13- Nail Care
Scratching Behaviour and Nail Care in Cats
Scratching is a natural behaviour in cats that serves two main purposes. The first is to renew the claw by dislodging the old nail growth and exposing a new, sharper claw. The second purpose is for marking. Cats rub against surfaces and scratch areas in their environment to convey chemical and visual messages. The paw pads can be used to mark surfaces with pheromones without exposing the claws. When the claws are exposed, scratch marks will also visually advise other animals of the cat’s presence or its claim to specific territory. Scratching also appears to be a pleasurable activity for cats.
Cat Healthy does not support elective and non-therapeutic Partial Digital Amputation (PDA), commonly known as declawing or onychectomy, of domestic cats. In light of the potential for immediate post-operative issues as well
as new emerging evidence regarding long-term health problems, it is important for the veterinary team, and particularly veterinarians, to discuss and recommend alternatives to declawing with clients. It is also important
for the veterinarian to help clients understand what is involved in the actual surgical procedure of declawing, explaining that the procedure involves amputation of the last bone (P3) of each digit. The veterinarian should review the surgical risks, as well as the short and long term potential for negative consequences.
Surgical Concerns and Risks
- Damage to collateral tissue including paw pads, P2, nerves, and blood vessels
- Insufficient pain prevention and management
- Tissue burns (from laser techniques)
- Intraoperative tourniquet that results in reduced blood supply to the limb and nerve damage
Short-term Post-operative Concerns and Risks
- Infection of surgical site
- Wound dehiscence
- Remnants of P3 left in-situ
- Reactions to suture or tissue adhesive used to close surgical sites
- Remnants of tissue adhesive causing subcutaneous swelling or discomfort
- Reduced blood supply with post-operative bandaging
- Post-operative pain as a result of the surgery in general and/or associated with any of the above complications
Long-term Post-surgical Concerns
- P3 remnants causing pain
- P3 remnant regrowth
- Tissue adhesive remnants causing pain and inflammation
- Tendon contracture
- Chronic phantom pain/amputee pain
- Altered gait
- Post-operative CHRONIC pain as a result of any of the above complications
Every practitioner believes that they offer the best surgical method and analgesic protocol. Nevertheless, post-operative complications are common and under-recognized. Residual pain can result in chronic, neuropathic pain that may be difficult to treat.
Controlling Surgical Pain
Regardless of the surgical method employed (laser, scalpel, guillotine nail clippers, etc.), onychectomy is a painful procedure. If performed, the procedure should include proper technique and effective pre-, intra- and post-operative analgesia. It is important to note that laser declaw does not prevent surgical pain. In two studies examining post-operative declaw pain in cats declawed by scalpel or laser, neither study concluded any long-term (greater than 2-5 days) reduction in post-operative pain when the procedure was performed by laser and laser declaw patients were never observed to be pain-free (Holmberg et al, 2006, Robinson et al, 2007, Wilson & Pascoe, 2016). Multimodal pain control should be used and is well tolerated in the cat. For example, the analgesia protocol could incorporate local nerve blocks, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, narcotics, and gabapentin. Pain management must be provided in advance of the surgery and for as long as the patient requires post-operatively in order to reduce the chance of neuropathic pain developing. Pain control guidelines (see Resources) are available to practitioners to assist in establishing appropriate analgesic protocols.
In past years, the practice of tendonectomy had been recommended as an alternative to declawing. This procedure involves surgical severing and/or removal of a short length of the deep digital flexor tendon for each digit. This prevents the cat from being able to expose the claws and will prevent all scratching activities. However, the procedure leaves the cat without the ability to shed the cap of growing, healthy claws, leading to painful thick nails that are difficult to trim and that are predisposed to growing into the paw pads. Therefore, tendonectomy is NOT recommended.
Supporting Normal Scratching Behaviour: Living in Harmony with Clawed Cats
To curtail the destructive aspect of scratching, a veterinary team member should demonstrate nail trimming at every opportunity, including the appropriate equipment. Some clinics elect to offer reduced cost or free nail trims for patients in order to improve nail care. The client should be shown basic nail anatomy (i.e., where the quick is), how to gently expose the nail for trimming, and how to use nail clippers. The frequency of nail trimming will depend on the age of the cat and how much of the nail is removed. Most cats’ nails need to be trimmed every 4-6 weeks. Vinyl nail caps (e.g., Soft Paws®) may be an attractive option for some clients.
Veterinary team members should discuss scratching behaviour and offer advice on how to modify the environment. Providing suitable stable scratching surfaces allows natural expression of this behaviour. Scratching surface preferences will vary from cat to cat so that having a variety of options available is always ideal. In general, cats prefer tall, solid structures that are covered in materials such as carpet, sisal, or natural tree bark. We recommend structures such as a cat tree that allows climbing and perching. Placing the cat tree in front of a window allows the cat to monitor outdoor wildlife activities. Other scratching surfaces include wall-mounted vertical units. Some cats, including senior and arthritic cats, may prefer horizontal surfaces. These may include flat carpet, sisal, or cardboard surfaces. These should be placed in areas where the family spends time as well as in a more private area for the cat. If scratching surfaces are only located in remote locations away from family, it is likely that they won’t be used. In all cases, encouraging play around and on the scratching surfaces will increase their use. Placement of catnip (fresh, dried, or catnip spray) may also make them more desirable.
Scratching Inappropriate Surfaces
Discouraging the cat from scratching inappropriate surfaces can be challenging. Punishment is not recommended, as this may result in, or exacerbate, anxiety, leading to escalation of the behaviour. The placement of two-sided sticky tape, tinfoil, plastic, or furniture covers may reduce scratching on these surfaces. Discussing where the cat is scratching furniture may help reveal what the threat is that is making the cat feel the need to reinforce territorial markings. Similarly, it may also indicate the optimal locations for cat scratching posts and other acceptable surfaces.
Sometimes, inappropriate scratching may escalate. With a goal to addressing the underlying problem, the veterinarian should discuss the potential causes with the client. Causes include:
- Social tension with other cats in household
- Outdoor cats marking around the perimeter of the house
- New cat or other pet in household
- Anxiety stemming from reduced availability of resources (litter boxes, food, water, beds, places to perch, toys, etc.)
- Anxieties from changes in the household schedule, inhabitants, furniture, etc.
Immunocompromised Individuals Living with Cats
In some cases, declawing is requested in order to protect an immunocompromised person from scratching and related disease. The United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend onychectomy as a means of disease control even in these instances. The CDC recommends an indoor lifestyle for cats living with immunocompromised individuals and regular flea prevention as a means of reducing the risk of exposure to Bartonella spp (Cat Scratch Disease). It discourages immunocompromised individuals from playing directly with young cats. This recommendation should be extended to any type of play involving one’s hands or feet with any age of cat as it might lead to biting or scratching. Clients should always avoid aggressive play with any cat, as it can increase the incidence of play aggression and the risk of injury to humans living with the cat. Similar recommendation could be made for individuals on anticoagulant drug therapy. Regular veterinary care, including nail trimming, parasite prevention, and appropriate dental care will reduce the infectious disease risks to immunocompromised individuals living with cats.
References available on request
CVMA Position Statement on Onychectomy:
AVMA Position Statement on Onychectomy:
Mills KE, von Keyserlingk MA, Niel L. A review of medically unnecessary surgeries in dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2016; 248(2):162-171.
Cat Healthy Pain Management:
AAHA/AAFP 2015 Pain Management Guidelines:
Centers for Disease Control Bartonella information:
How-to videos on trimming nails:
Proclaw Veterinarians of Canada:
Partners in Animal Health: