Straight talk on declawing

Posted: Friday, September 07, 2007

In the novel I'm reading, the main character is a man with a declawed cat.

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"Either that cat of yours gets declawed or I'm out of here!" his wife had declared when she caught his longtime pet having his way with a slipcover. The man came to regret having taken the first option.

"Remember what I said about Pincus being an indoor cat and not having any claws, and how he couldn't climb trees to get away from things like dogs?" he berates the housesitter who lets his cat out. Then he acknowledges, "It's my fault for letting his claws be removed in the first place."

I can relate to that. I had a cat that I loved, and I had her declawed. That was 40 years ago. The world and I have learned a few things since then:

Suntanning damages your skin. Stick margarine isn't better than butter for your arteries. And declawing a cat is not a decision to be taken lightly in the interests of convenience.

I'm not going to jump on those of you who have declawed cats. I did it, too. And I do not presume to judge diabetics and others whose health dictates that they scrupulously avoid being scratched. But I want to bring you up to date on declawing so you can make an informed decision if and when faced with it.

Declawing isn't just removing the nails, but amputating the toes at the first joint.

This is a very painful surgery for the cat, 10 on a scale of 10. Post-operative painkillers now are available. They don't add much to the total cost, and, frankly, foregoing them is flat-out cruel.

Plan to spend some time in finding a veterinarian. Some vets no longer declaw and it is illegal in some places.

Choose a veterinarian who has had extensive experience with the surgery. There is potential for nerve damage, which can result in chronic pain. That, in turn, may cause litter-box avoidance. When digging hurts, the cat is inclined to do his or her business outside the box.

Claws are a cat's primary means of defense and escape. The second line of defense and escape is biting. Some declawed cats become problem biters. If scratching endangers a person's health, is biting OK?

Declawing also can lead to personality changes. Previously friendly, outgoing pets may turn into scaredy cats. Intuitively, that makes sense. They are feeling - and, indeed, are - defenseless.

Back when I declawed my cat, we didn't know these things. Declawing seemed like the modern, convenient thing to do. We've since learned it isn't the silver bullet we thought it was.

There are effective alternatives.

Invest in a good-sized scratching pad or post where a cat can really dig in to stretch his back and shed the outer husks of his nails. The cat's doing that is instinctive and necessary. You need to give him a good place to do it.

While weaning him from the furniture, you may want to put Sticky Paws, a 2-sided tape, on the spots where he likes to scratch.

Clip the sharp tip off each new nail as it is exposed. It's much easier on both of you to do one nail at a time rather than 20 at once. For complete protection, cap the nails with Soft Paws protective nail covers.

This takes some time, especially at first when you're both learning a new routine. Cats learn faster when rewarded with praise, petting and kitty treats. Yes, an old cat can learn new tricks.

And if the best match for your needs is a declawed cat, there are plenty of them - beautiful, affectionate, and in need of homes - that come through the Gastineau Humane Society shelter on a regular basis. Consider adopting one of them. In addition to saving the cost of surgery, you'll know in advance about any quirks in their behavior or personality.

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She's a believer in spaying and neutering to reduce the number of homeless cats.

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