Scratching Behaviour and Nail Care in Cats
Scratching is a natural behaviour in cats that serves two purposes. The first is to renew the claw by dislodging the old nail sheath 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 also visually advise other animals of the cat’s presence or its claim to a 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. This procedure is banned in numerous provinces and all VCA hospitals. In light of the potential for immediate post-operative issues as well as new emerging evidence regarding long-term health and behaviour 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
- Increased risk for inappropriate behaviours (periuria/perichezia, aggression, biting, coat barbering) and back pain (Martell-Moran)
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.
A Claw Friendly Educational Toolkit can be accessed by anyone on the AAFP website (Resources). Veterinary team members should discuss scratching behaviour and offer advice on how to modify the environment. Providing a suitable stable scratching surface allows natural expression of this behaviour. Scratching surface preferences will vary from cat to cat so having a variety of options available is always ideal. In general, cats prefer tall, sturdy structures that are covered in 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 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 placement of cat scratching posts and other acceptable surfaces.
Sometimes, inappropriate scratching may escalate. With a goal to address 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 recommendations 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.
Resource: Client-Veterinary Team Declawing Talking Points
Thank you for calling (clinic name)! This is (your name). How may I help you?
How much does it cost to have my cat declawed? May I ask you a few things about your kitty? I’m sorry: I missed your name.
And what’s your cat’s name?
I apologize, I can’t remember. Have we seen (Tigger) before, (Janice?)
Could you please tell me why you want to have (Tigger) declawed?
I see. Do you know what declawing entails?
Removing the nails, isn’t it?
Well, yes but it actually involves amputating each finger/toe at the first knuckle.
or Yes/All of my cats are declawed.
Did you realize that it is an amputation of the last part of every finger/toe? Cat nails are different from ours: they are actually part of the bone.
That’s horrible! But all of my other cats are declawed! (guilt and concern) If I don’t get (Tigger) declawed, it won’t be fair to the others/he’ll be able to hurt them!
I don’t think you have to worry about that, (Janice). Cats usually don’t fight with their claws and the others will protect themselves by running away or with their teeth.
It isn’t amputation! That’s not true!
Yah, I was upset to learn this, too! Declawing (onychectomy) is removal of each “finger/toe” at the last knuckle. By definition, this is amputation as amputation is the removal of a part of the body from the rest of the body. In humans, amputations are done only for medical reasons to save a person’s life or for torture.
Declawing is classified as a medically unnecessary procedure. It can involve a painful recovery for the animal once the pain meds have worn off and sometimes the pain meds aren’t enough to fully relieve the pain. You know how painful it is when you slam a door on your finger/toe. Imagine the source of that pain never stopping! Maybe you’ve heard of phantom pain?
I can’t trim (Tigger’s) nails! He won’t let me!
I understand, (Janice). It can be a bit tricky in some cats, but once I learned to reward my cat for every nail I trimmed, he mellowed out about it. In fact, now he doesn’t mind at all…and I only need to give him one treat per paw! I also learned how to hold him so he is comfortable and doesn’t feel he needs to struggle. I’d love to show you how! (There is no cost and I’d love to show you how!)
I thought that cats are always declawed when they are spayed/neutered!
I understand. Clinics that offer declawing often perform that surgery at the same time as spaying and neutering but the procedures do not go together.
But what about my furniture? I have expensive leather furniture (some other reason re: furniture).
We/I would be very happy to spend time with you to teach you how to prevent furniture damage! Our clinic offers scratching consultations (at no charge because we feel so strongly about making sure that cats get to keep their claws). I used to think that trimming my cat’s nails would be difficult. In fact, because I give him/her treats, he/she actually doesn’t mind this at all. You know, by rewarding their cooperation. There are several kinds of scratching posts/devices/surfaces, so I’m sure we’ll find one that Tigger likes and you can live with. Also, have you heard about nail caps/Soft Paws? They are really easy to apply. We’ll show you how. In fact, we are very happy to put them on Tigger for you. I think you’ll like them.
Scratching is a normal behaviour for cats. They scratch to shed old nail sheaths, to mark their territory (so enemies stay away) and because it feels good! I’m sure you’ve seen how blissful they look when they stretch and scratch!
Sometimes when cats spray to mark their territory in the house, we get them to stop spraying by improving their scratching options! Neat, eh? And yah, sometimes when cats can’t scratch, they’ll spray instead. :-/ And once a cat is declawed, they need to stay inside.
My landlord says I have to have my cat declawed.
Ah…what a shame that your landlord is telling you this. Have you checked with City Hall/the municipality? Landlords certainly have the right to protect their property, but they actually aren’t allowed to insist on what you do or don’t do to your cat.
I can’t find a place that takes cats unless they are declawed.
Well, any place that is open to allowing animals, cannot discriminate based on the presence of nails or not. If you check with City Hall, I think you’ll find that while landlords certainly have the right to protect their property, they actually aren’t allowed to insist on what you do or don’t do to your cat.
My cats stay inside, so they don’t have threats! Besides, keeping them indoors is more responsible!
You are right that indoor cats can’t be hit by cars or get into fights with other animals, but we still have to meet their behavioural needs so that they can do the things that make a cat, a cat. And sometimes, when cats don’t get to do all of the things that a cat is designed to do, they feel distressed and will act in ways we don’t like. It’s really sad: behaviour problems are the number one reason that cats are taken to a shelter. They are also more likely to be euthanized, released, or abandoned.
I live with an immunocompromised person and I don’t want them to get scratched!
That’s understandable! I wouldn’t want my child or parent/grandparent, etc. to be scratched either. Sometimes people believe that cats spread dangerous things via scratches. It is true that cat scratch disease is spread via scratches, but the organism that causes this disease is found in flea dirt, so treating for and preventing fleas, we eliminate that risk. Trimming nails every 4-6 weeks really helps as well. You know, I probably have been scratched more often than people that don’t work in a veterinary clinic, and I have never gotten cat scratch disease!
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) does NOT recommend declawing as a way to protect immunocompromised people (babies, elderly, cancer patients, or other reasons) because cats are more likely to defend themselves by biting, and THAT is much more dangerous.
The Humane Society of the United States is against declawing except for the rare case when it is necessary for medical purposes, such as the removal of cancerous nail bed tumours.
But my other vet told me that it doesn’t hurt the cat! (Example: great analgesic protocol, does more declawing than others, uses a technique/laser that is way better.)
It’s great that he/she paid attention to pain relief/good surgical technique. Unfortunately, by amputating the fingers/toes, nerves are cut, tissue is irreversibly damaged and the mechanics of walking are changed. After amputation, it is common for people to suffer from phantom pain. While many cats cope well and hide their pain, some don’t jump as high, stop using the litter box, move less or even bite as a way to protect/defend themselves…it’s really sad. Some cats can have other complications like contraction of their tendons (like “trigger finger” in humans), remnants of bone causing pain or remnants of tissue adhesive used during surgery. No matter how well pain is apparently managed, we can never prevent these things from happening to some of our declawed cats.
It really sounds like you love (Tigger)! What other questions do you have?
We are all really proud that we/our doctors don’t declaw.
I’ll take him to another clinic to have him declawed! Do you want to lose me as a client/customer?
Of course I/we don’t want to lose you as a client (Janice), and I respect your right to make your own decision. But our doctors/we believe that cats need their nails and can’t sleep at night if we perform a procedure that we don’t believe is in a cat’s best interest. After thinking about this, please let us know where you would like us to send (Tigger’s) medical record so there is a smooth transition in his care.
Who gives you the right to judge me?
I’m sorry that you hear it this way. I’m certainly not judging you. However, we don’t believe that this would be good for (Tigger). Can you agree that we both have the right to have different philosophies?
I’ll have to take him to the shelter/get rid of him/put him down if you don’t declaw him.
You sound like you are really upset. I know you love (Tigger) and don’t like him (scratching the furniture/are worried about him scratching the baby/whatever the concern was) but I would really like to have the chance to see how we can make this work for both of you. Would you like to come in for a complimentary scratching consultation to see if there’s another way?
How can you justify not declawing when you promote spaying and castration? That is taking away an animal’s right to reproduce, the most basic right of all!
Declawing is deemed to be a “medically unnecessary procedure”. Elective neutering of animals not only reduces the risk for them developing future health problems (i.e., pyometra, mammary gland neoplasia, and reproductive tract–related neoplasia), by preventing unplanned breeding, it prevents unwanted animals from being born. Hundreds of thousands of cats are euthanized every year in shelters. There is a difference. While spaying and neutering prevent health problems, declawing actually causes many unpredictable, potentially life-long health problems.
FELINE SPECIALIST AUTHORS
- Susan Little, DVM, DABVP (Feline Practice) Bytown Cat Hospital, Ottawa, Ontario
- Diane McKelvey, DVM, DABVP (Feline Practice) Aberdeen Veterinary Hospital, Kamloops, British Columbia
- Elizabeth O’Brien, DVM, DABVP (Feline Practice) The Cat Clinic, Hamilton, Ontario
- Elizabeth Ruelle, DVM, DABVP (Feline Practice) Wild Rose Cat Clinic of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta
- Kelly St. Denis, MSC, DVM, DABVP (Feline Practice)
- Margie Scherk, DVM, DABVP (Feline Practice) catsINK, Vancouver, British Columbia
Please Note: Not all resources are available in both English and French.