Whether or not to declaw is undoubtedly the most heated debate among cat lovers. Declawing has become widespread with many cat owners under the impression that it is both desirable and beneficial to the cat, while many other cat owners think that it is cruel and unnecessary.
A cat’s nails are tools, helping to climb trees and catch prey or, more likely for a house cat, to climb stairs and catch toys. A cat’s natural instinct to scratch meets both physical and psychological needs because it exercises foot muscles and helps remove the outer layer of nail that is periodically shed, while the rhythmic action also provides psychological comfort. Fortunately there are ways to train cats what to scratch and what not to scratch.
If you start when they are young kittens you can make scratching fun and manageable so declaw surgery is not needed. Kittens use their claws to climb up drapes, clothing, window screens and furniture. This behavior will abate as the kitten gains weight and jumping ability but you can prevent the climbing by regularly trimming all nails on all four feet. Climbing is not a reason to declaw a kitten. A scratching post should be made available, attractive and accessible; a new kitten will play with the scratching post before it starts scratching.
Placement and types of scratching surfaces
Scratching leaves visible “I Was Here” signals, and this information must be in important locations in the house—a scratching post in the center of the living room will be used while one down in the basement may not be, unless the cat spends a lot of time in the basement. Position a scratching post on every story of the house, or use cardboard scratch pads which can be easily moved and allow for horizontal scratching, which some cats prefer. Other types of scratching surfaces include wooden logs attached to a secure base, and rope-wrapped boards, which can be hooked over stair posts or doorknobs or mounted on a wall.
Don’t worry when the scratching post starts looking messy, as this is the way cats like them to look. They want the material to fray and unravel. Rope or fabric will show wear faster than carpet.
To start a cat using a new scratch post, use a flexible toy such as a peacock feather to attract the cat. As the cat grabs the post around the feather, the cat’s pads are leaving scent clues, and the cat becomes more familiar with the post. Repeat the toy play on the post 2-4 times per day. A toy on a sturdy cord can be mounted to dangle against the post.
Switching the sofa scratching cat to a post
It is better to train a kitten to scratch a post than to tolerate scratching on an old beat-up chair, unless you never plan to remove the scratching chair. If you are replacing a sofa that generations of cats have used as a scratchpad, save pieces of the fabric from the old sofa and mount them on a secure post, which should be positioned as close as possible to the previous location of the old sofa. Then use a feather or toy to attract the cat to the fabric post.
The new sofa will have to be guarded during the transition period. If the cat tries to scratch on the new furniture, use some remote punishment: walnuts in the shell or hard candy can be tossed at the scratching cat, or he may be squirted with a strong water pistol. Water squirted on a cat’s side or back will be a sufficient deterrent. Tossed walnuts should strike the floor or furniture and startle, not hit, the cat. The goal is to make the cat think the new sofa is dangerous, and the punishment comes from the room rather than the person.
Consider locking the cat out of the sofa room for 1-3 weeks except when the sofa can be guarded by a vigilant water pistol/walnut shooter. Continue to use the toy or feather to attract the cat to the fabric-covered post so the cat will feel comfortable scratching on the post, even though walnuts or water spray appear when he touches the new sofa. If many areas of the house are being scratched, approach each area as a separate problem and make an acceptable scratching surface available next to each surface you want to protect.
Scratching on carpet is difficult to prevent because it may involve the entire floor or stairs. Hemp rugs or doormats or cardboard pads may be placed over the areas cats have been scratching, and this is one case where carpet scratch posts may be attractive to the feline. Cats should be limited to non-carpeted rooms when not monitored—then a shaker can or water pistol can be used as a deterrent if carpet scratch is observed.
Solutions beyond deterrence
Soft Paws are vinyl covers that are glued in place over the claws and prevent them from doing damage. The covers will not stop the clawing motions, and need to be replaced at home as they fall off, usually every 4 weeks or a few every week. The cat owner must be able to clip the nails to apply Soft Paws.
The other solution is declaw surgery. If you are planning to get a kitten, remember that the optimum time for declaw surgery is when the cat is young, 3 to 6 months of age. Kittens have a quicker recovery time than adults, and usually neuter or spay surgery can be done at the same time. Special litter needs to be used for 1-2 weeks after to prevent clogging of the surgery site, and expect the paws will be sore for several days. Longer discomfort may occur with cats declawed as older animals. Rear feet declaw is usually reserved for situations where a person needs to be protected from jumping down toe push-off, or if leather furniture damage cannot be managed by other means.
—Dr. Jess Franklin