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Pet lovers often suppose that declawing is a simple solution to a tattered sofa.

During a baby shower I recently gave for a friend, I was chatting with a woman who had several cats and dogs at home. She was telling me a story about one of her beloved pets when my cat sauntered over and presented his face to be rubbed.

As I reached down to comply, the woman asked in a neutral tone, "Have you had your cat declawed?"

"Of course not," I snapped. Then, remembering that this was a social gathering and I was the hostess, I added in a gentler voice, "He needs his claws."

"Does he go outside?" she asked.

"Well, no," I said, "But it's natural to have claws."

I caught her glancing at my couch, checking for pitted upholstery, and changed the subject by offering her more tea and cake.

Later I fretted that I should have said more. Like lots of people who adore their cats and would never knowingly harm them, she obviously thought that declawing was a simple, essentially painless procedure with no lasting consequences.

Back when I was a dog person (now I'm both - but that's another story), I assumed the same thing: that declawing was simply the removal of a cat's claws and nothing else. That was before I adopted a kitten and went to a free seminar on cat behavior at my local SPCA.

When the "feline behaviorist" leading the session was asked about declawing, a note of desperation entered her voice. "Please don't declaw," she practically begged. "Declawing is mutilation.

"Once I was in a vet's office when a cat woke up after having this operation," she continued. "He let out the most horrible scream. Then he kept crying - like his heart had been broken along with his paws. I had to leave. I couldn't stand to listen."

Although her story made me wince, I supposed she was being overly emotional. Surely after the initial pain and fear dissipate, the cat returns to normal.

A little research opened my eyes wide.

First, the physical side: What's cut away is not just nail but bone and flesh - many experts compare it to amputating a person's fingertips right down to the first knuckle. Along with the inherent risks of using general anesthesia, dangers include a long, harrowing recovery period; infection; hemorrhage; and nail regrowth inside the paw (an invisible, painful condition). Just as people who lose toes to frostbite have to learn how to walk without them, declawed cats must relearn how to balance and move.

Then there's the behavioral fallout: A declawed cat feels defenseless. When one of her main ways of protecting herself is suddenly gone, a once friendly cat may become so habitually fearful that she hides or hisses any time an unfamiliar face appears. She may resort to biting when she feels threatened.

Declawed cats may also develop an aversion to using the litter box, possibly because the postoperative pain in their paws intensifies when they dig in their litter, and the association makes them avoid the box. What's more, declawed cats should never be allowed outside, as they can't defend themselves from dogs and other cats, nor can they climb or balance well. To any cat lover who's still not convinced, I suggest simply watching your cat as she wakes up from a nap. She'll anchor herself with her claws so she can stretch to her full length. As she works the nearest kneadable surface, marking her territory, her pleasure is palpable. A cat's nails are as natural as people's fingernails, as essential as teeth.

"But that's my carpet she's kneading!" is the common retort.

Okay, so get her a good scratching post - a tall, heavy-based post covered with a fibrous material like sisal or burlap. Pretend to scratch the post yourself, rub it with catnip, put your cat on it whenever she starts to scratch your carpet, and be patient and consistent. Also, clip her nails every couple of weeks; if she fights you, get someone to hold her.

What if your cat never stops digging into your carpet or your newest piece of furniture? Remind yourself of this: Furnishings don't have nerves or blood or emotions. Cats do.