Q: I recently adopted a kitten named Joy from a rescue that prohibits declawing. When I signed the adoption agreement, I planned to have her declawed anyway. Now that it’s time to make the appointment, I feel uneasy. What are the advantages and disadvantages of declawing?
A: The term “declaw” is a euphemism for the elective amputation of all toes of the cat’s front paws or front and hind paws.
If you look at your own fingers, you’ll note that your nails emerge from the third bone of each finger. A cat’s claw also grows from the third bone.
To permanently remove the claw, the surgeon must cut off the third bone of each toe. Look again at your fingers, and consider whether you’d agree to having each one amputated at the last knuckle.
Scratching is a natural behavior for a cat, a way to stretch, remove old nail sheaths, and mark territory. Clearly, toe amputation will give Joy no joy.
The disadvantages are the most important reasons to refrain from having Joy’s toes amputated. Infection, hemorrhage, laceration of the pads and worse do occur, but the worst problem is long-term pain.
Amputation severs nerves, tendons, ligaments, joint capsules, and bone. These structures are alive with pain receptors, which explains why, after amputation, 60 percent to 80 percent of humans suffer chronic pain described as burning, electric-like pain that doesn’t respond well to treatment.
In a 2017 study of cats whose toes were amputated, bone shards remained in the paws of 63 percent of the cats. Imagine walking on those tiny needles.
In addition, cats’ front legs support 60 percent of their body weight. Amputation of the toes of the front paws changes how the cat walks, often forcing them to walk on the back of the front paw instead of the toes.
Pain also induces these cats to shift their weight onto their hind legs, pelvis, and back, increasing their risk of osteoarthritis. In fact, cats with amputated toes are three times more likely to suffer back pain than cats with normal toes.
As pain worsens over time, levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase. Chronically elevated cortisol increases the risk of diabetes and immune dysfunction.
Research shows that certain behaviors are significantly more common in cats with amputated toes, presumably because of chronic pain. These include elimination outside the litter box, biting and other forms of aggression, and overgrooming of feet and legs.
The United States is one of the few developed countries that hasn’t outlawed elective feline toe amputation. Countries and regions that have banned the procedure include the United Kingdom, most of Europe and Canada, Israel, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
Keep Joy happy by preserving her toes in their natural, comfortable, functional form.
Q: Our 15-year-old toy poodle recently starting urinating on our bathroom floor once or twice a day. She sleeps through the night and appears healthy. Should we buy pee pads for the bathroom floor and train her to use them, or scold her and try to stop this annoying habit?
A: Neither. Her new urination habits may result from a painful urinary tract infection. If that’s the case, an antibiotic will stop her pain and the unwanted behavior.
If she’s drinking more water and therefore has to empty her bladder more often, she may have kidney dysfunction, diabetes, Cushing’s disease, or some other medical problem that would benefit from veterinary intervention.
Or she may have canine senile cognitive dysfunction, sometimes called doggie dementia. If that’s the case, a diet change, behavior modification, and medication can stop the inappropriate urination and improve her quality of life.
I feel confident that a trip to her veterinarian for an exam and routine lab work will resolve the problem.