More than half of the homes in the US have a cat or cats as pets. And love them like we do, there are still areas of concern cat owners have about safely living with them.
While inappropriate urination may be number one on that list, and second is biting. A close third is the danger of having cat claws contact human skin and human prized possessions. And granted, yes, you can replace your belongings. However, it is easier to live in harmony with our cats when their claws are disarmed.
There has been a movement in the last 20 years away from surgically declawing cats. As an elective procedure, this historically had been done almost as commonly as neutering and spaying.
What to Do About Cat Claws
There are two main reasons we need to manage cat’s claws:
1. Damage to our personal possessions. This can be a challenge to manage. We can provide cats with appropriate surfaces to scratch on and train them to use these surfaces. There are sprays to attract cats to these surfaces. There are suggested areas to place these portable surfaces to entice cats to use these. There are known preferred textures and surfaces that cats like so using these can be important. If using a scratching post or tree, they must be non-tippable and long enough that a cat using it can stretch out their full length with their front and hind legs extended or they are less likely to find it “rewarding” to use these posts. If using a cardboard scratching surface, the cardboard must run long direction so the cat is attracted to use. There are also sprays to help prevent and limit cat scratching by spraying the furniture or item the cat is attracted to. Protecting your belongings or those that you rent from may not be justification for surgical intervention.
2. Damage to the human. Many scratches to human skin are done inadvertently by the cat. Most cats don’t set out to hurt their human housemates. Scratches can include those from launching off their humans lap, landing on their human, and accidental scratches when a cat is frightened and is trying to get out of harms way. For people who are on anti-coagulants, this can cause bruising and bleeding. For people who are immunocompromised for a variety of health problems, this can lead to infections. There is an infection caused by an organism that actually causes “cat scratch fever”. These infections can be serious, even in people with healthy immune systems. For these reasons, there are health care providers that may require or recommend these cat owners eliminate cats from their homes and lives. This would be devastating to those people tightly bonded to their cats.
Since routinely declawing cats at spaying and neutering is no longer done, we need to offer alternatives to cat declawing. Some owners must protect their skin from injury due to cat scratches. In the very young, elderly, patients on immunosuppressants, patients on chemotherapy, patients on anti-coagulants (blood thinners) and patients with immunosuppressive disorders such as AIDS, these scratches can lead to serious health consequences and eliminating of cats in their lives. Many of these patients live alone or have small families. The cat(s) can be an essential part of their interactions and mental health.
So if we no longer find it palatable, legal, or morally appropriate to declaw our cat(s), what alternatives do we have? There are plastic sheathes that can be glued onto the cats nails. However, these are hard to apply, cats resist them, and they are only a short term solution.
Trimming a Cat’s Nails
Watch as Dr. Greer demonstrates and provides tips on how to trim kitten nails.
Deep Digital Flexor Tendonectomy
Unfortunately, not all cats learn to use a scratching post and sprays don’t always work with every cat. When it comes to alternatives, what works for some, might not work for others. So for some cat owners their options become ask their veterinarian for a more permanent solution or surrender their cat to a shelter, which is hard for the cat and the owner. If you find yourself in this situation, the best alternative is to ask your veterinarian to perform a minor surgical procedure known as a Deep Digital Flexor Tendonectomy (DDFT). This can easily be performed while the cat is under anesthesia for a spay or neuter, or dental procedure. Or, it can be done alone. It does require general anesthesia. A small slit incision is made on the underside of each toe. The tendon that controls the claw is isolated and about 6 mm of the tendon is removed. Then the skin is glued closed. There is little to no bleeding, no bandaging, and no overnight stay in the hospital. A local block and a few short days of oral or injectable post-op pain medication is administered and sent home with the cat.
By a day or two post-op, the cat will be back to moving around your home comfortably, using the litter box, eating, drinking, and interacting with you. The only difference is that you no longer have to wear jeans in the summer or long sleeves to protect your skin. You don’t have to worry that the cat will Velcro themselves to the leather couch, climb your favorite stereo speakers, or dangle from the curtains.
The only downside to this is that you will still need to provide nail trimming. The cat will not be able to shed the nail sheath by using a scratching post or your precious family heirlooms.
By offering this procedure of the Deep Digital Flexor Tendonotomy to cat owners who can learn or have their cat’s nails trimmed periodically, veterinarians and cat owners can safely have cats in the homes of people who might otherwise be unable to share their homes with these amazing pets. In my experience of 40 years in practice, I see benefits of the Deep Digital Flexor Tendonotomy for purposes of supporting the human-animal bond outweighs the concerns held by some of the down-side to the cat. I would much prefer keeping or putting a cat into a happy home with an owner who could not otherwise have one of these amazing animal companions.
Finding a Provider
This is not a difficult procedure for most veterinarians to learn and perform. And the cost should be affordable. Spay/neuter clinics are unlikely to perform this procedure at desexing procedures. You will likely have to find a veterinarian who is well versed in feline surgery and care.
Those of you who love living with cats, or wish you could, will find this a great alternative to the fear of cat claw damage, deliberate or inadvertent.
Contact your veterinary professional for more information on these alternatives to cat declawing or damage.
–Marty Greer, DVM DVM, Director of Veterinary Services at Revival Animal Health
Marty Greer, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, has 35+ years’ experience in veterinary medicine, with special interests in canine reproduction and pediatrics. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Iowa State University in 1981. She’s served as Revival’s Director of Veterinary Services since 2019.