Declawing: A Physical Therapist Assistant’s Perspective

by Ruth Y.
(West Allis, Wisconsin)

Monty using his beautiful claws.   (Sorry for the blurry photo, he's a fast moving target!)

Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Monty using his beautiful claws. (Sorry for the blurry photo, he’s a fast moving target!)

There are many good reasons to be against declawing, but the most persuasive are perhaps those which deal with the changes in a cat’s functional mobility and the potential for arthritis later in life. I suppose these are the reasons that speak to me because I work as a physical therapist assistant.

I recently entered this field, in part because I enjoyed a course in anatomy and physiology which I had taken as an undergrad. Studying to work in physical therapy made the connections between form and function clear for me.

I have found that form and function go together– things are always made a certain way for a reason. Changes from the original design are not beneficial. A good example is my flat feet. Without proper support in my shoes my feet, knees and lower back will start to hurt. If you change one part of the kinematic (movement) chain, other parts change too. Physical therapists spend a lot of time analyzing how people walk (gait) because changes from normal gait are always more energy consuming and often contribute to muscle pain and stiffness and eventually cause degenerative joint changes.

Cats walk on their toes. When a cat is declawed his toes are amputated. You’ve just changed how the cat walks. If the rule holds true that any changes from normal gait are more energy consuming, contribute to muscle pain/stiffness and cause degenerative changes in the joints, then how can we defend declawing as being o.k. for the cat?

When you remove the cat’s toes, you change the whole kinematic chain for that limb. If this is never good for people, how can it be good for cats? The answer is of course, that it isn’t good for the cat. Declawing isn’t done to benefit the cat.

If declawing truly were only an onychectomy, perhaps it would be defensible. (onych=nail, ectomy=surgical removal) But declawing actually takes the distal phalanx (last joint) of the cat’s toes. How would losing the last joint of your toes change how you walk or stand? We can theorize on the exact effects, but there would be changes to your gait and stance. If you amputate the last joint of a cat’s toes, it will change how he walks and stands. Something is gone that was part of the original design.

Arthritis is caused over time by faulty joint mechanics. Any extra motion in a joint causes wear and tear to joint cartilage. Over time the body tries to repair this damage, but it can’t add more cartilage.

However, Wolf’s law of bone states that bone will become stronger according to the stresses placed upon it. When the lack of cartilage causes bone on bone forces the body responds by laying down more bone, causing an uneven joint surface and pain. When you take the cat’s toes you unavoidably change how he walks.

This change travels up the whole kinematic chain– if you change something at the cat’s foot you’ve changed it at the cat’s elbow and at his shoulder and at his spine. You have introduced abnormal joint motions as the cat adapts to walking without his toes. This will lead to arthritis over time, by the process described above.

Cats also use their claws to help them exercise the muscles of their shoulders and upper back. They will hook their claws into something and pull against this resistance. This provides an isometric contraction of the cat’s muscles. When he can no longer hook his claws and pull, he loses out on this form of exercise.

Arthritis can also be caused or exacerbated by weak or underused muscles. I was having knee pain awhile ago and learned that the cause was weakness in the muscles which externally rotate my hips. Weak muscles in my hips allowed extraneous joint movements in my knees when walking up stairs or running. What happens to the cat when the muscles of his upper back and shoulders become weak from lack of exercise? We can expect changes in joint motions when he walks, runs and jumps. Couple this muscle weakness with changes from a normal gait pattern due to missing toes and you have a perfect recipe for joint pain and eventually osteoarthritis.

Many people are against declawing because it is a very painful surgery. If that were the only negative aspect of this procedure, it would be defensible. Many surgeries are painful. I sometimes work with people who have had knee or hip replacement surgeries. I’m willing to assume that those surgeries are at least as painful as declawing surgeries, if not more so. The difference is that most of the time, the person with a joint replacement sees an improvement in his or her mobility.

Declawing is a very painful surgery that leads to decreased mobility. Although many people will say a cat is “walking normally” a short time after surgery, we know that without his toes this is not the case. Owners of declawed cats say, “We’ve never seen any signs of arthritis.” But how would they know? Cats are very stoic– they hide pain well. I sometimes work with patients who try to hide their pain. I ask questions like, “Can you rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?” Even then some people will refuse to admit they have pain, though I can see it in their antalgic (painful) gait patterns. If it can be hard to assess pain in my own species, how much more difficult is it to determine how much pain a cat feels? I took whole courses on human gait. How many vets (or owners) are experts in the gait patterns of cats? Can they really tell whether the cat is walking normally or not, or having pain when he walks or not?

When we talk about functional mobility for cats we must include climbing. Without his claws the cat can’t climb the way a cat was meant to climb. My cat goes out (with harness and leash) and he loves to climb trees. I don’t let him get very high up, but it’s great exercise for him and he enjoys it. It’s part of what makes him a cat. This is a subjective point, I know, but I can tell he really enjoys using his claws. Though not everyone wants to take his or her cat outside, you can buy or build an indoor scratching post and/or climbing apparatus and enjoy watching your cat use his beautiful claws. When allowed a proper outlet, the cat’s desire to climb and scratch can be fulfilled in an appropriate way that is fun for the cat and entertaining for the owner!

I have heard people say that their declawed cat “doesn’t even know he doesn’t have claws.” In a sense this is true. There is a part of the cat’s brain mapped out for motor and sensory input to and from the distal phalanx. Just as a human following an amputation has phantom pain or a sensation that the missing limb is still there, cats will feel like their claws are still there. When you amputate the distal phalanx it takes a long time for the brain to realize it is no longer there. The cat can experience parasthesias (weird sensations) from the missing toes.

The cat will probably experience another type of pain in his paws as well. When declawing is done the tendons to muscles are cut. When a tendon to a muscle is severed that muscle shortens. Imagine having a very, very tight calf muscle that you could never stretch out. The cat has got to be experiencing this kind of muscle pain to a very high degree. A vet recently told me that this does not matter because the muscles atrophy over time. My question to him is this: “Over how much time?” When my cat stretches, he stretches his paws also by abducting (separating) the distal phalanges and protracting (sticking out) his claws. A declawed cat can’t perform these motions, but the muscles that were provided to do so are still there, sans tendons. He can’t stretch those muscles. That sounds like torture to me.

For a cat his front claws act as his fingers. I have seen my own cat pick up small objects with his claws. I tossed him a kitty treat and he actually picked it up with his paw and brought it to his mouth. I notice how he can pick up a small toy and manipulate it in ways that a declawed cat would be unable to do. A cat’s claws are the foundation for much of his functional mobility, incorporating both gross and fine motor tasks.

Any time a human undergoes an amputation it is a last resort to save a life, a traumatic event which is in all cases life changing. Declawing a cat involves ten amputations and is in all cases life changing for the cats. We cannot condone this procedure simply because some cats are able to cope without any outward signs of distress. Many can’t cope and end up being much more aggressive, defensive or fearful.

If you decide to declaw your cat you are gambling on the fact that your cat will cope well with procedure, will display no long term personality changes, and will have no post operative complications. If it were a choice to amputate or lose a life, obviously we amputate. But what is the choice involved with declawing? Amputate or lose some furniture?

It is possible that many people pick a cat for a pet thinking that it will require less work than a dog. Cats are seen as independent creatures, not needing much attention. In reality, a cat is just as much work as any other pet. Pet owners need to train their cats and provide adequate exercise and stimulation. This may require some research, thought and imagination to determine the best way to allow the cat to be a cat, without allowing it to destroy one’s belongings. Declawing can seem like a quick, easy alternative to training the cat. I hope that my thoughts on the long term consequences of declawing will cause cat owners to reconsider before declawing their cats.

Lastly, owners of declawed cats are missing out on part of what makes a cat so special. Enjoy his beautiful claws– he does!

Ruth Y.

Comments for
Declawing: A Physical Therapist Assistant’s Perspective

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May 16, 2012Thanks! NEW
by: Ruth (Monty’s Mom)

You can certainly use my article to help reach people about the horrors of declawing! People have the impression it’s just like a nail trim, so they can’t figure out why we who are against it are so vehemently opposed to it.

May 15, 2012Thank you! NEW
by: Anonymous Amputees

Thank you for such a wonderful perspective on declawing. Your article covers everything from a human perspective which pro-declaw people may be able to relate to.

May I use it on my website, to help educate others, both anti-declaw and pro-declaw people?

Thank you again for your fantastic view on declawing!

Mar 09, 2011Caretaker, not Owner
by: Ruth (Monty’s Mom)

I happened to come back to my own article yesterday, when I pointed it out to my former physical therapy instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Dec 02, 2009I also am against declawing
by: Janet Shock

I also am against declawing. I wouldn’t want to have my finger nails or more removed. My cats have clawed things in the past including a $3,000.00 amoir. The furniture can be repaired and the cats claws are not going anywhere.

As I read over the above article I realized that I used the word owner exclusively, instead of caretaker. I have since changed, thanks to Michael, and now always say and write caretaker instead. Language drives how we think, and we act according to how we think. Though technically and legally we “own” pets, there has to be a distinction between owning a cat and owning a pair of shoes. Using the same word for each provides no such distinction. The cat becomes something that can be altered or thrown away at will, just like an old car or a coat you no longer wear. Our cat companions deserve better.

Making this one small change in the language could do a lot to turn public opinion against declawing. We should teach our children to say caretaker instead of owner. I believe just that one word change could be powerful enough to improve how a child treats the family pet.

I’m already planning someday, when I go back to teaching music (because I’ll eventually be too old to lift and transfer patients) that I am going to have the kids learn to sing my little song about Simon the seacat, and I can use that as an opportunity to teach them to say caretaker instead of owner. It could be ten years down the road, but I won’t forget. I believe I can make it something that they won’t forget either.

Nov 01, 2009Thank you C.Kennie
by: Ruth aka Kattaddorra

You are obviously a true cat lover ! Yes that’s one of the things we try to impress on people, a declawed cat would have no chance if fire broke out and someone let them outside, or if someone broke in, they’d be at their mercy inside or if they escaped be defenceless outside.Then there are floods and other disasters, it doesn’t bear thinking of how declawed cats would never survive.
You are right too, claws are very easy to trim,most UK cats keep theirs right too by going out stropping trees etc, but we had a very old cat who didn’t go far and we had to do them every fortnight, anyone can learn to do that, can’t they !
I worked for vets all my working life and never once did any single one declaw a cat, even when it was legal here in England.
I can’t get my head around how anyone professing to love cats can take away the very essence of them !

Oct 31, 2009Don’t declaw because of this problem
by: C. Kennie

Someone that I know has a cat and her claws would grow into her foot if let to grow long. Some vets will declaw to prevent the cat this painful thing happening

Please be aware that this problem can be treated by simply clipping the ends of the cat’s claws once a week. This cat is now 11 years old and has never had its claws grow into its paw pad, except the first time that it happened.

Cats are mentally traumatized by declawing and never feel totally safe afterwards. You are taking away one of their very valuable defensive weapons.

Oct 31, 2009Declawing is wrong
by: C. Kennie

My two cats take great pride in keeping their claws in shape and they will spend about 3 to 5 minitues pulling on them with their teeth to get and edges off and licking all around them. They will often sharpen them on their cat condo, tree and rounder. How could I possible take away their magnificent claws!!!!

I take them out for walks on a leash and let them enjoy the thrill of climbing a bit on a tree to get a better view of their surroundings. I once had Kitty Grumbles up on top of my head…with claws dug in to keep her balance while a small terrier on a leash was scaring her.Did I mind? Not in the least!!!

If a fire were to break out while I am away from home, my cats have a chance to get out, hopefully with someone in the building breaking a window to let them out. My cats have quite a few admirers in the building. Once out, they could climb a tree and wait until I came for them.

Oct 31, 2009Thank you Ruth
by: Ruth aka Kattaddorra

Thank you Ruth ! Anyone who would have a cat killed if they couldn’t have it declawed is not a fit person to have a cat anyway.When declawing is banned, only those who truly love cats will have the pleasure of their company in their homes. No true cat lover would even consider having their pet so cruelly adapted !
Vets do know exactly what they are doing to a cat physically and mentally when they declaw it.They see only more money in their bank account ! We heard recently of a clinic pushing declawing because they wanted to make the money back they’d spent on a lasering machine ! To them they are ‘cats’ not each individual living breathing cat. Many people trust their vet (very misguidedly) but most vets don’t tell them the truth.We do have 12 USA vets who have signed our petition, one says they are trained to help animals, not to harm them.
But many look upon cats as ‘second class citizens’and that is so very wrong !
I’m sure your article will help us save more cats claws.
THANK YOU very much !!!

Oct 31, 2009Reply to Kattaddorra
by: Ruth Y.

Kattaddorra, you may certainly use my article (and Monty’s picture) in any way that might help cats! I wish I could learn more specifics about feline anatomy and gait, but it’s been hard to find information. I think perhaps vets don’t really want to think about the implications of what they are doing. The excuse is always that the cat would have been put to sleep if declawing were not an option. What pet owner could kill their cat? If that’s the situation the vet should have them send the cat to a no kill shelter and recommend that they not have pets anymore. It’s not like a putting down a dangerous dog that could kill someone. No cat is really going to do that much damage to a human with his claws. Anyone who could kill a living creature simply for their convenience shouldn’t have pets.

Oct 31, 2009Helpful information thank you
by: Ruth aka Kattaddorra

Hi Ruth and thank you for this very detailed information.Whilst trying to educate people as to the truth of declawing we try to explain how it affects the way cats walk and we always warn of arthritis amongst the other dreadful outcomes of declawing.
Sadly some people still won’t admit what a cruel crippling operation declawing is and worse still, some don’t care as cats are just possessions to them, not seen as living feeling beings.
May I please use this article of yours in future when replying to declawing alerts to those who seem to need a bit more technical explanation ? It will hopefully save more cats claws.We have saved 76 cats in the year,but because we can’t reach everyone to tell them the truth, a ban on declawing is the only way forward.
Our petition reaches it’s 1st Anniversary on 11th November, we’d love to pass the 2,000 mark by then,we need another 29 signatures to do so:

Nowhere near enough to make an impact on the AVMA yet, but it’s growing nicely.

Oct 31, 2009Another strong argument against declawing
by: Finn Frode, Denmark

Thank you for this article, Ruth Y – it’s brilliantly written and covers some aspects that have been mostly forgotten. You are well informed on these matters, so I think you are absolutely right in saying,
‘When you take the cat’s toes you unavoidably change how he walks.’
– and that in turn must affect the whole body and entire wellbeing of the cat. To me this alone is reason enough to ban declawing.

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