declawing cats. I’d listen to the CDC, US PHS and NIH before I’d listen to a veterinarian when it comes to issues of human health. Veterinarians who recommend declawing for people living with HIV/ AIDS are really doing these people a huge disservice. In fact, because declawed cats are known to bite people more, and bite wounds are worse than scratches, these veterinarians are actually putting immune-compromised people more at risk!”

Is declawing with a laser better? No, despite all of the marketing hype, by laser isn’t better.  Currently, the most common surgical procedure used to declaw cats is complete amputation using a blade, nail clippers or laser. Partial amputation, nail bed ablation, and tendonectomy (also called tenectomy) are also common declaw procedures. Some of these techniques were developed in an effort to compensate for the mutilating effects, extreme pain, or health complications known to be associated with the other techniques; however, each of these techniques has complicating factors or adverse health risks associated with them.  Lasers declawing is often marketed by veterinarians who have bought a laser. Laser beams are used to burn through the cat’s toe joint instead of using a scalpel or guillotine blade. A study reported in the September 1, 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Association by Mison, et al., reported that lasers offered no benefit over the more conventional methods of declawing, stating “differences in discomfort and complications between groups treated via scalpel versus CO2 laser were not clinically relevant.” Levy, et al. (1999), found that complications (bleeding, limping, swelling, infection) were generally worse in the laser onychectomy (declawing) group, compared against blade onychectomy in the first 2 days after surgery. Laser declawing can result in 4th Degree burns (burning of the bone). Robinson, et al. (JAVMA 2007), found no difference in limb function after 48 hours between the laser and the scalpel onychectomy groups. Sadly, one cat in the laser group “had signs of depression and was reluctant to walk on day 2 after surgery…and was euthanized.” Disturbingly, 12 days after the surgery, at the conclusion of the study, declawed cats still showed evidence of pain.

 If declawing is unethical because it surgically alters animals for the convenience of humans, why isn’t spaying or neutering also unethical?  Spaying and neutering benefits animals. Declawing provides no benefit to the animal. Spaying and neutering are the most effective and acceptable form of contraception for animals. About 6 million animals die every year in the US shelter system because there are not enough people who will adopt these unfortunate creatures. This tragedy can be prevented through spaying and neutering animals to prevent pet over-population. Spaying, or the removal of the uterus and ovaries in a female animal, also prevents certain cancers and deadly infections. Neutering, or the removal of the testes in a male animal, prevents certain cancers, and may help prevent prostate problems. Both surgeries can be performed with the animal going home that same day.  The number of cats and dogs that end up in pounds and being destroyed is estimated by all authorities to be in the millions annually. Until another alternative is available, surgical sterilization, when done properly by qualified personnel, benefits all companion animals by preventing unwanted pregnancies, as well as the deaths, of many animals.  It should be stressed that equating surgical sterilization to surgical declawing is an invalid comparison and a poor rationalization for performing the mutilating procedure of amputating a cat’s toes.

Modern Alternatives:    What are the humane alternatives to declawing?

A cat can be trained to use scratching posts to sharpen its claws without damaging furniture. Look at what the cat chooses to scratch on and duplicate it in your choice of scratching posts. If the cat chooses to scratch on the vertically oriented wooden legs of a table, get a wooden scratching post. It’s the same for carpet. Most cats like the corrugated cardboard scratching pads that are available at grocery stores or pet supply warehouses. Place a little catnip on the new post to entice the cat to use it. Reward the cat with praise, love and treats for scratching in the right place. A vertical scratching post should be at least 28-36″ (1 meter) high to allow the cat to stretch to its full height. Many cats prefer natural soft wood, such as a cedar or redwood plank, or posts covered with sisal rope. Some cats like to scratch on a horizontal surface; inexpensive cardboard scratchers are popular with these cats. Rubbing the surface with catnip, or using a catnip spray, may enhance the attractiveness of the post. For the more adventurous types, there are cat trees in dozens of sizes and colors, with features such as hidey-holes, lounging platforms, hanging toys, and other creative amenities. Many people do not even know that they should provide a scratching post for their cats. Because scratching is a deeply ingrained instinct in cats, if there is no appropriate spot, they will be forced to substitute furniture or other objects.


Regular nail trimming should help prevent damage to furniture. The cat’s claws are clear, so it is easy to avoid accidentally trimming too deep and getting the quick. Click here to see the guide to trimming a cat’s nails.


Nail caps called Soft Paws® or Soft Claws® can be glued painlessly to a cat’s claws to prevent damage due to scratching. These items can be purchased at pet supply stores or through your veterinarian.


Double-sided Sticky tape like Sticky Paws® can be applied to furniture help deter a cat from scratching that surface. When the cat goes to scratch there, the tape feels funny to their paws and they learn not to use that surface anymore.

Despite their reputation for independence, cats can readily be trained to use a scratching post instead of the sofa, curtains or rugs. Remember, never play or roughhouse with your kitten or cat using your bare hands. You don’t want the cat to get the idea that biting or scratching human skin is okay. And while it’s fun to watch the kitten attack your wiggling toes under a blanket, when the 15 pound cat with 1/2 inch-long canine teeth does it, it’s not nearly as amusing.

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