Partial Digital Amputation (Onychectomy or Declawing) of the Domestic Felid
March 5, 2022
Position statements developed by the CVMA reflect current knowledge regarding animal welfare. While they are not legislative, they do represent CVMA’s ongoing commitment to the advancement of animal welfare.
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) strongly opposes elective and non-therapeutic Partial Digital Amputation (PDA), commonly known as declawing or onychectomy, of domestic cats.
- The goal of non-therapeutic PDA is to eliminate the ability of a cat to cause damage to the owner’s belongings or to inflict wounds by scratching.
- The CVMA views non medically necessary PDA surgery as unacceptable as it offers no advantages to the feline, may lead to long term negative consequences, and alternatives to PDA are available.
- Veterinarians should educate clients about strategies that provide alternatives to PDA.
- Claws are used by cats to assist with balance, climbing, and self-defence. In addition to helping with claw conditioning and whole-body stretching, scratching of surfaces in their environment is a normal feline behaviour and is used as a method of marking their territory both visually and with scent (1).
- Partial digital amputation (PDA) is the surgical removal of the third phalanx (last bone) of the digit (toe) including the attached claw.
- Non-therapeutic PDA typically involves the front paws only, although surgery on the digits of all four paws is sometimes performed. The goal is to eliminate the ability of a cat to cause damage to the owner’s belongings or to inflict wounds by scratching. While sometimes performed with the belief that it will decrease the health risk to immunocompromised people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that declawing is not recommended to prevent cat scratch disease (2).
- Therapeutic PDA is recognised by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) as an appropriate therapy for conditions such as tumors or chronic infections of the toe (3).
- Surgical amputation of the third phalanx of the digit causes short-term severe pain and has the potential to cause long term pain and negative long-term orthopedic consequences (4-6).
- As with any surgery, PDA can also result in complications due to adverse reactions to anesthetics, poor surgical technique, hemorrhage, infection, and lack of effective perioperative pain management.
- Since the third phalanx is removed during a PDA, cats must thereafter bear their weight on the second phalanx. This fact, along with the difficulties detecting subtle gait changes in domestic felines, (7) has implicated PDA as a potential cause of chronic discomfort and lameness.
- A thorough review of the literature revealed that although some cats do not appear to experience long-term orthopedic issues after PDA surgery, other cats have chronic orthopedic issues and/or pain even if published surgical techniques are successfully followed (8,9).
- Both acute and chronic pain in felines can increase the expression of behaviours such as inappropriate elimination, excessive vocalization, and increased aggression (10,11).
- Veterinarians pledge to promote animal health and welfare and to prevent animal suffering in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics (12). Therefore, the CVMA views non medically necessary PDA surgery as unacceptable as it offers no advantage to the feline and may lead to long term negative consequences.
- Tendonectomy is not an acceptable alternative to PDA because it causes similar pain post-surgery (4, 11,13,) and could lead to increased complications if the nails are not properly maintained.
- Reasonable and effective alternatives to non-therapeutic PDA exist. The CVMA suggests that a consultation with a veterinarian is the most appropriate way of selecting the right solutions for an individual cat and their guardian (13,14). Solutions for unwanted scratching on objects might include providing appropriate scratching surfaces, reward-based modification of where to scratch, and mechanisms to deter cats from scratching undesirable locations. Feline aggression is a more complicated situation. A veterinarian will need to determine the cause of the scratching before suggesting appropriate solutions.
- It has been suggested that preventing access to PDA surgery will increase the relinquishment of cats to humane societies and will increase the number of cats being euthanized at those establishments. However, a study conducted by a province-wide network of humane societies 3 years after the implementation of a ban on PDA surgery in that province, concluded that implementation of a ban does not increase shelter intake of cats (including for reasons related to destructive scratching), nor does it increase shelter euthanasia (15).
- At present, elective PDA is prohibited in eight Canadian provinces (BC, AB, SASK, NB, MB, PEI, NS, NL), one US state (NY), and multiple US municipalities. It is also banned in the UK, Brazil, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and most European countries (16). CVMA supports the adoption of similar prohibitions in all jurisdictions.
- In locations where PDA is still permitted the CVMA supports the development of educational materials that clearly describe the potential harm that could be caused by PDA along with the availability of many accessible alternatives (17). Where not prohibited, the CVMA confirms that veterinarians have the right to refuse to perform non-therapeutic PDA surgery.
- Vitale-Shreve K, Udell M. The influence of chemical signals on the social lives of domestic cats and implications for applied settings. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2016; 187:69-76.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bartonella Infection https://www.cdc.gov/bartonella/cat-scratch/index.html Last accessed Dec 14, 2021.
- Verde M. 2005. Canine and Feline Nail Diseases. Proceedings of the NAVC. Available from: https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.572.1552&rep=rep1&type=pdf Last accessed Dec 14, 2021.
- MacPhail C, Fossum TW. Surgery of the Integumentary System. In: Fossum TW. Small Animal Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier Inc, 2019; 179-265.
- Mills KE, von Keyserlingk MA, Niel L. A review of medically unnecessary surgeries in dogs and cats JAVMA, 2016;248:162-171.
- Robinson DA, Romans CW, Gordon-Evans WJ, et al. Evaluation of short-term limb function following unilateral carbon dioxide laser or scalpel onychectomy in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2007;230:353–358.
- Stamper C. Osteoarthritis in Cats: A More Common Disease Than You Might Expect. Available from: http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/ResourcesforYou/AnimalHealthLiteracy/ucm382772.htm Last accessed Dec 14, 2021.
- American Veterinary Medical Association. Welfare Implications of Declawing of Domestic Cats – Literature Review 2019. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/literature-reviews/welfare-implications-declawing-domestic-cats
- Martell-Moran NK, Solano M, Townsend HG. Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats. J Feline Med Surg 2018;20(4):280-288. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28534655/
- Hellyer P, Rodan I, Brunt J, Downing R, Hagedorn JE, Robertson SA. AAHA/AAFP pain management guidelines for dogs and cats. J Fel Med and Surg 2007;9:466-480.
- Cloutier S, Newberry RC, Cambridge AJ, Tobias KM. Behavioural signs of postoperative pain in cats following onychectomy or tenectomy surgery. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2005;92:325-335.
- CVMA Veterinarians Oath. 2004. Available from: https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/about/veterinary-oath. Last accessed Dec 14,2021.
- Suska N, Beekman G, Monroe P, Rose C. AAFP Position Statement: Declawing. J Fel Med and Surg 2017;19(9):829-830. https://catvets.com/public/PDFs/PositionStatements/2015-Declawing.pdf . Last accessed Sept 19, 2022.
- Scherk, M. Optimizing an Indoor Lifestyle for Cats, Jan 21, 2021. https://vetfocus.royalcanin.com/en/scientific/optimizing-an-indoor-lifestyle-for-cats%C2%A0 Last Accessed Dec. 14, 2021
- Ellis A, van Haaften K, Protopovova A, Gordon E. Effect of a provincial feline onychectomy ban on cat intake and euthanasia in a British Columbia animal shelter system. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1098612X211043820. Last Accessed Dec. 14, 2021
- European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list?module=signatures-by-treaty&treatynum=125
- St. Denis, K. Claw Counseling: Helping clients live alongside cats with claws. https://catvets.com/public/PDFs/PositionStatements/Scratching/Claw-Counseling.pdf Last accessed Dec 17, 2021.