Cats' claws are a vital part of their arsenal for both offense and defense. They use them to capture prey and to settle disputes among themselves as well as with other animals and people who are hurting, threatening or annoying them. In addition, a cat who is attempting to climb to safety uses her claws to grip a surface and hold on.
A cat's claws can inflict considerable pain and damage to human and nonhuman animals alike. Cats who harbor the bacterium Bartonella henselae (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 40 percent of cats carry B. henselae at some point in their lives) can transmit a syndrome called Cat Scratch Disease (CSD) to people. Although typically a relatively mild infection, CSD can cause significant illness in people with compromised immune systems.
As part of their daily rituals, cats instinctually pull the claws on their front paws through surfaces that offer resistance. Explanations for this behavior include that they are marking territory, exercising muscles normally used in hunting, relieving stress and removing worn sheaths from their nails. Cats who live outdoors favor logs and tree trunks for this purpose, but indoor cats frequently choose upholstered furniture and carpets to scratch, causing a great deal of damage to household furnishings and to their relationships with their guardians.
A variety of humane methods exist to manage the problem of destructive clawing and to prevent injury from cat scratches. These include having your cats nails trimmed or filed down regularly in order to blunt the tips and providing scratching pads, posts and other appealing structures for the cat to use—and employing behavior modification techniques to induce the cat to use them. Cat guardians should also be familiar with cat behavior and handling techniques to avoid being scratched.
Unfortunately, many cat guardians opt instead to have their cat surgically declawed, perhaps not appreciating the fact that removing a cat's claws would be comparable to removing their own fingernails, along with the bones to which they are attached. Others may have a resident cat who's been declawed and believe, wrongly, that any new cat or kitten coming into the home must also be declawed for the protection of the one who is. Declawing, or onchyectomy, is the amputation of the last digital bone, including the nail bed and claw, on each front toe. If the surgery is performed correctly and the entire nail bed is removed, the claw cannot regrow, and the procedure is considered a permanent solution. The surgery involves the risk of anesthetization, excessive bleeding and postoperative complications, including infection, and is accompanied by severe pain that may last from several days to much longer unless appropriate analgesia is provided. Post-operative care and the length of time the cat must remain in the veterinary hospital depend on how the surgical procedure is performed and the skill of the surgical team.
The ASPCA is strongly opposed to declawing cats for the convenience of their guardians. The only circumstance in which the procedure could be condoned would be if the health and safety of the guardian would be put at risk, as in the case of individuals with compromised immune systems or illnesses that cause them to be unusually susceptible to serious infections.