by Arthur Newman, DVM
Hold up your hand and take a good look at it. Spread out your fingers and think of all the things you use them for. Now imagine that someone came by while you were asleep and cut off your fingers down to the first joint. Looks nice,, right? You don't feel a think, right? And you can still do everything you used to do, right? Wrong. As you wake up, your fingers begin to ache and throb. You can't button a shirt or zip a zipper. You can't hold a pen the way you used to, and you'll have to learn to type all over again. In fact, you'll have to relearn a lot of tasks. If these were your toes, your balance would be permanently impaired. You could walk, but your movements would be clumsy and your range of motion severely limited. This is what happens when you declaw a cat. The procedure involves severing ligaments and tendons in the paw and removing the claw and its attached structure (the third phalanx) -- the equivalent of amputating the end of a human finger or toe up to the first joint.
What makes otherwise loving people declaw their cats? "To protect the furniture," is the most common reason. Or "to keep it from scratching us." It's hard to believe that anyone would use such trivial reasons to rationalize doing this to a beloved pet. It's even harder to believe that veterinarians agree to perform the surgery, knowing that it will result in lifelong disability. "After all, we use an anesthetic, so it doesn't hurt," they protest. But anyone who has had surgery can tell you that once the anesthetic wears off, the affected parts hurt for weeks, especially when you have to walk on them.
Claws, of course, are a cat's first means of defense. They help ward off attackers and enable the cat to climb out of danger. Cats also use their claws to catch prey and to maintain their balance on tricky surfaces. Although a declawed cat can still function well in the house, it is at a serious disadvantage outdoors. Without the ability to grasp with its claws, its balance and agility are permanently impaired, and it becomes more prone to fall. The effect is cumulative. Over the years, the muscles of the legs, shoulders and back weaken, further handicapping the animal. In addition, the cat feels defenseless and lives in a constant state of stress, making it more susceptible to physical and mental disorders.
Out of fear and frustration, declawed cats turn to their second line of defense; their teeth. It is not uncommon for them to become biters, reacting even to friendly approaches by nipping the hands that stroke them.
One declawed cat we know, under the extreme stress of being shaved with a noisy set of electric clippers, bit its owner so severely that she had to be hospitalized. This is not an isolated case. Every family doctor has similar stories to tell. Veterinarians and animal shelters frequently see the aftermath: The cat is brought in by a distraught owner, who says, "He's gone crazy!" Scratching is a normal characteristic of a healthy car. It exercises the foot muscles and removes dead tissue from the nails. It also has a soothing effect on the cat. If you provide suitable alternatives, most cats can be persuaded to leave your couch alone. Try a scratching post. better still, get several. You'll find a variety of them at any pet supply store. A tall post covered in heavy sisal or tightly-woven carpeting is perfect, especially with a platform on top. This not only gives the cat something to claw on but also something to climb -- as well as a special place to relax and view the world. No need to spend gobs of money. You can make your own scratching post by nailing a piece of 2 x 4 board to an inch-thick square wooden base; cover both pieces with a carpet remnant. Or get some wooden cubes from the lumber store and cover them with carpeting. Inexpensive straw or sisal mats and cardboard boxes are also popular with felines. Then train your cat. When it starts to scratch furniture, gently pull it off with a sharp "No!" and place its front paws on the scratching post. Keep the posts in accessible places so the cat can always find them.
If a cat persists in clawing furniture, squirt it with lukewarm water from a child's water gun or spray bottle, saying a sharp "No!" at the same time. Then take it back to its scratching post. Check with your pet food store for products designed to repel cats. Or attach a cotton ball or piece of fabric soaked in scented bath oil to the part of the furniture that the cat scratches. Cats will usually avoid the scent.
When you adopt a cat, you agree to assume responsibility for its welfare: to proved food, shelter, companionship, medical care and protection. Declawing means leaving it defenseless in a crisis, thereby denying it the protection you promised when you took it into your home.
If your cat's claws bother you, clip them. Use clippers designed for cats or an ordinary fingernail clipper. Wrap the cat in a heavy towel and work one paw free at a time. Clip about one-eight to one-quarter inch from the end of the claw to avoid cutting the vein. If your cat is difficult to handle, take it to a professional groomer or to your vet.
But don't repay your pet's devotion by shirking your responsibility. Leave its paws with claws. (reprinted with permission from Bide-A-Wee News, Winter 1997. Dr. Arthur Newman is the shelter veterinarian at Bide-A-Wee in Manhattan).