African servals, exotic cats as pets

Declawing
The Case Against Declawing
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Declawing is serious surgery

Declawing is actually an amputation of the last joint of your cat's "toes".

Declawing is illegal in many countries, and many modern vets refuse to perform the surgery.

Servals are in no way inherently vicious. They are no more inclined to unprovoked attacks than a domestic cat or dog. A serval is unlikely to use his claws aggressively unless frightened. These cats are intelligent, loving, and trainable.

Scratching is the least of the challenges you'll encounter in raising a serval.

If you don't feel that you can handle a serval without declawing it, you probably aren't going to be successful in dealing with the greater challenges of integrating one of these wild animals into your household.

Servals have teeth. They bite in play, and declawing will do anything but stop this behavior. Delcawed domestic cats often learn that scratching no longer works, but biting does.

Raising a serval is no cakewalk, and one of the many challenges you will face is teaching him the appropriate use of his claws.

Scratching has not been a problem for me. Even if it were, amputating my cat's toes would not be an option.

If an inhumane surgery with long-term health drawbacks is necessary for you to feel comfortable around this animal, you probably shouldn't choose to live with one.

Servals and other exotic cats are commonly declawed to make them more convenient pets. Some serval breeders routinely have their kittens declawed before sending them to their new homes, while others will offer you the option. Before making the decision to declaw your serval or buy a declawed exotic kitten, please take the time to understand what this supposedly benign surgery involves. Veterinarian Dr. Christianne Schelling’s website www.declawing.com provides excellent facts about declawing. She writes:

“Declawing is not like a manicure. It is serious surgery. Your cat's claw is not a toenail. It is actually closely adhered to the bone. So closely adhered that to remove the claw, the last bone of your cat's claw has to be removed. Declawing is actually an amputation of the last joint of your cat's "toes". When you envision that, it becomes clear why declawing is not a humane act. It is a painful surgery, with a painful recovery period. And remember that during the time of recuperation from the surgery your cat would still have to use its feet to walk, jump, and scratch in its litter box regardless of the pain it is experiencing.”

Declawing is not an advanced toenail trim; it is in fact amputation of the last joint of each of the cat’s toes. Declawing is 10 separate, extremely painful surgeries. Many vets now refuse to perform the operation. Post-surgical complications include excruciating pain, hemorrhage, radial nerve damage, overlooked bone chips or shattered bone, abscesses, gangrene, re-growth of deformed claw inside of the paw, arthritis, chronic back and joint pain, and weakened muscles. For more information, visit these sites:

Technical facts about declawing. This article clearly explains the process of delawing, using easy to understand color diagrams.

The Paw Project offers information on delawing alternatives, post-surgical complications, and more.

Declawing Surgery Photos. Want to see what's really involved?

Unfortunately, declawing remains an accepted practice among many exotic cat owners and breeders. The tide does appear to be turning, as caring exotic cat people become more and more willing to speak out against the practice. In the early days of exotic cat husbandry, removal of the canine teeth was a common “safety” practice; now this procedure is almost universally condemned. Hopefully declawing will soon fall from grace as well. I think many caring owners and breeders advise declawing without knowing exactly what the procedure entails, or have talked themselves into declawing because it seems to be so universally accepted.

Some web sites say things like “A cat that is not declawed will shred you and your house to ribbons,” and “If you are going to keep a serval as a pet you must have the cat declawed front and rear.” I have a serval that is in possession of all of his claws. Neither my house nor my person is in ribbons! There is no "must" about it. Declawing is an elective procedure for the convenience of humans; it provides absolutely no benefit to the cat's health, and is actually detrimental to their long-term physical condition. In many European countries, the procedure is illegal.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, an internationally respected veterinary behaviorist, says: "The inhumanity of the procedure is clearly demonstrated by the nature of cats' recovery from anesthesia following the surgery. Unlike routine recoveries, including recovery from neutering surgeries, which are fairly peaceful, declawing surgery results in cats bouncing off the walls of the recovery cage because of excruciating pain. Cats that are more stoic huddle in the corner of the recovery cage, immobilized in a state of helplessness, presumably by overwhelming pain.

Declawing fits the dictionary definition of mutilation to a tee. Words such as deform, disfigure, disjoint, and dismember all apply to this surgery. Partial digital amputation is so horrible that it has been employed for torture of prisoners of war, and in veterinary medicine, the clinical procedure serves as model of severe pain for testing the efficacy of analgesic drugs.” Excerpted from The Cat Who Cried For Help, by Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Bantam Books, New York.

I will no more condone inflicting this kind of pain on a cat to make him easier to live with than I would condone the torture of a human being. I have not had any significant problems with my clawed serval. Let’s take a realistic look at how servals use their claws.

PLAYFUL BEHAVIOR

When I first got Sirocco at 8 weeks of age, he was completely uninhibited in the use of his claws. He thought climbing legs was great fun - even if he was climbing bare skin! He would pounce on my hand (or any other moving body part) and proceed to bite and scratch at it with great enthusiasm. I could not touch him without being (playfully) bitten and clawed. This is quite similar to the behavior of an 8-week old domestic kitten; the difference being that a serval is significantly larger and more energetic!

To cope with this rather alarming behavior I got a large selection of fleece dog toys and scented them with catnip (yes, servals LOVE catnip) to make them more appealing than my limbs. Whenever Sirocco tackled me, I calmly said “no” and gave him a toy instead, wiggling it to make it more attractive. I praised him when he tackled the toy instead of my hand. Over time, he learned to play with the toys and my young domestic cat rather than with my hands.

A visitor to my website voiced her concern about being playfully tackled by a 40-pound cat and the damage that he might cause if not declawed. This is certainly a valid concern. I responded to her question by sharing my experiences with the ever-playful Sirocco. He had recently taken to performing full-body tackles when he was feeling particularly affectionate. His favorite tactic was to fling himself at my head, and grab me around the face and neck from about 6 feet away as I stood in the bedroom!

I did consider this a potentially dangerous behavior and it's one I've successfully stopped. However, I think it's important to note that in all the times he did this, I only received two very minor scratches. This tells me he kept his claws sheathed except when absolutely necessary to keep his balance.

One thing to be aware of is that servals pounce differently from domestic cats, and actually use their claws less. They do what I like to call the "karate pounce" where they spring up in the air, then land on their target with all the weight and momentum of their body focused on their front paws. Their claws are actually sheathed when they do this; the force of their pounce is enough to stun prey.

I've used several approaches to Sirocco's tackling behavior and have found one that seems to have worked well. I will share both the unsuccessful and successful approaches here.

When he was small I simply raised my hands up to block him. He would bounce off my hands and give up. As he got larger that became less effective, and I tried reacting noisily to his pounces; yelling "no," hissing, and pushing him off me somewhat more roughly. BIG mistake! Sirocco was delighted that I'd finally seen the light and decided to wrestle with him. The tackling behavior escalated dramatically, and he also learned that if he pounced on me from behind I couldn't see him coming and block him.

When that failed I tried another tactic, borrowing from my dog training work. I started carrying a can of DirectStop with me. DirectStop is a citronella spray packaged in a can similar to that used for pepper spray. It is marketed as a humane way to stop dog attacks. The citronella is not at all harmful, but is strong smelling and startling.

When Sirocco would tackle me I'd say "No" calmly and squirt him with DirectStop a second later. The tackling has become extremely rare, and now when I see him about to pounce I can say "No" and he'll stop and blink his eyes at me as if to say "Okay, don't spray me with the stinky stuff." Then I praise and pet him, he head-butts me, and everyone's happy.

This is just one example of how you have to be innovative and skilled at training in order to help these cats adapt to life with humans. Before getting a serval you need to be aware that behavior problems will arise, and be prepared to either modify them or live with them. These cats are absolutely sweet, loving, and wonderful animals, but they present challenges that differ from those most of us are used to dealing with.

BITING

Another other point to consider is that servals have teeth. They bite in play, and declawing will do anything but stop this behavior. Delcawed domestic cats often learn that scratching no longer works, but biting does. You are going to have to teach a serval to be gentle with his teeth in any case; why not teach him to be gentle with his claws at the same time?

AGGRESSION AND YOUR SERVAL’S CLAWS

I feel obliged to start this section with a reminder that servals are in no way inherently vicious. They are no more inclined to unprovoked attacks than a domestic cat or dog. A serval is unlikely to use his claws aggressively unless he is frightened. These cats are intelligent, loving, and trainable.

Their aggressive strike involves drawing one front leg up and back, then forcefully striking downwards at the offending creature with their paw. This is very powerful, but once again uses stunning power rather than claws. One breeder told me of wild servals killing snakes with this blow.

In situations where he is fearful or aggressive, I have actually found that Sirocco is gentler with his claws than a domestic cat would be in a similar situation. I gave him his first bath when he was 9 or 10 weeks old (a leash, harness, and good reflexes were required for this activity!). When I tried to blow dry him, he immediately jumped to the conclusion that the noisy thing existed for the sole purpose of eating serval kittens. I had his leash tied to the bathroom door, and after extensive acrobatics he decided that escape was not an option. He positioned himself in a corner and began fiercely hissing, growling, and striking in the direction of the dryer.

I have been around enough frightened domestic cats to know that this type of behavior means any human flesh or other object unlucky enough to be within range will be shredded and bitten.

When I summoned the nerve to position just the end of the hair dryer within reach, it was slapped fiercely and repeatedly.... With claws retracted. There was not a claw to be seen, and he did not bite the dryer. As things progressed, I gradually started rubbing his coat with my hand as I dried him. He did not offer to scratch or bite me once. While he never hesitated to slap the living daylights out of the dryer, he never used his claws or teeth.

DESTRUCTION OF PROPERTY

I have an outdoor enclosure containing several logs and branches that connects directly to my bedroom window, and I let Sirocco go out there to climb, scratch, and play to his heart's content. The logs have bark on them, and sometimes I put catnip on them to enhance their appeal. It's more fun to scratch out there than it is to scratch curtains or my couch. Scratching has not been a problem for me. Even if it were, declawing would not be an option. I invited this animal into my home knowing that scratching was one of his normal behaviors. While I will use any humane means of behavior modification possible to prevent damage to my possessions, I will not amputate his toes.

THE CASE FOR CLAWS

Scratching is the least of the challenges you will encounter in raising a serval. If you do not feel that you can cope with it without declawing the cat, I would guess that you probably are not going to be successful in dealing with other challenges of integrating one of these wild animals into your house. I would not suggest that you consider acquiring a serval in that case. If an inhumane surgery with long-term health drawbacks is necessary for you to feel comfortable around this animal, you probably shouldn't choose to live with one. My opinion is somewhat in the minority in the wild cat community, but is shared by some of the most responsible and respected owners and breeders. Raising a serval is no cakewalk, and one of the many challenges you will face is teaching him the appropriate use of his claws.

You remain responsible.. Forever...
For what you have tamed.
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery










 

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© Jessi Clark-White, 2004
The case against declawing exotic cats