Feline declawing is an elective procedure in which the cat’s third toe bone with the attached claw on each toe is amputated.
Veterinarians once thought this surgery was necessary for cats to live indoors without destroying the furniture, but that thinking has changed substantially over the past few decades. Numerous studies on normal cat behavior have shed light on what cats need to live happy lives, and these studies, in turn, have altered how we care for our purring companions.
We now understand that cats have an instinctive need to scratch. Scratching grooms the front claws, gives the cat a great whole-body stretch and leaves important scent markers. These markers are like Tweets — tiny little messages to other cats.
Declawing does not remove the cat’s natural drive to scratch, but it makes it far more difficult for him or her to satisfy this natural need. However, if we choose to avoid the painful, disfiguring declaw surgery and we can’t stop cats from scratching, how do we protect our furniture, carpets and door frames?
First, keeping your cat’s nails trimmed can be very helpful. The actual trimming is a simple procedure, and your veterinarian can show you how to do it. Many cats eventually learn to accept nail trims if they are never hurt and always rewarded. Blunt claws do less damage.
Next, and most important, you can redirect them so they scratch on appropriate things. All cats need a scratching post that they like. You need at least one scratching post per cat in the household. If you have three cats, you need at least three scratching posts. Most cats like vertical scratching posts that are taller than they are and sturdy enough not to move when they are scratching it. Outdoors, they would use a tree. Indoors, we try to imitate that tree. Some cats prefer horizontal scratchers. If your cat commonly chooses the carpet for scratching, horizontal scratching posts are available. Again, it should be longer than the cat — and sturdy.
We also must consider the texture of the scratching surface. Sisal rope is a favorite, but any individual may prefer another surface. Carpet and corrugated cardboard can be popular, so offer your cat a lot of choices and see what she chooses.
Finally, the location of the scratching post matters. Cats often scratch and stretch when they first wake up, so positioning one near where they sleep is ideal. If your cat is already scratching a piece of furniture, place a scratching post near it. Often, it is helpful to wash away the scent markers and apply a feline facial pheromone spray daily to the furniture until she redirects her scratching to the post you provide.
Remember, habits are hard to break. It may take a while to transition to the new scratcher. Be happy with any success, even if it isn’t complete success at first.
When you see your cat scratching an undesirable object, don’t punish her. Remove her gently and place her near the post. When she scratches appropriately, reward her right away (within 3 seconds) with something she loves — it may be food, play, catnip, petting or brushing.
Sometimes, inappropriate scratching tells us your cat is unhappy. There may be territory problems. Conflict between cats in a household or anxiety because of cats outside can trigger unwanted scratching and scent marking.
Conflict in your household may be obvious, with cats hissing or growling at each other, but sometimes the clues are very subtle. Cats are very good at acting like everything is OK even when it isn’t — and instead developing a behavioral problem, like scratching the furniture or urinating out of the litter pan. Often we improve these situations by giving every cat its own resources — separate areas for eating, drinking sleeping, eliminating, getting up high and hiding — and lots of play and simulated hunting. If the problems persist, your veterinarian can help with a referral to a cat behavior specialist and/or anti-anxiety medication.
For more information on alternatives to declawing, environmental enrichment for cats and taking excellent care of your kitty friend, go to catfriendly.com or talk to your veterinarian.
Kathi Gruss was born loving animals and grew up in a Navy family with many small pets including a parakeet, turtles and cats. She earned her BS in Agriculture and DVM from Ohio State University and started the Earlysville Animal Hospital in 1982 with her husband, John. Earlysville Animal Hospital was certified a Fear-Free Practice in 2016 is also a certified Cat-Friendly Practice through the AAFP. When not working, John and Kathi Gruss enjoy spending time with their two adult children and their grandson and traveling with family. Dr. Kathi also enjoys riding her dressage horse, Revlon.
For Pets’ Sake
For Pets’ Sake is written by the members of the Jefferson Area Veterinary Medical Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the health and wellbeing of all area pets. Visit javma.net for more pet health information, or to find the perfect veterinarian for your pet.