The Controversy

The declawing of cats continues to be a highly charged issue among cat owners and veterinarians. There are owners who sacrifice their furniture rather than declaw a cat and owners who declaw all their cats pre-emptively. There are veterinarians who will refuse to declaw cats and others who have no qualms about it whatever. Most cat owners and most veterinarians will declaw cats but with some misgivings. Even among veterinarians who have no qualms about declawing it remains an uncomfortable issue because owners frequently ask discomfiting questions.

What The Procedure Is

It is technically called an onychectomy and constitutes an amputation of the toe at the last joint. This removes the claw and the bone from which it originates. On a human hand this would be an amputation at the knuckle just above the nail.

Common Arguments in Favor

Cats are destructive to furniture, cats attack other cats in the house, cats attack the owner or children, cats inadvertently snag their claws on the owner or children. The owner has HIV or is otherwise immunocompromised.

Common Arguments Against

Recovery from the procedure is painful. Some veterinarians think it is excruciatingly painful, some characterize it as "uncomfortable". Surgical complications: Inadvertent removal of part of a digital pad, incomplete removal of the nail bed and partial regrowth of the nail, infection, rare anesthetic complications. Also cited are disfigurement of the feet, lameness for inapparent reasons, long healing time in older cats, psychological trauma, inability to defend oneself from other cats, inability to climb outdoors, though some cats can still climb. Some people feel that it is a surgery of convenience for the owner on the order of ear cropping and tail docking.

Ethical Considerations

Please note that these considerations are very different from those generally discussed in relation to declawing. These are the philosophical arguments underlying the common ones. Even though these considerations seem abstract most positions that people take with respect to declawing are based on the following:

Is it permissible to subordinate the welfare of one species to another? Is it permissible to impose one's will on a member of another species at all? Is it permissible to impose one's will on a member of another species "for his/her own good". If it is permissible to impose one's will on a member of another species "for his/her own good" how far is one entitled to go before violating this trust? Who is entitled to make the decison and on what authority?

No Moral Hierarchy

If one believes that there is no moral hierarchy on earth, we were all just put here together or we all just evolved here together then there is no defensible argument justifying cats hamstringing humans to prevent them from exercising their filthy habits, e.g. killing and torturing other humans by the millions, polluting the oceans and atmosphere, filling wrecking yards with dead cars and exploiting children for financial gain. The reverse argument makes equal sense; humans have no right to incarcerate and surgically alter cats to prevent them from exercising their filthy habits. The argument that cats have an inherent right to protect their planet from destruction only holds as far as making us stop that destruction but does not extend to merely offensive activities. This argument does not work well in reverse because to avoid direct damage by cats all we have to do is refrain from handling them.

Moral Hierarchy

If, however, one believes that there is a moral hierarchy on earth, that is some species are more equal than others and are worth more than others either inherently or in the eyes of a god, then the argument becomes more complicated. I have not yet heard a convincing argument which endows humans with moral superiority, and the right to control and manipulate other species for our own benefit, that does not invoke God or a god as the grantor of those rights. This argument, in the western world, usually devolves into a discussion of whether God or a god exists, whether the bible is in fact the literal word of God and whether the interpretation of the words written there should be taken as carte blanche rulership over other species or "stewardship".

Benign Captivity

Are we entitled to keep cats indoors, breed them, declaw them? If you believe in biblical carte blanche, no problem. We're better, we're more important, they're here for us. If you don't or are not so sure then the question becomes one of where to draw the line, how do you justify each infringement on their freedom. Keeping a cat indoors? They live longer, they suffer fewer infectious diseases and, as my veterinarian friend makes the case, one is protecting native bird species from them*. Personally I can almost buy the argument. If we are entitled to do what is necessary "for their own good" and to protect ourselves that would probably entitle us to feed them, vaccinate them, spay and castrate them to prevent overpopulation. All these things are arguabley advantageous to cats as a species.


Having decided to keep these animals in the house most people (excusing those with biblical carte blanche) would agree that they are obliged to ameliorate the conditions of their captivity by keeping the litter box clean, feeding them, keeping them free of fleas and other external and internal parasites. That's easy, but what does one do about those activities which are perfectly normal but offensive to us; scratching the furniture, tearing up the carpet, scratching people, spraying and digging in the plants? The remedies to
hese offenses in no way benefit the cat, they only benefit people. Whether you subscribe to rationale A, B or C -

(A)     We can do whatever we want with them because we're entitled.
(B)     We're keeping them indoors for their own good.
(C)     We're not so sure where we stand ethically but we like cats indoors.

- the practico-ethical question becomes how far are we going to go to get what we want, relief from this noxious behavior. My answer is this: Do the least damaging thing to the
cat which will get you what you want. Since we are discussing the justification for declawing let's forget the other offenses.

Remedies Ranked

1.    Not all cats are destructive. Let them be innocent until proven guilty; give them scratching posts, scratching pads, cat trees and show them how to use them.
2.    Behavioral modification - successful behavioral modification constitutes a cure, no more problems. It requires, however, concentrated vigilance and action. Initial
attempts often fail and require persistence, inventiveness and willingness to try a number of different techniques.
3.    Nail Clipping - Low tech and relatively simple but you have to do it or get your veterinarian or groomer to do it. Not fool proof. They can still do some limited damage but sometimes get out of the habit of scratching because it's not the same without the tips.
4.    Soft Paws™ - This product consists of blunt plastic sheaths which are "Superglued" onto the nails. They need to be replaced as they fall off.
5.    Tendonotomy - Surgical procedure, not new but currently in vogue. Prevents extrusion of the claws and scratching. Reputed to be more humane, less painful than declawing but requires clipping the nails every two to four months so they don't grow long and catch on things.
6.    Declawing.

The Real Issue

For most people the real issue is not whether it is ethical to declaw a cat, the real issue is whether they are going to spend the time and energy to seek alternatives. For many people a cat is an accessory to their lifestyle or a concession to one of their children. Declawing the cat only costs money, training the cat requires attention. Frequently the latter is in shorter supply than the former. This is symptomatic of owning too much and doing too many things to do justice to any of them. Being in this trap myself I understand it. Maybe someone with a way out will write in and help us all.

*One veterinarian I know is violently opposed to allowing cats outdoors. Cats kill many birds some of which are indigenous species; domestic cats are not. This veterinarian would certainly agree that pet cats should be indoors.

© Copyright 2008, Matthew J. Ehrenberg

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