September 3, 2009
Copyright: Textbook of Small Animal Surgery
Many owners have a hard time teaching their kittens or cats not to scratch at their furniture. Cats, by nature, don’t like to be told what to do. But that doesn’t mean that you should give up and turn to declawing. Here is some information to help you make an informed decision:
The number one reason cats scratch is to mark territory. You must be thinking, “My cat isn’t outside – why does it need to mark?” The answer to this is simple. Cats are the latest of domestic pets. Horses and dogs have long been working with humans; cats… not so much. They’ve only been domesticated for a few thousand years, and that’s hardly enough time to breed the need of territorialism out of them, especially when so many people allow their cats to roam the streets to breed. Cats feel safe in their homes, so they want to make sure another cat isn’t going to displace them. This is one of the reasons cats develop behavior problems when you introduce a new feline to your home. Cats have scent glands in their paws, so when they scratch, it’s not just visual. The scratches act as scent-holders, carrying the smell of your cat. We can’t smell it, but other cats can.
You will never be able to take away a cat’s insecurity, but you can make it feel better about its’ territory, lessening the need to harm your furniture. The first is buying them their own personal scratching areas. I’ve found that the cardboard ones you lay on the floor and sprinkle catnip on are very effective, and they double as beds. Also, scratching posts are extremely effective. And I speak from experience when I say you get what you pay for – the cheap, small posts are not only wobbly, making your cat feel unsafe and therefore unwilling to use it, but there isn’t much fun for a cat to be only a foot off the ground. Believe it or not, it’s not the sisal rope or carpet that attracts your cat to a scratching post. Nor is it the ability to scratch; a cat will simply think, “I can scratch somewhere else.” If you amp up the fun-o-meter by buying a six foot tall, multi-layered gym, your cat will definitely want it as part of its’ territory. Not only is it tall enough to scratch on (the small ones hardly allow a cat to stretch) but it also allows them to jump, nap, and most importantly, be high up. This is important to cats, because it’s ingrained into their psyche that they are safer off the ground.
Another reason declawing is a bad idea is that cats lose their ability to defend themselves. The only real predator that cats have are stray or roaming dogs which – let’s face it – are high in number here in Miami, like the recent pair of pitbulls that went on a cat-killing spree. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of an escape from pits, but many times, claws will give cats enough time to escape. When you declaw a cat, you make sure that if it ever faces a dog, it’s almost certain that it will lose that fight. And cats, while they are incredibly smart, will not realize in their fear, that they are missing their primary weapon, giving them a false sense of confidence. That would be similar to taking away your teenage daughter’s pepper spray, and when she needs it most, relies on it to save her, not knowing you’ve taken it.
A problem that occurs in some cats begins soon after they wake up from the operation. The first time they go to the bathroom, they will try to bury their waste. Regardless of most Veterinarians’ suggestion of using shredded newspaper for the first few days, the pain from clawing at the paper will create a new behavior problem. When the cat is in pain inside the litter box, it will associate this pain with the litter box itself. So your cat will seek other places to relieve itself. And as it keeps feeling the pain from this damaging surgery, it will keep seeking out places that won’t cause pain. While trying to fix a preventable problem, you’re inherently causing another that is not so easy to fix.
One of the reasons humans will declaw a cat is because the cat hasn’t been taught that our hands are not playthings. This can be the result of many things: uneducated owners, a kitten that was taken from its mother and siblings too early (eight weeks is – by law – the earliest you can take a puppy or kitten from its’ mother, but I have seen it done much earlier, which causes behavioral problems like this), and sometimes it is just in the cat’s genes: kittens whose parents were feral are going to be a little wilder than other kittens.
With proper training, and resisting the urge to play with a kitten or cat with your hands, this can be avoided. But most families just decide it’s easier to declaw. This isn’t true, because many times – and I have seen this happen firsthand – after the surgery, the cat realizes that its’ claws are no longer effective. When this happens, the cat turns to biting, which is harder to curb. And when a cat’s biting gets bad, the cats usually end up in a shelter. Some of these cats become so mean, that they are impossible to pet. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this happen with two kittens that my husband’s grandmother adopted. Despite my pleading, she had them declawed and they wound up at the Miami-Dade Humane Society after becoming such bad biters that she couldn’t stand them. Again, declawing causes a worse habit by trying to curb another.
Declawing is not what’s best for your cat. It’s a horrible, inhumane, and barbaric procedure of cutting through bone and ligaments ten separate times. I cannot, for the life of me, understand how some people will refuse to get their cats neutered or spayed – which is beneficial by keeping populations down but also has health benefits by eliminating the risk of certain cancers – but will have no problem essentially amputating the tips of their cat’s toes. This procedure is similar to cutting off your child’s fingertips because they keep writing on the walls or getting the floor dirty after coming home from a rainy day (which we have many of here in Miami). Some people don’t even give their new cats a chance – they take them straight to the vet to be declawed before even coming home. Others do it as soon as their vets will let them (my mother-in-law did this, despite my protests).
They don’t deserve this, and just because you lose your patience with your cat doesn’t mean they should pay with parts of their bodies. There are many things you can do, including getting help on the internet. While not all sources can be trusted, many people would rather help you than have you mutilate your cat. At www.catchannel.com, there is a whole community of people ready to help with whatever problem you might be experiencing. But some problems are easier to solve, such as scratching.
The best thing to do is buy a tall scratching post, or “cat tree”. Not only will your cat feel safe here, but there are so many fun places to scratch that your cat will hardly want to claw at anything else. You can encourage them to scratch their post by running a feather or string along the carpet of the post, then praising her if she claws the carpet. If she does seek out other places still, you can get guards for your furniture. Double-sided tape works just as well; cats hate the feeling of sticky tape, and it shouldn’t do any damage to the furniture. Also, keep your cat comfortable by helping them nap away from areas they might encounter an outdoor cat. If your cat feels its territory is threatened, it will be more inclined to scratch – or worse, mark. Put a “cat-napper” on a windowsill where you know it won’t see a stray or neighborhood cat. Put blinds on windows where other cats stroll by. The last remedy is trimming your cat’s nails. Now, I understand your qualms. It’s very intimidating and scary to cut your cat’s nails. But it’s a whole lot cheaper than declawing, and much more rewarding. Here are some tips:
Start them early. From the time they are kittens, if you trim their nails every other week, they will accept it. If you adopted an older cat, give them treats while you massage their paws – eventually, they’ll see that it’s rewarding. If your cat still fights you, have someone help by gently scruffing the cat while you clip. If your cat is violent about it, you can wrap it in a towel, only letting the leg out that you need, again, with help. After all this you’re still too afraid to do it yourself, take your cat to a groomer or vet. Many will do it for under $10, and since it’s a fast procedure if they know what they’re doing, can be done in five minutes or less. Some PetsMarts will do it, but call beforehand to make sure, since some will not do cats. If you are intimidated, let the professionals handle it; fear of cutting into the quick (the nail’s vein) can be harrowing, and so can struggling with your cat. Some professional may even teach you to do it at home, so that it will be less scary.
Don’t forget – your cat isn’t scratching at your furniture to make you mad. It’s an instinct, and very natural. They do it as part of stretching, and it makes them more comfortable to smell themselves around your home. Don’t punish them, help them.