Tips to help cat owners avoid declaws

Tips to help cat owners avoid declaws

Encourage clients to try behavior modification to deal with a scratching kitten.
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Sep 25, 2013

In a dvm360 story dated Aug. 1, Dr. Robert Miller suggests declawing his son's 8-month-old kitten (click here to read). Apparently, the cat has repeatedly scratched every family member, including the grandkids. The family dog even suffered a bloody nose.

But what Dr. Miller finds appalling is the $1,000 fee for a declaw. He focuses his story on the question of why the family's California veterinarian charges so much compared to the $50 Miller charged before he himself retired.

Dr. Miller doesn't even hint at the possibility of behavior modification for this cat. Is this kitty aggressively scratching, actually attacking anyone within reach of those claws? Or is this a normal kitty without adequate play outlets, and who's not been educated about where to scratch? According to Dr. Miller, the best solution is what's certainly easiest—that's to amputate the problem.

I can't offer advice to Dr. Miller's family because I don't know their exact circumstances. But it's a shame that the following suggestions weren't offered—or weren't acted on by the family—to modify the kitten's behavior without surgery. Would you suggest these options to families asking for a kitten declaw?

> Use nail caps. For starters, so family members don't get scratched, you could recommend nail caps or that the owner simply cut the kitten's nails more often.

> Rule out physical problems. If a kitten is aggressively scratching, recommend a physical veterinary exam to rule out pain as a possible cause.

> Take a break from bad snuggling. If family members snuggle a kitten too often or too tightly, many will scratch in an effort to get away. Some kittens love to be snuggled, and some don't.

> Check the kitten's environment. Does the kitten scratch only under specific circumstances? Do the family members use interactive toys (such as fishing-pole-type toys) for the kitten to chase and pounce on, and then are accidentally scratched during play?

> Play up the scratching post. Cat owners can direct kittens' scratching. Kittens should have access to at least one vertical and one horizontal scratching post. Most cats seem to prefer sisal. The vertical posts must be sturdy and tall enough for the kitten to grow into and be able to reach up for a good stretch and scratch.

> Use clicker training to get a kitten to the post. So, what if the kitten doesn't scratch the scratching post and prefers the couch, the chair or the human leg? There are several options. Clicker training is one method, teaching the kitten that every time he hears the clicker, there's an amazing treat that instantly appears.

Once a kitten responds to a click, behavior can be shaped at the post. As the kitten lifts a paw toward the post, click. Raises the paw and touches the post, click again. Eventually, the kitten learns to scratch the post.

While clicker training a cat may require some patience, cats do like to learn. And the process can enhance family bonding—particularly important in this instance, because family members are scared of the kitten, who may actually feel the same way about them.

> Dangle a toy on the post. Another option to encourage the kitten to scratch a post is to dangle an interactive toy. As the kitten bats it more and more, the toy and the post start to smell more like the kitten. Eventually, the excitable cat will scratch in order to re-establish that scent.

> Put the post in the right place. I like to put one scratching post near the most-used door in the home, because cats scratch when excited. Getting home from work or school may excite the kitten, who has likely been home alone all day. When you see the kitten scratch on the post, don't be afraid to offer praise and even a reward.

For more, click here to download a free handout—"Think twice before you declaw"—which I wrote with certified cat behavior consultant Beth Adelman, certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug and certified feline veterinarian Dr. Ilona Rodan.

In my opinion, declaws should be the last resort, not the first. So $1,000 for a procedure I wouldn't encourage doesn't bother me one bit.