One particular hot topic that stirs up controversy in the cat care world is declawing. This surgery, also known as Onychectomy, is very controversial because some veterinarians promote it while other veterinarians outright discourage it. The first thing I want you to know is that scratching is completely normal and is an essential behavior that your cat participates in to build physical physique and maintain their health.
Many people ask if declawing is an option for their cat. They are usually told by veterinarians that it will help their cat when the opposite is more likely to be true. People typically arrive at the decision to declaw a cat because the cat clawed their couch, carpeting, or children.
The one scientific fact that cannot be argued in a declawing debate is the anatomy of a domestic cat. Cats are digitigrade which means they walk on their toes. Cats happen to walk on the same parts of the toe that declawing would remove. Declawing removes the third phalanx, ungual process, and the ungual crest. The cat has to learn how to work normally again after this surgery.
I want to emphasize again that cat scratching is completely normal behavior. Scratching is very beneficial to a cat’s mental and physical health which is the reason I am against removing their claws. Clawing assists the cat in removing old claw sheathes, decreases stress, allows the cat to mark territory with their scent so they feel safe, and promotes good exercise.
Claws are also necessary for self defense if the cat happens to get outside accidentally and has to get away from a predator by climbing a tree or jumping a fence. The best answer is to train your cat to scratch more appropriate surfaces than what they have chosen to scratch by finding out their preference.
Training A Cat to A Scratching Post
A good scratching post is made of sisal and is about 30 by 30 inches. The scratching post should also be sturdy so that it is not knocked over. It is highly recommended that you have one post per room and that the material is never the same as your carpet or couch. You risk confusing your cat if you have similar texture for your scratching post as you do furniture. That being said, avoid making a post out of old carpet or furniture material. Faux fur (fake fur) in a scratching tower is acceptable as this does not mimic the feel of carpet.
Some cats prefer vertical posts while other cats would rather have a horizontal post. I prefer to have an equal amount of horizontal and vertical scratching posts to give each cat an option on what they would like to do. The horizontal post can be a scratch pad or a cat bed that doubles as a cat scratching unit.
Cats that use the carpet will likely benefit big time from a horizontal scratch pad because it is likely their preference. The best horizontal scratching post I have found is the Ultimate Cat Scratching Lounge. It is made of high quality corrugated cardboard which has been proven to last much longer than traditional cardboard. This post usually lasts around 2 years which is great for the price.
I would choose to have a vertical scratching post if I had to choose between the two. It is good to have a mix of different types to give them a selection. The best vertical scratching post I have found is the SmartCat Ultimate Scratching Post. This post can be tilted horizontal or vertical, has a very sturdy base, and is 32 inches high. This post also happens to have the most 5 star reviews of any scratching post available on Amazon.
A cat scratching tower or cat tree is about the best thing you could buy for your cat if you can afford it. The extra vertical space that it offers can decrease stress and problem behavior by giving them a more interesting environment to explore and play on. I often use cat towers when I am training cats not to counter surf or when the cat has shown interest in exploring areas that are high off the ground.
I always recommend purchasing a cat tower when transitioning an outdoor cat to an indoor cat. Cat towers promote scratching and offer quite a few resting spots that are high above the ground. Cats thrive on being high off the ground and being able to view their territory because it makes them feel safe. Most scratch towers also feature toys and hiding spots. Some simple assembly may be required for cat towers.
Training a cat to use a scratching post is quite easy and can be done as early as six weeks of age. You would start by scratching the post with your fingers to show the cat how to scratch the post if they have not been introduced to one before.
You would then play with their favorite string toy or bird toy on and around the post so they can get a feel for jumping on it. Most cats end up scratching the post when they first jump on it from attacking the toy. I recommend playing with the cat 3-4 times every day, 15 minutes each play session, on and around the post. The repeated exposure will get your cat trained to the post quickly. This works best for a tower because you can maneuver the toy up and down the tower over and over. Play therapy is also very beneficial to a cat’s mental and physical health since excessive scratching can also be a boredom induced behavior. Environmental enrichment should be considered if your cat is bored.
A bag of catnip will help attract your cat to the post if your initial efforts do not suffice. You would sprinkle and rub the catnip in and around the scratching post. You may also try spraying Feliway on or around top areas that your cat has scratched such as your couch until he uses the post. Feliway is sprayed 3-4 times a day on top scratched locations. I advise the plugin form of Feliway if the cat is scratching multiple locations.
Another method I like to try for hesitant cats is placing some treats on top of the scratching post or tower so they have to work to get them. This provides mental stimulation and active exercise for the cat in addition to training him to the scratching post. The cat will jump on the tower or post to get the treats and be forced to scratch the post or tower in the process. You can put some treats in a treat ball and place that in the hidey holes if the cat tower has them for an additional challenge.
If you see the cat scratch the wrong thing you want to simply pick up the cat and move him to the correct spot. Give him a treat and praise him if he starts to scratch the post. Give some verbal praise too. No punishments such as spanking or squirting him with a water gun should be done as this only makes him more fearful of people. This type of punishment will also make him more sneaky about when he scratches.
It is ideal to get a cat used to claw trimmers early in life but some cats have not been accustomed to this procedure yet. You would trim the claws about every 3-4 weeks to keep them dull and well maintained. I prefer claw trimmers that are small because big claw trimmers can frighten a cat and make it a negative experience.
How To Trim Your Cat’s Claws
I like to start by getting the cat used to the trimmers first then gradually work toward extending the claws before I trim them. I do this by allowing the cat to bat at and sniff the claw trimmers for the first week. I reward him with a treat for each time he sniffs at or paws at the claw trimmers to let him know that the claw trimmers are not scary. The second week involves me touching his paws and giving him a treat each time he allows me to do that. The third week I work on extending his claws and rewarding him with a treat for each time he allows me to extend them.
I like to hit the top of a clicker pen or use a clicker device to signal to the cat that he is doing the behavior I want so I know for sure he is getting the message. This is done by clicking the device or pen right as he is sniffing the claw trimmer, batting at it, or allowing me to touch his paws in any way. The clicking is immediately followed by a treat.
By the fourth week I am having the cat eat canned food off a plate while I trim his claws to make sure that he has the best experience possible. Just make sure that you trim off the points and avoid the quick which is the red part of the claw which is supplied with blood. Having a friend to help trim the claws may also be beneficial as this is often a two person job.
The process of training or trimming may go slower or faster for you which depends on the comfort of the cat and the age of the cat. A kitty burrito method might be required for very fractious cats. If you want a slower and more effective method for shy or aggressive cats – you can read my entire post on the gradual training process here.
Declawing Is A Poor Strategy
Many places have actually banned this surgery already due to the negative impact it can have on a cat’s life as they age. Declawing causes so many problems that I have been witness to while I have worked in the animal sheltering field and veterinary field.
In my six years of shelter work I have had quite a few declawed cats attack without any provocation. Some issues that declawing can cause include but is not limited to:
Reluctance to use the box
Painful foot infections
Fear of other cats and humans
The biggest issue is that the cat have lost their first line of defense. Usually cats are good about giving a warning scratch before delivering any scratches that hurt. The problem with a cat not having claws is that they will use their teeth instead which carry more bacteria and hurt more than claws. This can be especially harmful if you have children. If you are scared of a disease called cat scratch disease, you should know that bites actually deliver this disease more often than scratches do.
The second biggest issue is not using the litter box reliably which is often the number one reason that declawed cats are surrendered to a humane society or animal shelter. The paws of the declawed cat become so sensitive that they no longer want to use the box. Read my post about litterbox avoidance here.
Soft Paws And Declawing Alternatives
If your cat does continue to scratch inappropriate locations, you can try using double sided sticky tape on those areas or deterrent spray such as the SSSCat or the Tattle Tale Sonic Alarm. You would use the tape on areas that he is scratching. I like to use deterrent sprays as a last resort since they can be a bit more invasive. After you catch your cat in the act, you want to move him to the appropriate scratching location.
Citrus spray can also be sprayed on surfaces or aluminum foil can be taped to the wall if the double sided sticky tape is ineffective. Upside down carpet runner or the carpet scratch stopper can be used which can be bought here. When you catch your cat scratching the wrong thing, move him to the right thing and wait until he scratches. Give the cat a treat each time he uses the post and continue to do so until the post is being use reliably.
Some people think that having a child means that they have to declaw their cat to protect the children. This could not be further from the truth and is a myth I hear every day. If you gently teach your children how to humanely handle a cat and how to carry him properly, you won’t have any trouble. Using a stuffed cat toy at first is probably the best way to teach a child how to handle a cat. It is unfortunate that there is people that don’t take the time to teach their family members how to handle cats properly.
This is more about respecting the cat and discovering what they feel comfortable with in regards to handling. Feel free to ask your veterinarian how to handle a cat so they feel comfortable when being handled and well supported. Any veterinarian that is about helping the cat and the client develop a stronger bond would be thrilled to give a small demonstration.
One thing you should know is about teaching your cat not to scratch. People should never use their hands to play with a cat or kitten as this reinforces inappropriate scratching. You have to show your family members and friends this method for it to work well since cats are about routine. This strategy will not work if someone uses their hands to play with the cat and others do not. Sending mixed messages is not the goal and will often result in regression.
You want to only use toys to play with your cat and say “No” when the cat scratches you. Leave play time when you are scratched to teach your cat that scratching will immediately ruin the fun. If you feel that you have to do something about your cat’s claws, you could go with soft paws. Soft paws is a claw cap that goes over your cat’s claws while still allowing them to perform everyday functions.
Soft paws is available through Amazon in a variety of colors and sizes. The claw caps last several months with each application which makes them inexpensive and aesthetically pleasing. I like getting the color for each holiday as it is pleasing to the eye and makes my cat look even more fancy than she is already!
I always tell people that I recommend declawing only as a last resort in a life or death situation. Declawing is a permanent surgery with an outcome that does not directly benefit the cat. All options and routes to safely allow your cat to keep his claws is preferred before committing to this. After all, a cat would never willingly want their claws removed from them just like we would not willingly want our fingers taken away from us.
Playing an Active Role in Shelter Education
I want to briefly point out that animal shelters have a huge role in being able to educate new owners on the importance of claw care. Animal shelters have the awesome opportunity to purchase cage scratchers that they can affix to each cat cage.
Adopters are more likely to do something if they can visually see how it happens and are sent something home to keep them thinking about it.
Back of Scratcher
Front of Scratcher
Cage scratchers are highly recommended because they keep shelter cats calm and help prevent them from getting illnesses that are related to stress. Each scratch pad will last about 3 to 4 months (sometimes longer) and can be sent home with the adopter. This helps build the importance of proper claw management right away.
Zachariah Atteberry is a registered veterinary technician and certified cat behaviorist with over 5 years of animal shelter experience. Zach also holds a shelter management and shelter medicine certificate. He looks forward to sharing his expertise with you