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DECLAW SURGERY FOR CATS
Dr. Arnold L. Goldman,Canton Animal Hospital

"Declawing" of cats has been commonly performed for many years as a method which allows people to cope with a normal feline behavior. This normal behavior serves to both remove loose claw material (sharpen the claws) as well as to mark the territory of a given cat, both visually and by olfactory means (odor, pheromones).

Declawing has taken on a bit of a controversial tone with some people for two reasons. First the procedure is entirely elective and arguably provides no benefit to the cat ( this may not be strictly true, if an owner, beside him/herself coping with damage to house and home caused by this normal behavior, would give up, abandon or choose euthanasia for their cat). Second, because of the circulation of horror stories of pain, bleeding, infection, claw regrowth, anesthetic complications and other problems related to the procedure, some people, including some veterinarians, have decided it is inhumane and decry it.

Declawing, correctly termed onychectomy, is actually the amputation of the third or last bone of each toe. It is from this bone that the germinal cells of the claw or nailbed arise. This nailbed must be removed entirely, or regrowth of claw tissue will occur. This is generally performed on  the front feet only , as most damage is done by these claws.

Traditionally, the "declaw" procedure has been accomplished in one of two ways. Commonly, and while under general anesthesia, a sterilized "Rescoe" type pet nail trimmer is used to remove the major portion of the third bone of the toe, hopefully including 100% of the nailbed tissue. As I have implied, a major risk and complication possible with this method is the inadvertant failure to remove all the nailbed tissue. I successfully performed the procedure this way for many years while working for others but once opening my own practice I took a more strict approach to risks and retired that technique. Incidentally, I had never had a regrowth complication that I am aware of. I also knew it was only a matter of time before it occurred.

The other somewhat less common method, which I had adopted, was the "blade" method, in which a #12, curved (preferred by me) or a #11straight scalpel blade, is used to cleanly dissect the third bone of each toe and remove it, along with the associated nailbed. This method completely avoids the risk of "regrowth", with the resulting infection and lameness. It is a more surgically pure and technically demanding procedure which doubles the surgical and therefore anesthetic time involved.

With the recent advent and availability of the LASER, many of the problems of either or both methods are eliminated or lessened. The LASER method achieves the benefits of both prior methods, speed with the Rescoe and accuracy with the blade, with several additional benefits gained. I no longer will perform the procedure by the other techniques.

 Either prior method required the use of a tourniquet to  avoid significant bleeding during surgery. As you may know, tourniquets cut off the circulation and pose risks of their own. Furthermore, the tourniquet, no matter how carefully applied can damage the skin over which it is applied, with resulting permanent, circumferential  hair loss. I have seen that occur once. With the LASER, no tourniquet is required, as no bleeding occurs.

 LASER means "light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation" and most simply is intensification of light waves by electronic and optical means. As the LASER beam contacts tissue it vaporizes the water in cells, essentially making them disappear. Because the beam can be so narrowly focused, you come very close to creating a single cell thick incision, thus causing minimal trauma to tissue you intend to preserve. All blood vessels smaller than 1mm are sealed by the beam and the resultant lack of bleeding means the surgeons vision is unobstructed, thus speeding the procedure considerably, all with no tourniquet required. Furthermore, the minimal trauma results in little to no swelling of the toes, with less pain and quicker healing the result. Nerve endings are similarly sealed with the result that recovering cats almost seem to not notice their feet have had surgery. This is especially important in adult or heavier cats, whose feet consequently bear more weight.

These benefits result in a reduced risk of infection, and a quick return to normal activity. In the past, declawed cats were hospitalized longer than for other elective surgeries mainly because of the pain, prolonged risk of bleeding and infection. This has not changed with the LASER, but for different reasons. The LASER declawed cats are so comfortable after surgery that return to normal activity is immediate. We can't forget they still have surgical incisions on each toe, which can open up with undue trauma. Therefore the cats are held for 2 nights after surgery, primarily to keep them confined on soft bedding and  minimize their activity.

All cats undergoing declaw surgery still get pain relief medication prior to surgery, after surgery and orally for several days. I do not believe the cats declawed in this manner suffer much pain, but the somewhat controversial nature of the procedure and the lack of a clear cut way to measure postoperative pain, means I must err on the side of comfort for my patients. Our goal is to make this procedure humane and safe, and the use of the pain medication is therefore not optional.

Cats declawed with either prior method sometimes had subtle signs of chronic pain days, weeks, months or even years after the surgery. These signs include shifting the weight on the front feet from side to side or occasional unexplained episodes of limping on one front leg or the other. I have not seen this with the LASER method. 

Complications are still possible and you should be aware of this. Ask any podiatrist that operates on peoples feet, just how high the complication rate for surgery of the feet  actually is. The feet are dirty and receive a lot of trauma through normal use. Opening of incisions with spotting of blood and infection, are possibilities. With proper postoperative care these are infrequent and manageable, however.

Anesthetic risk, though it exists, is minimal with healthy patients. We offer pre-anesthetic testing to allow discovery of problems prior to anesthesia, as an option. I encourage you to choose for your cats, that which you would choose for yourself. That is how I treat my own pets (3 cats, 3 dogs, 1 parrot). If I won't perform a given procedure on them, you can be sure I wouldn't offer it to you.

Anyway, that's it in a coconut shell. Surgery here requires a physical examination within 30 days of surgery. It could be done the day of surgery, but you might be more comfortable meeting me first, in advance. Preanesthetic testing typically includes: electrocardiogram, blood clotting time analysis and blood chemistry panel. LASER declawing can be done at the same time as ovariohysterectomy ("spay" surgery).

This informational handout has been adapted from a reply to an online request for information about declaw surgery from a client.

11/2001

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