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Cat showing claws

The essentials

  • Declawing removes the last bone on each of your cat’s toes — If the surgery were performed on a human, it would be like severing the last finger bone to the knuckle.
  • It’s illegal in some places — While New York and Maryland are the only two states that outlaw declawing, some cities, and most European countries have banned the practice.
  • Alternatives exist — Scratching posts, nail caps, frequent nail trims, and feline-friendly diffusers like Feliway can redirect your cat’s energy to something besides your feet and futon.

Declawing was a common practice from the 1970s until the early 2000s when follow-up studies showed that the procedure made cats more aggressive and caused unnecessary pain.

So what’s a cat-scratched owner to do? Rather than opting for declaw surgery, responsible pet parents can redirect negative attention and reinforce positive behaviors, encouraging their cats to sharpen their nails on a scratching post instead of the sofa.

What is declawing?

Declawing can take two forms: an onychectomy or a tendonectomy. While a tendonectomy is slightly less traumatic, neither option is really good for cats and can increase aggression, among other potential complications.


An onychectomy is what people typically mean when they refer to declaw surgery. This procedure slices off a cat’s distal phalanx, which is the last bone on the toe, with a surgical scalpel, surgical laser, or sterilized guillotine-style nail clipper.

Because a cat’s claws are connected to this bone, they usually won’t grow back. However, this surgery isn’t 100% effective. Sometimes a cat’s claws do attempt to grow back, which is extremely painful for the cat.

It can also predispose them to chronic pain, lameness, inappropriate elimination, and behavioral changes such as aggression.


Instead of cutting bones, a tendonectomy slices the tendon in a cat’s paws, preventing them from extending their claws or scratching. While it’s not as cruel as an onychectomy and the nails themselves are not removed, a tendonectomy still leads to some of the same consequences, including impaired balance and defense.

Why cats are still declawed

While declawing is still legal in most parts of the United States, the American Veterinary Medical Association and most veterinarians discourage it in most cases. There are a few limited reasons that may justify declawing a cat, including a tumor on their toe, injury, or an attempt to prevent euthanasia.

Some veterinarians opt for declawing a cat over a pet parent’s threat to surrender or euthanize their cat due to scratches. However, most veterinarians will suggest alternatives to declawing, including frequent nail trims, nail caps, scratching posts, or even rehoming the pet rather than putting them through painful surgery.

While declawing is sometimes mentioned as a precautionary measure for immunocompromised populations, Dr. Cahn warns that this advice isn’t grounded in truth.

Diseases such as cat scratch fever can be transmitted through cat scratches. However, it is not supported in literature or by major organizations (AAHA, AVMA, CDC) that cats should be declawed for human health reasons. The risks and harm of declawing to the cat far outweigh the potential for a healthy cat to transmit disease.

Dr. Liza Cahn

The cons of declawing 

While you may be able to legally declaw your cat, there are many reasons why you shouldn’t. Some of these drawbacks include:

  • Surgical complications. An onychectomy slices a cat’s bones. Sometimes fragments of bone, known as bone spurs, are left behind following the operation and can cause chronic nerve pain. In some cases, the procedure isn’t successful and the claws grow back, which can be painful in itself.
  • Infections. In addition to pain and tenderness in a cat’s toes following surgery, declawing also increases the risk of infection since it’s difficult to keep a cat’s paws sanitary as they try to heal.
  • Pain. Declawing can cause short-term pain following surgery or long-term chronic nerve pain that lingers for the rest of their life. Pain in cats sometimes manifests in other problems, too, such as overgrooming and urinating outside of the litterbox. Declawed cats are also more likely to suffer from back pain, likely from walking awkwardly.
  • Inappropriate elimination. The struggle to walk, increased sensitivity in their toes, and the anxiety over their pain may induce some declawed felines to pee or poop outside of the litter box.
  • Increased aggression. Declawing doesn’t remove a cat’s instinct to scratch, but it does leave them defenseless against potential predators. It can lead felines to become more aggressive and more prone to biting. Cats may also act out due to pain.
  • Difficulty walking. After an onychectomy, cats have to relearn to walk on their knuckles instead of their toe bones.
  • Affects balance. Cats use their claws to grip while jumping and walking. Without their claws, they are more likely to fall and possibly injure themselves.
  • Puts them in danger outside. Even if you keep your cat strictly indoors, you never know if they may accidentally get outside or become lost.

Alternatives to declawing cats  

Declawing isn’t an ethical option, but thankfully there are countless ways to preserve your furniture that won’t hurt your cat.

Scratching posts

Instinctually, cats scratch to sharpen and maintain their claws. Providing them with productive objects like a cat tree or cardboard scratching post keeps you both happy. “

Individual cats have different preferences. Try a variety of scratching posts (vertical vs. horizontal) and materials to see what your cat likes.” — Dr. Liza Cahn

Furniture protectors

Draping a cover over the back of the sofa or buying cat furniture protector tape sheets shields your furniture from claws while still giving your cat somewhere to scratch.

Nail caps

Nail caps slide on the tip of your cat’s nails, rendering them dull without removing them. A groomer or vet may be able to help apply them but keep in mind that they’ll need to be replaced about every 6-8 weeks.

Nail trims

Keeping your cat’s nails trimmed may reduce scratching. Getting your cat used to it early on will make regular trimming easier.

Cat-friendly diffusers

If anxiety is causing your cat to excessively scratch, a diffuser with a feline-friendly formula like Feliway may help relieve tensions.

👉 Always ask a vet before diffusing essential oils or any formula that isn’t made for cats. Some essential oils, chemicals, and fragrances are toxic to cats. 

Declawing isn’t a humane option — even if it remains a legal one in most parts of the United States. If your cat scratches excessively, opt for safer ways to solve the problem, like nail caps, trims, or scratching posts instead. Reinforcing positive behaviors fulfills their instinct and protects your furniture, too.

Still struggling? Consider consulting a veterinary behaviorist.

Frequently asked questions

Is it cruel to declaw a cat?

Declawing doesn’t only remove claws, it also removes the last bone in each of your cat’s toes. While only two states have outlawed the practice so far — New York and Maryland — the procedure is illegal in most of Europe and many countries worldwide. Certain cities in the US such as Berkeley, California, have also banned declawing. Other states are currently working on legislation.

What is the age limit for declawing a cat?

Declawing forces a cat to relearn how to walk, so it’s best to declaw them before they’re six months old — if at all. While many veterinarians discourage declawing regardless of age, a cat must weigh at least two pounds before surgery is on the table. If you’re planning on declawing your kitten, it’s easiest to do so when they are already under anesthesia during their spay/neuter surgery.

In what states is it illegal to declaw a cat?

So far, New York and Maryland are the only states where it is illegal to declaw a cat. However, certain U.S. cities have outlawed the practice, and there are talks of more to follow.  In most places in the US, you are still usually able to get your cat declawed if you want to.  The American Veterinary Medical Association discourages the procedure though, and some individual veterinarians or entire clinics may choose not to offer those services.

Is declawing taught in vet school?

While the AVMA discourages declawing, some vet schools still teach students how to perform an onychectomy. However, even these schools have their limits. For example, Purdue University Veterinary Hospital will only declaw under certain cases — usually to prevent euthanasia.

Can you undo declawing?

No, declawing permanently removes a cat’s claws and the last bone on their toes. This non-reversible procedure causes long-lasting consequences. Cats have to relearn to walk, painfully adjusting to walking without their toe bone or the claws themselves that they use for grip and balance. In some cases the claws can partially grow back, leading to further complications and the need for another surgery.