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Declawing and Debarking: What are the Alternatives?

Gary Landsberg Canada

During the course of a pet’s lifetime there are likely to be times where surgery or other uncomfortable medical procedures are indicated. Humane care, as well as veterinary and animal welfare regulations, generally insures that pain and suffering will be minimized. However, even when a medical procedure is indicated, it may still generate controversy if it causes significant discomfort and the prognosis is poor (e.g., chemotherapy).

When procedures and products lead to pain, discomfort, or fear for the pet, and are not medically necessary, there is a wide diversity of opinion as to what should be permitted, what should be discouraged, and what should be banned. Country standards and laws, moral issues, and the benefits to the pet, the owner, or the community, all must be weighed. With entirely cosmetic procedures such as ear cropping and tail docking, there is no clear evidence of any benefit to the pet or owner, leaving supporters little ground to stand on. On the other hand, with spaying and castration, there are numerous potential benefits including population control, elimination of estrus cycles, prevention or reduction of undesirable behavior, as well as the effects on medical problems such as breast cancer and prostatic hypertrophy. Yet, in some European countries neutering is discouraged, perhaps because the primary benefit is to the owner and not to the pet.

With products and surgery that are intended to correct undesirable behavior, there is a great deal of controversy as to whether the needs of the owner, community, and sometimes the pet, are sufficient to justify the discomfort. In some countries, devocalization, declawing, and products that use shock or citronella spray are illegal. At issue is whether the barking or scratching is serious enough that the owner might no longer be able to keep the pet, and whether there are other equally practical alternatives.


Scratching is a normal behavior that conditions the claws, serves as a visual and scent mark, and is a means of stretching. However, when scratching is directed at owners or their possessions, it is unacceptable. There are numerous effective ways of preventing inappropriate scratching. Owners can be taught to trim their cat’s nails and to train the cat to scratch in areas that are acceptable (i.e., scratching post). Kittens should be encouraged to explore, investigate, and scratch on appropriate objects by designing a feline play center with climbing, hiding, scratching, and perching areas. Play toys should be the type that can be batted or pounced upon. The cat can then be rewarded for using the area with favored treats or catnip. Placement of the play center should be appropriate for the owner’s purposes, as well as easily accessible and enticing to the cat. Some cats prefer a site that is near a window so that the outdoors can be viewed, while placing the play center near to the cat’s sleeping area might further encourage the cat to use it area for resting, sleeping, stretching, and scratching.

If the cat uses a site and surface that is undesirable to the owners, the first step might be to assess what the cat is using and to redesign a scratching post with a similar substrate and place it in the location that the cat has selected. The inappropriate location can be made less appealing by changing the substrate (e.g., a loose furniture cover, plastic sheeting, double sided tape) or the location can be booby trapped using motion detectors, alarm mats, stacked cups, or balloons set to pop. The cat might also need to be confined when the owner cannot supervise. However, aversives such as electronic mats (which are illegal in some countries) may be more preferable and practical than confinement. Some owners may want to consider plastic nail coverings such as Soft Paws® which can be glued over the claws monthly. Another option is the use of the pheromone spray, Feliway®. Although success is variable, it has been reported that Feliway placed once a day on each scratch mark will reduce scratching that has been induced by stress. For cats that scratch as a form of territorial marking, Feliway may be useful at inhibiting the cat at specific sites, but untreated sites will likely still be used or selected. (Pageat, personal communication)

When household scratching cannot be managed or resolved, it can be a major source of owner anxiety and one of the primary reasons for relinquishment.(1) In a German study (where declawing is illegal) of 1177 cats, the second most common owner behavioral complaint, second only to states of anxiety, was scratching (15.2% of cats). For 125 cats, the owners had attempted to correct the problem; 60% had partial success with environmental management or aversion conditioning, but only 10% were able to completely resolve the problem.(2) Similarly, in a study of U.S. veterinarians, it has been estimated that in about one of every 20 office visits, owners of both kittens and adult cats indicate problems with destructive behavior.(3)

As a last resort for these cats, either tendonectomy or declawing are surgical options to permanently correct the problem. Property damage and the risk of injury to people or other pets are the primary reasons for these surgeries.(4,5) In one study, veterinarians estimated that over 50% of owners of declawed cats would not have owned or kept their cats, had they not been declawed. Major concerns with respect to declawing are the postoperative pain associated with the procedure and the potential for postoperative problems. Most cats are reported to recover within 3 days, although cats declawed at a year of age took longer to recover. 96% of owners report the cats fully recovered within two weeks. By comparison, tendonectomy lead to less short-term pain than declawing (for the first 24 hours) (6) while cats that were declawed had a greater decrease in activity for the first two weeks than those undergoing tendonectomy.(7) However, owner satisfaction with declawing ranged from 89% to 96% (6) in a previous study, while satisfaction with tendonectomy ranged from 70% (6) to 87% (7) and 30% of owners had difficulty trimming nails and 55% of owners reported that cats could still scratch. The increased pain associated with declawing for the first 24 hours can be addressed with pain management. Butorphanol injections for the day of surgery and the first full day after (8), or a transdermal fentanyl patch applied eight hours prior to surgery (and left on for two days after), led to significant improvement in appetite and pain scores over controls. (9)

In numerous studies to date, declawing has been shown to cause no increase in behavior problems. Declawed cats were no more likely to bite than clawed cats (12) and no more likely to soil (10,11,14). In a study of 276 cat owners, declawing successfully met or surpassed the owner’s expectations in all cases.(4) There was 96% owner satisfaction and over 70% of cat owners indicated that there was an improvement in the cat-owner relationship.(4) This is consistent with studies that showed that behavior problems (including scratching) were a major reason for surrender (10), while being declawed decreased the risk of relinquishment.


Barking is another problem where humane issues as well as government regulations have an impact on the treatment options that might be offered. For example, shock collars and devocalization surgery would be unacceptable or illegal in a number of countries. Like scratching in cats, barking may be a serious enough problem that the owner is faced with giving up the pet, in this case due to complaints by neighbors or landlords or because of municipal noise ordinances.

Barking is one of the most common complaints of dog owners. It has been reported that up to 35% of dog owners have problems with barking (11,12) and represents 5% or more of cases seen at behavioral referral practices. (13) Vocalizations are used in conjunction with visual displays as a means of communication during social interactions (e.g., fear, status challenges, play, care soliciting). Barking serves as a territorial warning signal to other dogs and pack members. Dogs may vocalize due to indecision, anxiety, or arousal and may become stereotypic or compulsive, especially when anxiety or conflict is recurrent or remains unresolved. Geriatric onset barking may be due to underlying medical conditions including sensory decline or cognitive dysfunction.

The prognosis for successful control or correction depends not only on the cause of the barking, but also the level of motivation, the home environment, the dog’s responsiveness to training commands and devices, and the owners’ needs and expectations. For example, even a small amount of barking could disturb a sleeping baby or upset neighbors (particularly in apartments or townhouses).

Training dogs to cease barking on command can control most barking problems. However, if there is anxiety or conflict or the owner’s response is aggravating or reinforcing the barking, these issues must first be addressed. Some control of exposure to the stimuli for barking may also be necessary. For example, if the dog barks when outdoors or when strangers enter the property (and the owner is not present to supervise), then some means of reducing exposure to the stimuli should be considered. The key to training a dog to quiet down on command is to give the command and be able to achieve the desired behavior so that the dog can be rewarded. Of course, the dog must first be barking, so that a prerequisite for training is to either train the dog to bark on command or to be able to predict when the dog will bark. Then, as soon as the barking begins the owner can give the quiet command and remove any cue that may have incited the barking. Other techniques that might help the owner to achieve the quiet response are a command, such as settle or sit, holding up a lure such as a toy or piece of food, or the use of a disruption device such as an ultrasonic trainer, audible alarm, or citronella spray. Once the desirable response is achieved, the dog should be immediately reinforced. One consistently effective product is a leash and head halter, which can be used to immediately prompt the dog to quiet down on command; both positive and negative reinforcement (release from restraint) can then be utilized.

There are a number of situations in which bark-activated devices and debarking surgery may be the most practical option. For example, dog owners who are confronted with immediately resolving the problem or be forced to relinquish their dog may not have time to implement a correction program. In addition, when the dog is barking at times when the owner is not present, it may not be practical to entirely eliminate all barking.

For a bark-activated device to be effective, it must be sufficiently noxious to deter the barking, sensitive enough to detect each undesirable vocalization, and specific enough that is not activated by extraneous stimuli. Bark-activated alarms are devices that can be placed on a counter or table in an area where a dog might bark (front hall, cage, etc.). Then, with each bark, a sonic or ultrasonic alarm is activated which is intended to deter further barking. Bark activated collars emit an audible or ultrasonic noise, a spray of citronella, or electronic stimulation (shock) with each bark. The audible and ultrasonic devices are seldom sensitive, specific, or noxious enough to be effective. Citronella spray and electronic shock collars have proven to be more effective. However, to ensure consistency and safety, only products from reputable manufacturers should be purchased. In one study, owner satisfaction with the citronella spray collar was 89% compared to 44% with electronic shock collars.(14) In order to ensure that the arousal and barking do not recur once barking has been successfully disrupted, the owner should intervene by playing with, feeding, or petting the dog. One study of dogs barking when alone in the yard found that with punishment alone (from a garden hose) most dogs stopped barking by day seven, but by day 90, 86% had relapsed. Using the citronella spray collar to disrupt the barking and a play session to redirect the behavior once the barking ceased, took about 21 days to successfully inhibit barking; only 3.6% recurred by day 90.(15) This is consistent with clinical observations where many dog owners were initially able to control barking with the citronella spray collar, but without concurrent retraining and redirection, were unable to maintain control over the long term.

In a study of over 60 dogs admitted for boarding at two veterinary hospitals, the collar was effective at stopping barking in 60% of cases and reducing it in 30% of cases.(16) A scentless spray is also available which appears to be equally effective as the citronella spray for some, but not all dogs.(17) In a trial by this author of 11 cases of territorial barking where the citronella collar had initially been effective but ultimately failed, eight dogs stopped barking with a shock collar, and five could be controlled long-term while wearing the collar.

     Surgical devocalization is a drastic and sometimes permanent method of eliminating or reducing the intensity of barking. By comparison, bark-activated collars deter the dog’s barking while they are being worn and can aid in the retraining program. However, when the collar is removed, the dog can bark without consequence. Depending on the pet, the surgical technique and the surgeon’s expertise, varying degrees of vocalization may return after devocalization as the surgical site heals and scars. Devocalization is perhaps a consideration when owners are confronted with the option of immediately resolving a barking problem or having to give up their pet.


1.  Patronek GJ, Glickman LT, Beck AM, et al. Risk factors for relinquishment of cats to an animal shelter. J Am Vet Med Assoc, vol. 209, 3, 572-581, 1996

2.  Heidenberger E. Housing conditions and behavioural problems of indoor cats as assessed by their owners. App Anim Behav Sci, 52, 345, 1997

3.  Patronek GJ, Dodman NH. Attitudes, procedures, and delivery of behavior services by veterinarians in small animal practice. Can Vet J. 215, 11, 1606-1611, 1999

4.  Landsberg G. Cat owners’ attitudes toward declawing. Anthrozoos, 4:3, p. 192, 1991

5.  Landsberg G. Declawing is controversial but still saves pets, a veterinarian survey. Veterinary Forum, September 1991 JN, Boothe HW, Taylor L, Geller S et al. Evaluation of transdermal fentanyl patches for analgesia in cat undergoing onychectomy. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 217 (7), 1013-1019, 2000

6.  Jankowski AJ, Brown DC, Duval J, Gregor TP, Comparison of effects of elective tenectomy or onychectomy in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 213 (3), 370-373, 1998

7.  Yeon SC, Flanders JA, Scarlett JM, Ayers S, Houpt KA. Attitudes of owners regarding tendonectomy and onychectomy in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 218 (1), 43-47, 2001

8.  Carroll GL, Howe LB, Slater MR, Haughn L et al. Evaluation of analgesia provided by postoperative administration of butorphanol to cats undergoing onychectomy. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 213 (2), 246-250, 1998

9.  Franks JN, Boothe HW, Taylor L, Geller S et al. Evaluation of transdermal fentanyl patches for analgesia in cat undergoing onychectomy. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 217 (7), 1013-1019, 2000

10. Miller DD, Staats SR, Partlo C, Rada K. Factors associated with the decision to surrender a pet to an surrender a pet to an animal shelter. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 209, 4, 738-742, 1996

11. Beaver BV. Owner complains about canine behavior. JAVMA 204 (12), 1953-1955, 1994

12. Campbell WE. The prevalence of behavioral problems in American dogs. Mod Vet Pract 1986; 6:28-31

13. Landsberg GM. The distribution of behavior cases at 3 behavior referral practices. Vet Med, 1991; 86-1081-1089

14. Juabe-Diaz SV, Houpt KA. Comparison of two anti-barking collars for treatment of nuisance barking. J Am An Hosp Assoc, 32:231-235, 1996

15. Pageat P, Tessier Y. Disruptive Stimulus: Definition and Application in Behavior Therapy. Proceedings of the First International Conference on Veterinary Behavioural Medicine. Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, Potter’s Bar, Great Britain, 187, 1997

16. Unpublished data, Dr. Gary Landsberg, Dr. Patrick Melese

17. Unpublished data from a study comparing the citronella and scentless collars on barking dogs in two veterinary hospitals, Dr. Kelly Moffat, Dr. Gary Landsberg

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