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Impact of Feline Onychectomy Bans

Zenithson Y. Ng, DVM, MS , University of Tennessee

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In the literature

Ellis A, van Haaften K, Protopopova A, Gordon E. Effect of a provincial feline onychectomy ban on cat intake and euthanasia in a British Columbia animal shelter system. J Feline Med Surg. 2022;24(8):739-744. doi:10.1177/1098612X211043820 


Feline onychectomy (ie, declawing) is controversial and presents an ethical dilemma. Pet owners may request declawing to prevent or manage destructive scratching behaviors, but patient welfare with elective amputation of digits should be considered. Refusal to perform the procedure and instead attempting to manage unwanted behaviors can result in frustrated owners choosing to euthanize or relinquish destructive cats. As more municipalities prohibit onychectomy, it is critical to understand and acknowledge the implications. 

This study compared rates of and reasons for relinquishment and owner-requested euthanasia at multiple shelters in a single province in Canada 3 years before and 3 years after a legislative ban on onychectomy. The study aimed to determine whether the rate of relinquishment and euthanasia increased, as well as whether relinquishment increased due to destructive behavior.


Which option do you most commonly choose if an owner insists on an elective feline onychectomy despite your best efforts to educate them on behavior management?

Results demonstrated no significant difference in relinquishment or owner-requested euthanasia. Destructive behavior was an uncommon primary reason for surrender, comprising only 0.18% of surrendered cats over the study period; there was no significant increase after the ban. This may suggest most owners are able to manage or accept scratching behaviors, and withholding the option to declaw is unlikely to increase relinquishment or euthanasia; however, the study did not include cats that may have been declawed illegally, rehomed privately or through alternative welfare organizations, or released outside by owners because of unwanted scratching behaviors. 

Future research should investigate whether owners who surrendered or euthanized cats due to destructive scratching would have pursued onychectomy if available, as owners of these cats may not have been committed to declawing, lessening justification of the procedure.


Key pearls to put into practice:


Scratching is natural behavior in cats. New cat owners should be educated to expect this behavior and understand early management interventions. 


There are short- and long-term welfare concerns with onychectomy, regardless of method or pain medication administered. Recently graduated clinicians are unlikely to be confident and able to perform this procedure as it continues to be removed from veterinary curricula. Hospitals will likely rely on experienced clinicians to perform the procedure or teach new practitioners willing to learn.


Relinquishment is usually related to owner concerns (eg, housing, financial challenges). Access to veterinary care and pet friendly housing are critical for preventing unnecessary relinquishment and euthanasia.

Has a client ever threatened to relinquish their cat because you refused to perform an elective onychectomy?

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For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

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