Hi, everyone. This is Anna– the religious studies nerd and armchair theologian behind the Sulfur-Free Jesus blog. Whether you’ve read everything I’ve ever published or are reading this blog for the first time, welcome, and thanks for stopping by!
If you’re a long-time reader, you’ve probably noticed that I have a passion for justice, which is deeply rooted in my faith. The prophet Micah once said that what God requires of us is that we “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” In her song of praise to God upon learning she was pregnant with the Christ Child, the Blessed Virgin Mary spoke of God as one who will care for the poor and the downtrodden, and scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts. Jesus himself spent much of his ministry caring for the “least of these” and preaching a Gospel of justice for the oppressed.
Today I want to talk to you about a justice issue that is very close to my heart.
But first, I’d like you to meet two very special members of my family:
Rowan, my eleven-pound orange and white tabby, came to me in the summer of 2013 as a six-month-old feral-born kitten with three paws in the grave. He was malnourished, underweight, sickly, and had a number of health issues caused by the malnutrition. The vet initially didn’t think he was going to make it. I dedicated my life to caring for him—bottle-feeding him every three hours, diligently putting the anti-fungal goop on him daily, carrying him around in a baby sling—I don’t think I slept that entire summer. He started getting better over the next few months, and eventually made a full recovery. Rowan is now a perfectly healthy three-year-old tomcat whose weight and height are perfectly normal, vision and hearing are totally intact, and has no health problems whatsoever. He’s definitely a mama’s boy, and his behavior is sometimes more canine than feline. Megan and I joke that Rowan is a tabby crossed with a golden retriever. He’s a goofy, affectionate, laid-back, lovable guy who spends most of his time on my lap.
Then there’s Mocha, our six-pound chocolate tortoiseshell kitten. If you know a tortie owner, then you’ve probably heard of “tortie-tude”; that is, the temperament most often associated with female tortoiseshell cats: incredibly strong-willed, fiercely independent, hilariously sassy, and always keeping their humans on their toes. I used to think that was just a stereotype– then I met Mocha. Tortie-tude is a real thing!
About a month after my fiancee and I moved out of my dad’s house and into our current apartment, we were casually looking at the PetFinder website (with no intention of actually getting another cat) when we happened on a picture of an eight-month-old tortie kitten with big amber eyes. We fell in love instantly. We called the animal rescue where she was located to make an inquiry, and drove up there to meet her the next day. Within a week, we got to bring her home. She will be a year old in a few weeks, which is hard to believe. Mocha has grown up to be beautiful, elegant, a bit of a diva, and the undisputed boss of our apartment– and especially the boss of her older brother.
Between the two of them, there is rarely a dull moment around here.
Mocha and Rowan couldn’t be much more different in temperament if they tried. But they have one really important thing in common: neither of them has been declawed, nor will they ever be.
Last night, the hashtag #NeverDeclaw was trending on Twitter. I was a little surprised to see that– while declawing can be a controversial issue among cat owners, it’s not a topic that gets a lot of attention otherwise.
I didn’t really know much about declawing before I got Rowan because he was my first cat. I just knew it was something a lot of cat owners did. When I chose not to have him declawed, it wasn’t because I felt strongly one way or the other. It just seemed unnecessary. By the time Rowan was healthy enough that things like surgery were even on my radar, rather than just his day-to-day survival, I’d already had him for a couple of months. I’d never had any issues with him scratching anyone or anything, and he had no problem letting me trim his nails. So, I said “yes” to neutering and a microchip, but “no” to declawing. I figured, if it’s not an issue, then why bother?
As Rowan grew up, I began to do some research on the issue. I realized very quickly that the decision I’d made to not declaw Rowan may very well have been the best decision of my life. The more I educated myself about declawing, the more thankful I was that I’d left Rowan’s paws intact. Megan and I made the same decision when we adopted Mocha, and are committed to doing the same for any and all future cats we will own in the future.
So, I want to talk to you about declawing.
Declawing isn’t just unnecessary– it’s inhumane. Many people believe the myth that declawing a cat is like a human getting a manicure. That’s just not true. Trimming a cat’s nails is the equivalent of trimming a human’s nails, like what happens when you get a manicure. Declawing is the surgical amputation of part of each toe. Cats have five toes on each of their front paws and four on each of their hind paws. That’s eighteen separate amputations.
The Humane Society of the United States is against the practice of declawing, except in the rare cases where it is medically necessary.  It is illegal in a handful of cities in the United States, but there is not yet a national law banning the practice. Most developed countries, however, do have a national ban in place; it’s against the law to declaw your cat in England, Scotland, Wales, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand.  As someone on Twitter very succinctly put it, “Only in America would people consider amputating a cat’s toes to protect their possessions.”
Declawing subjects your cat to an unnecessary medical procedure. Onychectomy (the medical term for declawing) is a painful surgery. It involves general anesthesia, which always carries a certain degree of risk. Unlike spaying and neutering, for example, or surgery to correct a legitimate medical problem, declawing is neither necessary nor beneficial to your cat. Your cat is enduring the pain and risks of being operated on for no good reason.
On their FAQ page, Project Paws says this about the pain associated with declawing:
Veterinary textbooks list the pain from declawing as “severe.”
Declawing is considered one of the most painful, routinely-performed surgeries in all of veterinary medicine and yet 30% or more of veterinarians don’t provide any pain medication whatsoever to their declaw patients. Another study showed that declawed cats were still in pain from the surgery at the end of the study, which was 12 days after the operation!
Declawing is so predictably painful that it is used in clinical trials by pharmaceutical companies to test new pain medications.
Cats need their claws. Your cat’s claws are an important part of his or her anatomy. Claws are a cat’s first line of defense. When our cats play-fight, they retract their claws because they don’t want to actually hurt each other. But if (God forbid) one of them were to get loose and encounter an unfriendly critter, they would need their claws to defend themselves against an attacker who wasn’t just playing– and having claws could be the difference between life and death. Balance and movement are also an issue. Unlike humans, who walk mainly on the balls of our feet, cats walk on their toes.  Surgically altering a cat’s toes can make it more difficult for them to walk, jump, and play. Scratching is also a way in which cats stretch their back and leg muscles, as well as a form of exercise.
There are safe, humane alternatives to declawing. The best, of course, is regular maintenance of the cat’s nails. Trimming your cat’s nails often will make them more comfortable and keep them from shredding your furniture, too. This is something that you can do yourself at home if your cat doesn’t mind.
Train your cat as young as possible to tolerate being picked up and handled. For some cats, this comes naturally. Rowan, for example, had to be bottle-fed from when he was six months old until he was about eight months old. Thus, he became very accustomed to being frequently handled and picked up, as well as extremely attached to me. (As I am typing this, I am sitting cross-legged with my laptop balanced on one thigh and Rowan asleep on the other.) He has no problem at all with me touching his feet, handling his paws, and trimming his nails– he just sits on my lap and purrs the whole time. If you have a cat like Rowan who will allow you to trim his or her nails at home, you should buy a nail clipper especially designed for cats, and have your vet show you how to use it.
Mocha, on the other hand, does not usually like to be picked up or held, and would likely become homicidal if either Megan or I tried to trim her nails. If you have a cat like Mocha who won’t let you anywhere near them with a pair of clippers, don’t worry. You’re not doomed to a life of shredded toilet paper and eviscerated sofas. Cats can and will maintain their own nails– that’s why they scratch things in the first place. The issue is, of course, getting them to scratch only the things you want them to scratch. This isn’t as hard as it sounds.
- First, make sure you have a scratching post. (Or, better yet, get a cat condo or cat tree that has built-in scratching areas.) It should be tall, sturdy, and heavy enough that your cat can’t tip it over. Many cats will automatically choose scratching posts over your furniture, because they are designed with cats in mind and tend to be more fun and satisfying to scratch than other items. Occasionally spraying some organic catnip spray on the scratching post will make it even more enticing. (Go easy on that stuff, though.)
- Secondly– and this is important– train your cat to listen to you. Our cats both know their names, and a firm “Mocha!” or “Rowan!” will get the corresponding cat’s attention. They also understand the meaning of the word “no,” and will almost always stop what they’re doing immediately when told “no”. Please never hit, scream at, or shove your cats while you’re training them— I recommend that you use a small squirt from a squirt bottle, accompanied by a calm but firm “NO.” (Don’t spray your cat in the face, and only use the squirt bottle when you catch them in the act– not when you find evidence of something they’ve already done.) Eventually, they’ll get the picture when you say “no” in a certain tone of voice, and you won’t need to use the bottle. It’s a Pavlovian thing. Providing positive reinforcement for desirable behavior is even more vital to your cat’s training than disincentivizing unwanted behavior, of course, but it’s also important to have a way of effectively, consistently getting your cat to knock it off when they’re doing something destructive. Training them to listen is also important for much bigger reasons than clawing the couch– if I saw that one of my cats was about to eat something toxic, knock over something made of glass, or otherwise put their safety in danger, I would need to be able to tell them “no!” and know that they’d stop immediately.
Claw caps are also an alternative for cats who won’t let you trim their nails and insist on scratching the wrong things despite your best efforts to modify their behavior. Claw caps are small caps– usually made of vinyl– that cover the tip of the cat’s claw. Applying them is a lot like putting on those press-on acrylic nails you buy at Wal-Mart or the drugstore: you put some adhesive on the cap and stick it to the claw. They fall off on their own within a few weeks. Unlike declawing, claw caps are safe, painless, and don’t affect the cat’s natural stretching and scratching behavior– they just protect people and furniture from being harmed by the scratching.  You can get them in all different colors if you want, and they also come in clear. The one major drawback, of course, is that rendering your cat’s claws harmless to your sofa also makes them ineffective for self-defense. Claw caps are only for cats who are 100% indoor cats, and if an indoor cat were to escape while wearing them, they would be unable to use their claws to protect themselves.
Cats suffer emotionally when they are declawed. In 2001, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that one-third of cats experience at least one psychological side effect after being declawed.  This emotional trauma leads to issues like biting, aggression, unfriendliness, and not wanting to use the litter box, just to name a few. Intact paws make for happier, more affectionate, and better-behaved cats.
Declawing can’t be undone. Remember how I said my main reason for not declawing Rowan initially was, “well, why bother?” I knew that, if it turned out he needed to be declawed (this was before I understood that no cat needs to be declawed) I could always have it done later. I also knew that, if I chose to have it done, it couldn’t be undone. And that’s true: if I had made that awful mistake, even in ignorance, the cat who loves me and trusts me with his life would have been permanently damaged– quite literally scarred for life– because of my poor decision. It’s not a decision that can be undone or reversed. Even if you’re on the fence about declawing, why not err on the side of caution?
Ultimately, I view declawing as a justice issue. Our God is a God who loves everything he has created, not just the human aspect of creation. Abuse of the environment and animal cruelty are sins, plain and simple, because they prevent us from being in right and life-giving relationship with creation, and therefore with God.
All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all!
Each little flower that opens, each little bird that sings
He made their glowing colors; he made their tiny wings.
I believe that we have a responsibility to care for all of God’s creatures. In particular, I think we have a special duty to the individual animals who become members of our families. Be it a tiny betta fish or a 2200-pound draft horse, humans are called to exercise stewardship over the lives and well-being of the animals who are placed in our care. That call to stewardship is a call to lay down our own lives for the sake of the creatures God has entrusted to us– and a commitment to do so for the remainder of each animal’s time on earth. It’s a call to do what’s best for them, not necessarily what’s easiest for us.
Those of us who are called to care for animals must be willing to sacrifice time, money, convenience, and choices. Our lives are made infinitely better by the presence of our animal companions, but we are also responsible for them, and to them, and it’s not a responsibility we should take lightly.
I believe I will one day stand before God and be asked to answer for the decisions I made in my life– including, and perhaps especially, my stewardship of Mocha and Rowan’s welfare. I will be asked whether I truly believe I gave them all the love, compassion, protection, and safety I possibly could. I will be asked whether I honored my commitment to care for them for their entire lives. I will be asked whether I put their needs before my own.
When that day comes on which I will face judgment, I want to be able to honestly answer, “Yes,” when I’m asked whether I gave my whole heart to care for these two beautiful, quirky, curious, beloved creatures that God, in his infinite wisdom and creativity, has so wonderfully made.
That’s why I will #NeverDeclaw.