The claws are out over the issue of feline declawing.

A growing number of Canadian veterinarians are refusing to declaw cats, describing the once-common procedure as unnecessarily cruel – and the equivalent of amputating human fingertips.

Despite what the name implies, declawing is actually a series of bone amputations, sometimes referred to as de-knuckling. Human fingernails grow from the skin, but for felines, which traditionally hunt small prey, claws grow from the bone, so a declawing involves severing the last bone in each of the 10 front toes. The tendons, nerves and ligaments are also cut off.

An estimated 95 per cent of cat owners choose to declaw their animal to stop unwanted furniture scratching. The behaviour is innate in cats, a means for felines to mark their territory both visually and with scent.

Technically called an onychectomy, declawing is now illegal or considered inhumane in dozens of first-world countries, including Australia, New Zealand and more than 12 European nations. West Hollywood was the first North American city to ban the practice more than a decade ago, and vets who declaw cats in many parts of Europe risk losing their license as a consequence.

Here in Canada, the overseeing body for veterinarians, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), strongly discourages the declawing of domestic cats, saying the surgical amputations “prevents cats from expressing normal behaviours and causes pain.”

While declawing used to be frequently performed on kittens in conjunction with being spayed, that’s no longer the case, and more and more practitioners are urging their clients to educate themselves with humane alternatives before opting into what many consider an unnecessary cosmetic procedure.

B.C.’s Okanagan Veterinary Hospital is one of hundreds of Canadian clinics that are turning their back on declawing.

Owner Dr. Marco Veenis, also the president of the Society of B.C. Veterinarians, said most pet owners are amenable to exploring other options.

“People love their kitty cats and when we talk to them about what this really is – amputating their feet – they think about it differently,” he said.

Just how painful declawing is depends on who you talk to. In the past, it’s been used to test painkillers for cats because it’s considered much more painful than a spray or neuter surgery. Cats are put under general anaesthetic and given several days of painkillers for recovery. Vets who perform it say younger animals recover faster and most cats will recover in several weeks, pending any complications. But many cats experience paw tenderness because of the severed digits, often for life.

Laser declawing, which has become more common in the past five years, simplifies the surgery and reduces pain and recovery time – but part of the cat’s fingers are still removed. And detractors say declawing of any kind robs an animal of its primary means of defence, putting at an increased risk of injury or death from another animal.

The CVMA encourages vets to inform clients about the potential negative consequences of the procedure, but acknowledges it’s a personal choice about whether a clinic performs the surgery.

Both the SPCA and CVMA only condone declawing in cases where all other options are exhausted, and the owner would otherwise surrender the animal to a shelter, or have it euthanized. The SPCA provides educational brochures that provide owners humane alternatives to the surgery.

“Claws are what makes a cat a cat,” SPCA animal welfare expert Meghann Cant told CTV News. “As long as we educate cat owners, most of these surgeries can be avoided.”

Scratching is an innate trait in felines, as is the hunting of small prey like mice or birds. But just as the owner of an indoor cat can use toys like a fuzzy object on a string to mimic those hunting behaviours, you can also steer your furry companion into more appropriate scratching.

The SPCA teaches potential cat owners to provide their pet with more appropriate scratching stations, something that will hopefully prevent them from destroying expensive rugs and leather couches. It’s that destructive behaviour that often leads pet owners to surrendering their cat to a shelter.

Regular nail trims are helpful.

There are also sprays available on the market to keep cats away from furniture, and attraction devices like Feliway Phermone spray or catnip to guide cats to an appropriate scratching post.

Another non-surgical trend gaining traction to keep cats from scratching is giving them a kitty manicure.

The application of vinyl, blunt nail caps – marketed as Soft Paws or Soft Claws – are glued to the claws, with the intention that the blunt end won’t be sharp enough to cause damage. They have to be replaced every six weeks, depending on scratching habits.

Declawing is still taught at veterinary schools across Canada, although now it’s now accompanied by discussions about what it means, both in ethical terms and for the animal’s wellbeing.

“The tides are changing, but it takes time,” said Dr. Tracy Cornish, a Victoria veterinarian and the council president of the College of Veterinarians of B.C.

Meanwhile, Dr. Marco Veenis says Canada has to catch up with other developed nations, and hopes that the practice will be banned, as it is in Europe.

“As pet owners we need to put our collective heads together and ask is this something we still need to be doing,” he said.

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