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Onychectomy, popularly known as declawing, is an operation to surgically remove an animal's claws by means of the amputation of all or part of the distal phalanges, or end bones, of the animal's toes. Because the claw develops from germinal tissue within the third phalanx, amputation of the bone is necessary to remove the claw. The terms "onychectomy" (origin: Greek ὄνυξ onycho, nail + ἐκτομή ektome, excision) and "declawing" imply mere claw removal, but a more appropriate description would be phalangectomy, excision of toe bone.
Although common in North America, and some Asian countries such as Korea and China, elective declawing is considered an act of animal cruelty in many countries (see "Declawing practices" below).
The amputation of the distal phalanx is indicated in case of chronic inflammatory processes, tumours, persistent and severe infections and gangrene that are limited to the distal phalanx. The procedure is usually limited to the affected claw, leaving the healthy claws (if any) intact.
In North America, declawing is commonly performed on housecats to prevent damage to household possessions by scratching and to prevent scratching of people. To achieve this result, all distal phalanges of the front paws, and sometimes the rear paws, are amputated. Although no precise figures are available, peer-reviewed veterinary journal articles estimate that approximately 25% of domestic cats in North America have been declawed. Some privately owned apartment buildings in the U.S. ban cats unless they have been declawed. This is not the case in publicly subsidized housing, however, because in 2007 the U.S. Congress enacted legislation that forbids public housing authorities from having such rules.
Some North American veterinarians hold the position that people with compromised immune systems, due to conditions such as AIDS, should have their cats declawed to prevent health risks to themselves.
Despite the prevalence of elective onychectomy in North America, no standard practices exist regarding the surgical techniques or surgical tools used, the administration of post-operative analgesics or other follow-up care, or the optimal age or other attributes of cats undergoing the procedure.
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In a survey of 276 cat owners, 34% reported post-surgical discomfort in their cats while 78% reported primarily tenderness. Recovery time took from three days to two weeks. Increased biting strength or frequency was reported in 10 cats (4%) but overall, 96% of owners were satisfied with the surgery.
At one veterinary teaching hospital, between 50 and 80% of cats had one or more medical complications post-surgery. 19.8% developed complications after release. Lameness was noted for 1–42 days (and it was reported that one cat experienced pain 8 years later).
Medical complications have also been reported by some private practitioners; in a survey, 34.8% of 320 veterinarian surveyed reported long-term complications.
A study of two different surgical techniques found that 16% of those who underwent joint amputation developed lameness while only 5% who underwent bone amputation did. 22% of the first group and 16% of the second experienced reopened wound.
On the other hand, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) policy statement on declawing states: "There is no scientific evidence that declawing leads to behavioral abnormalities when the behavior of declawed cats is compared with that of cats in control groups."
In one study, 16% of declawed cats developed behavior problems, and more declawed (55%) than intact (45%) cats were referred to a vet teaching hospital for behavior problems.
In another study, eleven cats (4%) developed or had worse behavior problems post-operatively. Despite positive attitude toward declawing, 5 clients reported that their cats had developed litterbox and biting problems.
Behavior problems are a primary cause of cats being relinquished to shelters. In one study, when all factors were accounted for, the odds of being relinquished to a shelter were 1.89% in the case of declawed cats, versus 1.00% in the case of intact cats. This represents an 89% greater chance of relinquishment in the case of declawed cats. Inappropriate elimination was 80% more likely in declawed (52.4%) as opposed to intact cats (29.1%).
Declawing is uncommon outside of North America, and laws governing its practice vary. Many European countries prohibit or significantly restrict the practice, as do Australia, New Zealand, and Turkey. The list below gives an overview of the situation in different parts of the world.
In Australia, declawing has never been common, and for all practical purpose, does not exist. Nationwide legislation was recently enacted that prohibits the declawing of cats except for medical need of the cat. The Australian Veterinary Association's policy states: "Surgical alteration to the natural state of an animal is acceptable only if it is necessary for the health and welfare of the animal concerned. Performance of any surgical procedure for other than legitimate medical reasons is unacceptable."
In Israel, The Knesset Education Committee voted unanimously to send a bill banning the declawing of cats. The bill has passed second and third readings on November 28th 2011, effectively making declawing a criminal offense.
In many European countries the practice is forbidden either under the terms of the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals or under Local Animal Abuse Laws, unless there it is for "veterinary medical reasons or for the benefit of any particular animal." Some European countries go further, such as Finland, Estonia, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, where declawing cats for non-medical reasons is always illegal under their laws against cruelty to animals.
In Austria, the Federal Act on the Protection of Animals, in Section 7, states, surgical procedures "carried out for other than therapeutic or diagnostic purposes...are prohibited, in particular...declawing."
In the United Kingdom, declawing was outlawed by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which explicitly prohibited "interference with the sensitive tissues or bone structure of the animal, otherwise than for the purposes of its medical treatment." Even before the 2006 Act, however, declawing was extremely uncommon, to the extent that most people had never seen a declawed cat. The procedure was considered cruel by almost all British vets, who refused to perform it except on medical grounds. The Guide to Professional Conduct of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons stated that declawing was "only acceptable where, in the opinion of the veterinary surgeon, injury to the animal is likely to occur during normal activity. It is not acceptable if carried out for the convenience of the owner ... the removal of claws, particularly those which are weight bearing, to preclude damage to furnishings is not acceptable."
Declawing is legal in most US jurisdictions. It is estimated that 25% of owned cats in the United States are declawed (Patronek 2001).
Declawing was outlawed in West Hollywood, California, in 2003, the first such ban in the US. The ordinance was authored by West Hollywood Councilmember John Duran and sponsored by the Paw Project, a non-profit organization based in Santa Monica, CA. The California Veterinary Medical Association challenged the law in court. The CVMA maintained that West Hollywood had overstepped its municipal authority by enacting an ordinance that infringed on licensed professionals’ state-granted rights. It did not directly address declawing as an animal welfare issue. The CVMA initially prevailed in Superior Court, but in June 2007, the California Court of Appeal overturned the lower court ruling, thus reinstating the law banning declawing in West Hollywood.
In 2004, California became the first state in the USA to enact a statewide ban on the declawing of wild and exotic cats. The bill was introduced by California Assemblymember Paul Koretz and sponsored by the Paw Project.
In 2009, the California state legislature approved a measure, sponsored by the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), intended to stop other cities from passing bans similar to West Hollywood. By including in the bill all professions licensed by the state Department of Consumer Affairs, the CVMA got the bill pushed through, and it was signed by the Governor in July, 2009. However, the bill's effective date, January 1, 2010, provided a window of opportunity for grandfathering any other declaw bans passed locally in the state before that date.
In 2009, seven other California cities, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Berkeley, Burbank, and Culver City, passed ordinances banning declawing on the basis of animal cruelty. 
Although widely practiced, declawing is ethically controversial within the American veterinary community. Many American veterinarians are critical of the procedure and some refuse to perform it. The two leading national animal protection organizations in the US, the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, strongly discourage or condemn the procedure. The Humane Society of the United States and other animal advocacy groups have supported legislation banning or restricting declawing. Major opposition to attempts to ban or restrict declawing has come from veterinary trade organizations, such as the California Veterinary Medical Association. The American Veterinary Medical Association considers declawing acceptable under certain circumstances but states that it "should be considered only after attempts have been made to prevent the cat from using its claws destructively or when its clawing presents a zoonotic risk for its owner(s)." Despite the clear ethical guidelines given by the AVMA, surveys suggest that 95% of declaw surgeries are done to protect furniture. Further, because younger cats are better able to adapt to life without claws post-surgery than older cats, 76% of cats are declawed before they reach 8 months of age, precluding any serious effort at training and/or use of other non-surgical alternatives.
Tendonectomy involves cutting the deep digital flexor tendon of each claw, resulting in the cat being unable to move its distal phalanges. Without the ability to expose its claws, the cat is unable to wear down or groom its claws. For this reason, the cat subsequently requires regular nail clippings to prevent its claws from growing into its paw pads. A 1998 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association comparing cats undergoing onychectomy to cats undergoing tendonectomy found that, although the cats undergoing tendonectomy appeared to suffer less pain immediately post-operatively, there was no significant difference in postoperative lameness, bleeding, or infection between the two groups. A 2005 study found no evidence that tendonectomy is less painful than onychectomy. The American Veterinary Medical Association and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association explicitly do not recommend this surgery as an alternative to declawing.
One non-surgical alternative to declawing available through veterinarians is the application of vinyl nail caps (marketed in the US under brand names such as Soft Paws and Soft Claws) that are affixed to the claws with nontoxic glue, requiring periodic replacement when the cat sheds its claw sheaths (usually every four to six weeks, depending on the cat's scratching habits).
Other alternatives include regular nail trimming; directing scratching behavior to inexpensive cardboard scratchers or scratching posts, or emery scratching pads that dull the claws; rotary sanding devices (Dremel, Pedi-Paws); covering furniture or using double-sided sticky tape or sheets such as Sticky Paws; remote aversive devices such as Scat Mats; or acceptance of cats' scratching behavior.
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