I have a list of what I call “chum” topics on the blog, topics that are guaranteed to bloody the waters and bring in the sharks and ruin my little oasis of calm and rational discussion. While I don’t mind talking about controversial things, it’s not worth it unless we’re trying to find some common ground- right? Which is why I’ve waited a good long time to say how I feel about declaws, because it never seemed to accomplish anything. But times change, and I think based on what I’m seeing around me, it’s OK to talk.
I was never taught how to perform declaws at Davis, nor did I ask for it. So when I got into practice, I could legitimately say I couldn’t do them. It was a great opportunity to discuss alternatives with clients; probably half did not realize the significance of the procedure, and the other half knew what it was but had their minds made up that this is what they wanted anyway and had to go elsewhere. I had a long list of elective procedures I didn’t want to learn how to do, declaws up there with ear crops and debarking, and while I’m sure the bosses sometimes wished I would do them I never felt any pressure to actually do so something I was opposed to. It made life easier for sure.
I Did It Once
In my life, I have declawed a total of one paw. I was watching another veterinarian/mentor perform the procedure and thought I should at least observe it for myself. As most of you probably know by now, a declaw (or onchyectomy) isn’t just pulling off the claw; in order to permanently remove the claws you need to amputate the entirety of the third phalanx. It’s the equivalent of removing your fingers to the first knuckle- or toes might be even more apt, since these are weight-bearing limbs.
Several methods exist for doing this: laser, scalpel, or guillotine- which is basically taking sterile nail clippers and using that to separate the digit from the paw. This is the method he was using that day. As you can see from the diagram below, the bone isn’t oval shaped but almost like a C-shape at the knuckle; if you are not meticulous, part of that bone may be left behind, leading to infection, pain, or claw re-growth.
I watched the doctor do one paw and then, as he watched, I did the other. While it’s fast, it takes time to perform the proper nerve blocks and ensure you are doing a complete amputation. We checked the toes for remnants, wrapped them carefully, gave the cat tons of pain meds, and sent her home. She recovered fine. I felt….wrong. I knew I would never do it again, and I didn’t. We’re asked to walk all sorts of ethical razor edges in this field and we each make our own decisions based on personal experience, long discussions with our colleagues, meditation, prayer, gut feeling. This is where I landed.
Yes, It’s Problematic. No, I Still Won’t Light a Pyre.
I’ve seen what it looks like when the claws try to grow back. Not everyone is meticulous, unfortunately. Complications happen- according to one study of 137 declawed cats, 63% showed radiographic evidence of residual P3 fragments. That’s not ok.
While it’s not the position I have chosen, I understand why some vets still do it and it’s one of the main reasons I’ve waited on writing on the topic. I dislike the idea of inviting people to come on here and unilaterally poop on my colleagues, not when there are so many other avenues already out there for that. I have no desire to imply that all veterinarians who declaw are terrible people. Some of the veterinarians I know who still do declaws do so reluctantly, out of concern that they may wind up with someone less meticulous than them performing the procedure. I have a lot of respect for the decision to do something simply because you fear that without you, a worse decision will be made. It goes up there with behavioral euthanasia. It’s not an easy choice and despite the never ending, never ever ever ending, assumption that it’s always about money– it’s not always about money.
For that reason and many others, I have no desire to encourage bullying of individuals. Nonetheless, I’m fine owning my own view on the topic while also stating I am for the peaceful transition of opinion of the cat owning population towards making this an obsolete request. If you’re going to call my colleagues torturers devoid of humanity, please do so elsewhere. I got called a murderer twice this week already (why? Comes with being a vet. long story) and I have no time for that today.
The Three Prongs of Change: Vets, Owners, and Leadership
In addition to more individual vets declining to do the procedure, we need to move the dial on demand. Public opinion is changing. Yay! The tide has turned significantly since I have graduated, and I’m very grateful for that. Somehow the good people in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and good chunk of Europe manage without the procedure, so I bet we can too.
And just as importantly, we need veterinary leadership to make recommendations based on current information and best practices. Research is ongoing, and we need to change how we work based on what science tells us today; it worked with pain management, it’ll work here too. The cogs always turn slowly, but it’s happening. Just this week, the American Association of Feline Practitioners has revised their position statement on declawing to the most strongly worded it’s ever been:
The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) strongly opposes declawing (onychectomy) as an elective procedure. It is the obligation of veterinarians to provide cat owners with alternatives to declawing. If owners are considering declawing, they must be provided with complete education about feline declawing.
The AAFP is in this vet’s opinion the best source of best practices for feline medicine, not just on this but on many topics. It is in line with AAHA‘s position as well. Both note that this opposition refers to an elective declaw and not one for medical reasons. The growing body of research, while still in progress, also supports the idea that this procedure is not benign and has real, significant risk of complications.
I know in today’s outrage era it is next to impossible to talk about a topic without devolving into threats of violence and war, but I have faith in the readership. And now, I end with a prayer: God, please let this blog post stay up without needing to turn off the comments. I know we all come from a place of loving cats and I’m sure you do too. Amen.