A declawing controversy: Stepping into the ring

A declawing controversy: Stepping into the ring

Through the years, Dr. Robert M. Miller's stance on declawing cats has remained unchanged. Read on to see onychectomy from his perspective.
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Oct 31, 2013

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in print in Veterinary Medicine, Vol. 93, No. 12, December 1998.

I’ve decided to enter the fray. Onychectomy in domestic cats has become one of the most controversial procedures in veterinary medicine. The controversy has two aspects: the humaneness of the surgery and the effectiveness of the various surgical techniques.

Having performed countless declawing procedures on hundreds of cats ranging from domestic kittens to full-grown lions and tigers, I’ve decided to offer my opinion. First of all, is the procedure humane? Yes, but not because it spares damage to furniture and drapes. IT’s humane because it prevents eye and other injuries in animals and people.

Since I graduated from veterinary school, I’ve lived in the country—usually canyon environments where a variety of wildlife reside, including feral and domestic cats. My own cats were primarily outdoor cats. They kept the rodent population under control and, sadly, often killed birds as well. Such is the nature of cats.

For the first seven years I practiced I declawed many cats of all species, yet saw no reason to declaw my own cats. But when my first-born child was at the crawling stage, he approached Lola, our champion rodent killer. She struck at him and hooked a claw in one of his eyelids. I declawed Lola the next day. I declawed only her forepaws, my standard policy for house cats unless they are never allowed to go outside.

Lola lived another decade, eventually dying of diseases related o old age when she was nearly 14. During those years this declawed cat caught and killed hundreds of mice, rats, and gophers. Her hunting ability was not handicapped in any way. She once leaped from the back porch, sped down a hill through a pasture, raced up the trunk of an oak tree and onto a limb, and caught a bird in midair with her forepaws.

Despite the presence of feral cats in the canyon below our house, Lola never suffered a bite-wound abscess. One morning at dawn, I heard cats vocalizing outside our bedroom window. Looking out I saw Lola standing over an immense, cringing tomcat, chastising him for infringing on her territory. Little declawed Lola was a merciless tyrant.

Because of my experience with Lola, I subsequently declawed all the cats I owned. Only one of those cats failed to live to a ripe old age. She was killed prematurely by a coyote. In my opinion, even a cat with claws cannot save itself from a dog—domestic or wild—determined to kill.

All my cats were effective hunters, and all could climb trees. They all continued to knead and showed no alteration in their behavior or appearance as a result of being declawed. This, I think, is because of the surgical technique used.

As a student, I was taught to perform onychectomy with the Resco Nail Trimmer, which amputates the claw and associated structures like a guillotine. Onychectomy was as controversial in the ‘50s as it is now, and I experimented with a variety of techniques. Some results were disastrous. Ultimately I realized that the Resco technique produced the best results, but I did not appreciate why until I had sufficient experience declawing giant exotic cats. The Resco technique does have one disadvantage: The instrument, intended for trimming dogs’ nails, is too large for kittens. It is therefore necessary to delay onychectomy in domestic cats until they are large enough to permit amputation with a single cut, sacrificing all the tissue necessary but avoiding the removal of excessive tissue (see illustration below). This requires delaying the surgery until a cat is between 6 and 12 months old. Until then the claws can be periodically trimmed or capped.

I added one refinement to the technique I learned in school. To obtain a bloodless surgery field, I wrapped the limb with an ascending elastic bandage. After amputation, I applied a strip of adhesive tape, folded lengthwise to create a double-sided sticky surface, around the foreleg just distal to the elbow. I then attached Tubegauze® to the tape and drew it distally as I wrapped so the cut ends of the skin were drawn over the amputation stumps.

I usually put antibacterial powder or ointment under the dressing, which was then covered with adhesive tape and left on while the patient was hospitalized overnight. The dressings were removed in a day or so, and the cat was discharged when it seemed comfortable and adequate healing was evident.

The community in which I established my practice, Thousand Oaks, Calif., was in a rural valley. The only industries were ranching (cattle, horses, and sheep) and wild animals. The town served as winter quarters for several circuses, and a private zoo provided a permanent home for wild-animal trainers serving the motion picture and television industries. At one time, 40 male African lions were housed in the facility. The nighttime chorus could be heard all over town. In addition there were scores of lions, tigers, leopards, pumas, jaguars, and lesser exotic cats.

Some trainers were adamant about not altering their animals in any way and refused to declaw them. At the other extreme, some clients wanted their cats completely declawed and even defanged.

I declawed a lot of big cats, some before maturity and many long after they weight several hundred pounds. Then, as now, the few veterinary surgeons who performed onychectomy in big cats were divided into two camps in terms of technique: those who completely amputated the third phalanx (PIII) and those, like myself, who partially amputated PIII, sparing the distal extensor process on which the deep digital flexor inserts.

Preserving that portion of PIII is, in my opinion, vital cosmetically and functionally. Big cats declawed in this manner look completely normal on close inspection. You have to palpate the toe to learn that the claw has been removed. More important, the cats have normal conformation of the paw, can knead and flex their digits, and have a normal gait.

On the other hand, when complete amputation of PIII is performed, the deep digital flexor tendons lose their point of insertion. Carpal support is lost, and carpal dorsiflexion results. When the cat walks, its feet flop and quiver. I call them “Jell-O feet,” and I can diagnose them from a distance. These cats don’t look normal, don’t have a normal gait, and can’t function normally or knead and flex their digits. In my opinion, complete amputation of PIII during onychectomy is contraindicated. It is deforming and inhumane.

When Dr. James Peddie joined my practice, I taught him my technique in both domestic and exotic cats. We eventually developed a team technique for full-grown lions and tigers, basically reproducing the method described above in domestic cats. Because we were unable to use a Resco Nail Trimmer, we amputated by cutting dorsally with a scalpel down through the articulation. Then, by using a Gigli wire saw, we cut through the distal extensor process of PIII, preserving the insertion of the deep digital flexor tendon and all the external pad. The incisions were sutured with catgut (eliminating the need for later removal) and dressed exactly the same way as in domestic cats.

We obtained a bloodless field by applying an ascending elastic bandage, followed by a tourniquet at elbow level. One surgeon would amputate, one or two others would suture, and yet another would dress the limbs. In this manner we could expedite the procedure and minimize the anesthetic time. Dr. Peddie, the most competent veterinary surgeon I have ever worked with, added several refinements to our technique. In domestic cats he added the use of tissue adhesive (Nexaband®—Veterinary Product Laboratories) to close the incision, applying it very sparingly nad only to the cut skin edges before dressing the paw and removing the tourniquet. His technique in big cats is described in the second edition of Techniques in Small Animal Surgery (Lea & Febiger, 1983).

Neither Dr. Peddie nor I ever had a postsurgical complication declawing full-grown big cats using the technique as described. Our experience with onychectomy in big cats eventually made us realize that the reason the Resco technique worked so well in domestic cats was because it spared the insertion of the deep digital flexor tendon.

Although domestic cats do not have the body weight to cause carpal dorsiflexion when complete amputation of PIII is done, they cannot knead well or normally flex their digits. It was only our experience with big cats that made us realize that complete amputation of PIII is an inferior technique. The distal extensor process of PIII must be preserved to obtain a completely cosmetic and functionally normal result in onychectomy, whether the patient is a house cat or a 400-lb tiger.

The recent popularity of deep digital flexor tenotomy as an alternative to onychectomy inspired me to write this article. I cannot imagine a rational justification for this procedure. It is as functionally crippling as the complete amputation of PIII, with the added disadvantage of being a complex procedure that does not solve the problem that the claws are still present and growing, necessitating regular trimming.

Forty-three years ago I was taught a simple, swift, effective method of declawing cats. Properly performed it is virtually free of postoperative complications such as regrowth of nails, infection, discomfort, or behavior changes. Yet, because so many surgeons have not mastered the Resco technique, we are endlessly presented with alternative methods that are more complex and fraught with complications. As a result, onychectomy is regarded as an anathema by many veterinarians, prompting an undeserved controversy.