Cat Declawing

My husband Patrick's Aunt Azelda isn't given to indulgences like leather furniture sets, but she just bought one. "I've had pudding that was stiffer than this leather," she cooed, quoting Niles from Frasier . The store was going out of business, and the combination of luxury and savings has had Azelda prancing like a peacock -- when she isn't sitting on her new furniture. Enter Tootsie, Aunt Azelda's cat. Tootsie felt obliged to weigh in with an editorial comment, in the form of a long scratch down the side of the couch. Artful rearranging covered the damage, but Azelda's talking about declawing. "I'm old school," was all she said when my sister complained that declawing was inhumane. I thought I'd try to help quell the quarrel by checking out the options.

Allison at Center Vet Clinic in Mira Mesa (858-271-1152) gave me some suggestions for things to try before going to the nuclear option. "An alternative to declawing is called Soft Paws [ $25.85 for a box of 40]. It's like Lee Press-On Nails for cats; it's a vinyl nail cap. How long it lasts depends on how active the cat is, but it usually lasts about two months, and there are a bunch of extra caps in the box in case any fall off."

Allison also recommended scratching posts. "They should be tall enough that the cat can stretch completely when using them, and we suggest that you have at least two different types. Get something that has an appealing texture, like wood or a nubby fabric. A piece of cut firewood works well. Put the post in the cat's favorite sleeping area, or near a window. Put a little catnip on the post, or hang their favorite toy on it. Take the cat's paw and scratch the post with it to help give them the right idea. A food reward when they use the post correctly will also help encourage them to use it."

As for discouraging kitty from attacking the new couch, Allison suggested that Azelda "put the scratching post in that area, or cover the area with bubble wrap, aluminum foil, or two-sided tape."

If all else fails and declawing seems the only option, Center Vet Clinic will perform the procedure. Price varies depending on the age of the cat (it's easier when they're younger) and what post-op procedures are required -- declawing averages around $400 .

I next spoke with Dr. John C. Boyd, founder and director of Pacific Petcare Veterinary Hospital of Carmel Valley (858-481-1101; ) to learn a little more about declawing. "Cats scratch for scent marking and to help them shed their claws," began Boyd. "It's a natural behavior. Most veterinarians don't do declaws any more. We do a lot of behavior work, trying to get people to understand their cats better. But if someone requires that this procedure be done -- if there's a possibility that the cat will otherwise be euthanized or turned out on the streets or put in a shelter -- that's when veterinarians do declaws."

Boyd delved into the basic anatomy. "The claw is like the fingernail of a human, in that its base is attached to the last bone after the last knuckle. Declawing could best be described as a disarticulation -- removing the last piece of bone, the one that has the nail growing out of it. It's not an amputation -- you're not cutting through bone."

There are several techniques that may be used. "It can be done with a surgical scalpel, a radio surgical unit (which uses radio waves to cut between cells), or by laser surgery. Historically, laser surgery was cost-prohibitive. Also, since it was a newer technique, it was not in a lot of veterinary hospitals. There have been discussions as to whether or not laser declaws are less traumatic than other techniques. A scalpel cuts through cells, but the laser, like the radio, separates cells -- and it can cauterize as you go. Those properties don't inflame the nerve as much, so there is less pain and inflammation following the surgery." However, advocates of radio surgery say that it is "even less invasive and creates even less inflammation than a laser."

But even more important than a particular technique, said Boyd, is for the vet to do the surgery "in a way that they are comfortable doing, that works well for them. If you start changing your technique, then you'll have potential problems. Time is trauma, and a surgeon wants to be as clean and efficient as possible." (Pacific Petcare uses either radio or scalpel blade in declawing.)

Boyd placed special emphasis on pain management. "The preoperative, intraoperative, and postoperative pain management and anti-inflammatory management is important in declawing. We use a ring block -- which is a local anesthetic block around the wrist -- a general anesthetic, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine. We also send home narcotic medication. By using all these different methods, you get excellent pain control. It's multimodal, just as in human surgery."

As noted, the procedure is easier on young cats. "It's less traumatic. There's less tissue. I can manipulate the joint better -- there's a more rigid digit on an older cat. A younger cat is much faster healing; there's less discomfort and less potential for complications. A young cat could show signs of tenderness for up to a week, but older cats could have tenderness for a month or two -- things like raising a paw when sitting."

Longer-lasting side effects are also a possibility. "Some cats have litter box problems after being declawed -- inappropriate urinary behaviors outside the litter box. That could be a sensation issue -- the cat may not like the feel of the litter."

Prices for declawing vary, depending on the cat. "It could go as high as $600 , because different cats need different preoperative tests. We do pre-anesthetic blood work, ECGs, and blood pressure. An older cat may need X-rays and/or echoes of the heart -- whatever it takes to make sure that we have a good surgical candidate."

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