Cats developed claws as they evolved to hunt. Domesticated cats no longer hunt for their food in most cases and their claws may become too long, requiring frequent trimming and/or provision of a means to wear them down. If they are not provided with scratching posts, then they are likely to express their natural behaviour (clawing) on your furniture. Some owners prefer not to risk their furniture and elect to have their cats declawed (onychectomy). However, a cat’s claws are not only used for hunting. Unlike most mammals that walk on the soles of their feet or paws (plantigrade stance), cats walk on their toes (digitigrade stance). The claws are used to aid balance and are particularly useful for climbing and stretching. A cat’s claws help the paws contact the ground appropriately to maintain the alignment of muscles in their legs, backs and shoulders, as well as tendons and ligaments that support the limbs.
Declawing is not just removing the claw, equivalent to the human nail, but actually involves removal of the last bone of the cat’s toes (distal phalanx); this is equivalent to cutting off your fingers at the last joint. This is because, to prevent the growth of a vestgial claw, the vet must amputate the entire distal phalanx including the bone, nerves, joint capsule, ligaments and tendons in that region.
When a cat is declawed, the paws meet the ground at an unnatural angle, causing strain on their limbs and back. Declawing is not without potential physical and behavioural complications, ranging from pain, damage to nerves of the limbs, haemorrhage, infection, painful regrowth of deformed claws inside the paw (not visible externally) and chronic muscular pain. Some cats may become withdrawn, fearful or aggressive when no longer able to exhibit their natural behaviour, others may be unwilling to use a litter tray because they are no longer comfortable covering their excrement.
Declawing is not permitted in the UK or most European countries, however it is permitted in most US states.