Understanding Declawing (Onychectomy)
The following information is to neither encourage nor discourage declawing but rather
to educate the public.
The Cat’s Claws
Unlike most mammals who walk on the soles of the paws or feet, cats are digitigrade, which means they walk on their toes. Their back, shoulder, paw and leg joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves are naturally designed to support and distribute the cat’s weight across its toes as it walks, runs and climbs. A cat’s claws are used for balance, for exercising, and for stretching the muscles in their legs, back, shoulders, and paws. They stretch these muscles by digging their claws into a surface and pulling back against their own clawhold – similar to isometric exercising for humans. This is the only way a cat can exercise, stretch and tone the muscles of its back and shoulders. The toes help the foot meet the ground at a precise angle to keep the leg, shoulder and back muscles and joints in proper alignment. Removal of the last digits of the toes drastically alters the conformation of their feet and causes the feet to meet the ground at an unnatural angle that can cause back pain similar to that in humans caused by wearing improper shoes.
The anatomy of the feline claw must be understood before one can appreciate the severity of declawing. The cat’s claw is not a nail as is a human fingernail, it is part of the last bone (distal phalanx) in the cat’s toe. The cat’s claw arises from the unguicular crest and unguicular process in the distal phalanx of the paw (see above diagram). Most of the germinal cells that produce the claw are situated in the dorsal aspect of the ungual crest. This region must be removed completely, or regrowth of a vestigial claw and abcessation results. The only way to be sure all of the germinal cells are removed is to amputate the entire distal phalanx at the joint.
Contrary to most people’s understanding, declawing consists of amputating not just the claws, but the whole phalanx (up to the joint), including bones, ligaments, and tendons! To remove the claw, the bone, nerve, joint capsule, collateral ligaments, and the extensor and flexor tendons must all be amputated. Thus declawing is not a “simple”, single surgery but 10 separate, painful amputations of the third phalanx up to the last joint of each toe. A graphic comparison in human terms would be the cutting off of a person’s finger at the last joint of each finger.
Many vets and clinic staff deliberately misinform and mislead clients into believing that declawing removes only the claws in the hopes that clients are left with the impression that the procedure is a “minor” surgery comparable to spay/neuter procedures and certainly doesn’t involve amputation (partial or complete) of the terminal-toe bone, ligaments and tendons. Some vets rationalize the above description by saying that since the claw and the third phalanx (terminal toe bone) are so firmly connected, they simply use the expression “the claw” to make it simpler for clients to “understand”. Other vets are somewhat more honest and state that if they used the word “amputation”, most clients would not have the surgery performed! Onychectomy in the clinical definition involves either the partial or total amputation of the terminal bone. That is the only method. What differs from vet to vet is the type of cutting tool used (guillotine-type cutter, scalpel or laser).
Onychectomy (Declawing) Surgery
The below is a clinical description of the the declawing surgery taken from a leading veterinary surgical textbbook. Contrary to misleading information, declawing is not a “minor” surgery comparable to spaying and neutering procedures, it is 10, seperate, painful amputations of the distal phalanx at the joint (disjointing).
“The claw is extended by pushing up under the footpad or by grasping it with Allis tissue forceps. A scalpel blade is used to sharply dissect between the second and third phalanx over the top of the ungual crest . The distal interphalangeal joint is disarticulated (disjointed), and the deep digital flexor tendon is incised (severed). The digital footpad, is not incised. If a nail trimmer is used, the ring of the instrument is placed in the groove between the second phalanx and the ungual crest. The blade is positioned just in front of the footpad. The blade is pushed through the soft tissues over the flexor process. With the ring of the nail trimmer in position behind the ungual crest, the blade is released just slightly so that traction applied to the claw causes the flexor process to slip out and above the blade. At this point, the flexor tendon can be incised and disarticulation of the joint (disjointing) completed. Both techniques effectively remove the entire third phalanx.”
(Excerpted from: Slatter D; Textbook of Small Animal Surgery 2nd ed vol I, p.352 W.B. Saunders Company Philadelphia.)
This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian.