Nailing it: an introduction to claws.

Cats are complicated creatures, why should their paws be any different? Their fancy feet combine cuddly cute toe beans and sleek specialized anatomy. Their claws are perfectly suited to grasp, scratch, and tuck neatly away when not in use. By understanding the basic form and function of our cat’s nails, we can better appreciate their needs and manage maintenance. 

Simple similarities and complex differences.

Though their nails look wildly different from our own, there are shared features. We both have cuticles, the delicate skin at the base of the nail. We both have sensitive nailbeds that hurt if they are put under too much pressure. If someone is trimming our nails for us and cuts one too short, we might bleed and we will probably remember the bad experience. We can even bond over the annoyance of hangnails, though you and I are much less likely to use a scratching post to resolve the problem.

Cat nails naturally shed thin layers as they grow, peeling away old material to reveal a sharper and well conditioned claw. They typically remove these layers themselves by scratching surfaces, such as sisal. Look around the base of your cat’s favorite scratching post; you are likely to find discarded sheaths. This self-care relies on having appropriate scratching surfaces available for regular use. Health problems that prevent scratching, such as muscle pain or weakness, can prevent this normal grooming behavior. If you notice that your cat has thick nails with a dull appearance, schedule a checkup with your vet to screen for underlying illness. If they are given a clean bill of health, try offering alternative scratching surfaces with firmer texture or encouraging vigorous scratching through play motivation. Nail sheaths may shed easily, but the base of your cat’s claws are not going anywhere without a fight. The nail is firmly attached, growing directly from the last bone of the digit. This deep attachment helps them achieve amazing anatomical feats.

Anatomy of a cat foot, cartoon pointing out cuticle at the base of the claw and quick in the core of the claw.
Convenient storage comes standard.

Cats have the unique ability to either extend their claws or keep them safely put away. It takes time to master this skill, so you may notice that kittens tend to be sharper than more mature cats. This protractability, being able to extend their claws at will, comes from a complex arrangement of bone, tendon, and ligament. By default, strong tendons and elastic ligaments keep nails in a stable recessed position. This helps cats to avoid unintentionally causing injury or snagging on their surroundings, while also maintaining orthopedic alignment. Routine nail trimming is important to keep this benefit, as an overgrown nail may become so long that it cannot fit in its protective sheath. Not only is it embarrassing to get caught on the carpet, it can cause injury. Severe overgrowth can even lead to damaged paw pads.

Animation of a cartoon cat foot showing claw protraction and retraction.Conserving claws for deliberate use gives cats a convenient toolkit that is ready when they are. Need to climb the cat tree? Claws can do it. Need to fish that kibble out of the food puzzle? Claws can do it. Need the strange dog to understand that no means no? Claws can do it. Spend a day in the life of a clawed cat to see just how often they come in handy. Provide your cat with healthy outlets for scratching behavior to instill confidence and allow them to hone their abilities even further.

It is easy to be sneaky when you always tip-toe.

Their complex anatomy not only allows cats to carry concealed weapons, it also keeps them on their toes. Cats are digitigrade, which means that they walk on their toes. We are plantigrade, which means that we walk flat footed. Being digitigrade helps them to be speedy as well as sneaky. Cats rely on their toes for balance and comfort; because their nails grow directly from the bones of their toes, maintaining claws is a vital part of orthopedic health. 

Feeling overwhelmed?

Do not be afraid to ask for help. There are many feline professionals who are more than happy to help you get started with nail care. Fear Free Certified Groomers and Veterinary Professionals are excellent resources for low stress cat nail care. Consider scheduling a grooming appointment or behavior consultation to get your cat’s claws on track. 

Background photo Toe Tufts by melissawarhol via Flickr.