The science and ethics of declawing

Krystal Rancourt
26 January 2015

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/epantha

Animals have been domesticated throughout human history for a variety of reasons—they can help people hunt, control pests, and provide companionship. One 4000-year-old example is the cat, known for its piercing eyes, amazing reflexes, and retractable claws.

Did you know? The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association opposes the surgical removal of claws (onychectomy) of non-domestic carnivores kept in captivity, except for animal health reasons.When adopting a cat, you may wonder whether you should have it declawed. After all, do you really want your walls and furniture used as scratching posts? However, it is important to understand how claws work, the consequences of declawing, and why the procedure has been banned in many places around the world.

In nature, claws are used to meet many of a feline’s everyday needs, including marking territory on trees and rocks, hunting, and climbing. The act of scratching releases special hormones called pheromones that indicate ownership over a territory and serve as a warning to other animals. During mating season, these pheromones also help wild cats find potential partners.

Declawing, also known as onychectomy, involves amputating the claw up to the proximal phalanges. In other words, it’s comparable to cutting off about half of each of your fingers. Another procedure, deep digital flexor tendonectomy, involves cutting the tendon between the second and third phalanges. This tendon is essential for using claws and, when it is cut, the cat loses the use of its claws altogether. There are many variations on these procedures, each with its own risks and potential complications.

Declawing involves amputating the claw up to the proximal phalanges. Click image to enlarge (Wikimedia Commons/Turn685)

Did you know? Although legal in Canada, declawing has been banned in 28 countries around the world.The most common problem after an onychectomy is pain and infection, which can alter a cat’s behavior temporarily or permanently. Many believe that a tendonectomy is less harmful than an amputation but, as with any surgery, there is always risk of infection and complications. Contrary to humans, cats’ facial expressions don’t necessarily indicate pain or discomfort. However, cats are known to become more aggressive and depressed after tendonectomies, and they sometimes never recover from the trauma. Still, some cats go on to live normal lives after the procedure without any pain or discomfort.

Veterinarian Jennifer Conrad has conducted studies on the consequences of declawing larger cats such as lions, tigers, and mountain lions. She found that many of these felines were handicapped and their lives significantly shortened because of infections related to the procedure. Conrad and a colleague have even developed a technique for restoring the clawing reflex in previously declawed cats. They attach the digital flexor to the digital extensor tendon, which restores the flexing or clawing motion for these cats. After the procedure, the cats were able to perform a scratching motion without any pain. Most importantly, the veterinarians determined that the animal’s quality of life was improved by comparing walking behaviour before and after the procedure. However, the procedure is very expensive and its long-term effects still need to be evaluated.

Did you know? The Paw Project, founded by a veterinarian specializing in exotic animals, seeks to raise public awareness of the negative consequences of declawing cats.Veterinarians are divided over whether declawing should be allowed. Many believe that when the procedure is done properly, postoperative complications are rare and the quality of life of both the cat and its owner can be improved. Others see declawing as inherently cruel, dangerous, and unnecessary.

Like other body parts, claws are important for a cat and taking them away can have negative and permanent consequences. There are also many alternatives to declawing such as gel caps for claws, scratching posts, and regularly clipping your cat’s claws. And although it is banned in many places, the debate over declawing continues in many parts of the world, including Canada.

Learn more!

Online sources

Declawing Cats: Positives, Negatives, and Alternatives (2015)
Sandy Eckstein, WebMD.com 

Answers to commonly asked questions about declawing.

Declawing.com (2015)
Dr. Christianne Schelling

Anti-declawing website maintained by a veterinarian. Includes facts about declawing and information on alternatives.

Onychectomy (declawing) of non-domestic carnivores kept in captivity – position statement (2011)
Canadian Veterinary Medical Association

Explanation of why Canadian veterinarians oppose declawing of wild felines and other carnivores kept in captivity.

Other sources

S. Cloutier, R. C. Newberry, A. J. Cambridge, K. M. Tobias. (2005). Behavioral signs of postoperative pain in cats following onychectomy or tenectomy surgery. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 92(4), 325-335.

Article reporting results into a study of pain experienced by felines after onychectomy or tenectomy and showing that both procedures appear to cause similar amounts of pain. An abstract is available on the journal’s website but a subscription is required to view the full text.

J. Swiderski. (2002). Onychectomy and its Alternatives in the Feline Patient. Clinical Techniques in Small Animal Practice 17(4), 158-61.

Article discussing the positive and negative aspects of onychectomy, as well as alternatives and surgical techniques. An abstract is available on the publisher’s website but a subscription is required to view the full text.

Krystal Rancourt


I have recently graduated from Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario and starting my master's at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. My research experience so far is evaluating predator-prey interactions for the wolverine in the Yukon Territory. In future years, I would like to contribute to conservation efforts towards Big Cat and Small Cat species all over the world. Studies in the winter also fascinate me and less information is collected during this season. I also enjoy reading, writing and hiking. Never let anyone tell you what you dream isn't possible!


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Comment

Avatar  Angela Culley

There are many fine, highly detailed articles expounding the pros and cons of onychectomy. Not one single article, however, attempts to trace the origins of this procedure....in terms of a place, country, person, etc..... where this procedure was first attempted. Why not?