Like fingernails scratching down a chalk board,
the sound of cat claws raking across a fine piece of furniture brings forth that age old question:
You’re driving me crazy!
...Why do you do that?
Well, the answer is simpler than you might think...
Fingernails down a chalkboard:
Now, before we go any further, please let me make this clear:
If a cat is exhibiting inappropriate cat scratching behavior, I am not suggesting it is “okay” because scratching is “natural “.
My theory is that if we understand the need behind the behavior, we can either prevent a problem from developing in the first place or become better equipped to correct inappropriate behavior that already exists.
Alright then, to get started, let’s look at the cat’s claws from the perspective of the cat’s body.
Forefoot: The cat’s front foot.
Hind foot: The cat’s back foot.
Dew Claw: Located on the inside of the forefoot.
Phalange: Toe bone.
Distal Phalanx: The last bone in the cat’s toe.
Retractile: Capable of being drawn in.
Protractile: Capable of being lengthened or protruded.
Digitigrades: Walking so that only the toes (digits) touch the ground.
Polydactyl: Having more than the normal number of digits (toes).
Quick: The blood vessels and nerves that supply the cat’s claw. It appears as a pink stripe at the base of light colored claws.
This Little Piggy Went To Market
If you were to play “This Little Piggy” with your cat, you’d have to get creative with what all the little piggy’s did, for you’ll find that most cats have a total of 18 digits:
Who Am I? Cats Claws or Human Nails:
Ready to Guess?
If you guessed that “I Am A Cat Claw”, then you guessed correctly!
Now, be honest…Would you ever have expected that many similarities to exist between claws and nails? Well, it’s so true that there is a technical term to describe these similarities: homologous.
Defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Biochemistry:
“…(In Biology) of common ancestry; especially of organs and tissues that have a similar anatomical position and structure in different species by virtue of their common evolutionary origin, even though their functions may have come to differ.”
Scratching A Little Deeper:
Now, before we progress, let’s bust a couple of myths:
MYTH: Cats Sharpen Their Claws
Once and for all: Cats do not “sharpen their claws”.
When the old outer sheath is worn off , the newly exposed claw is already sharp...It grows that way!
The Myth Of The Retractable Claw
If the cat’s claws were really retractable, to keep them safely sheathed when not in use, the poor kitty would have to consciously and consistently keep it’s claws pulled in tightly…now that would get tiring!
Have you ever wondered “how” the cat claw works? Meaning, how does the cat control when the claw is visible vs. when it is out of site?
As we have learned, the cat’s claws grow from the last bones of the toe. You will see from the labeled illustration that the bones are anchored by flexor tendons.
The claws of the cat are often incorrectly described as retractable, or more formally, retractile, meaning, they are capable of being drawn in. If this were the case, it would suggest that the claws were normally extended and then pulled back in by choice. This inaccuracy is so widely believed, it can practically be classified as a myth.
The reality is, when the cat is relaxed and at ease, the claws remain “out of site” and safely sheathed. So really, it would be more accurate to say that the cats claws are protractile, meaning they are capable of being lengthened or protruded upon demand.
Ok, with all this in mind, let's test your understanding with a question:
Does walking around wear down the cat's claws like it does with a dog?
First of all, to any kitty who might read this, I apologize putting you in a sentence with a dog!
But, moving on, and I do hate to say this, the cat's claw does not wear down when walking...because it is sheathed.
Ok, score one and only one, for the dogs.
To get a better idea about the cat's claws, let's look at some examples. Think of your own cat in some normal daily activities:
During a post-nap stretch with claws dug deep into the carpet... an emotionally-charged swipe at a dangle toy... scratching on a cat tree... or even when hooking a toy mouse.
Without even thinking, your cats flexor tendons, which control the claws, are pulled taut. This causes the talons to thrust outwards, exposing kitty's claws. When the task is complete, or the moment past, the tendons relax, and the claws, once again, are "hidden".
Now you see 'em. Now you don't!
Cat Claw Sheath
If you’ve ever looked around your cats favorite scratching object, such as a cat tree, incline scratcher, cardboard cat scratcher, cat scratching post or toy, like the Turbo Scratcher, you may have seen what looks like little crescent shaped “cat claws”.
Years ago, the first time I discovered a cat sheath lying around from our cat Tumbelina, I was really caught off guard. I immediately thought she must have snagged her claw and pulled it out. After a quick examination of her cat paws, I was relieved to find all claws intact (and sharp!).
Well, as we’ve all now discovered, cat claws grow in layers, and after a period of time the outer layer must be shed….a process similar to when a snake sheds its outgrown skin. (Just not as creepy!)
Those discarded sheaths, also referred to as claw husks, are actually evidence of why a cat scratches…to remove or “slough off” the itchy, old claw sheaths while simultaneously conditioning the newly exposed sharp claws. Once you know what to look for, you might be surprised at how many claw sheaths you find around your house.
Oh, let’s not forget about the cat’s hind foot. Have you ever observed your cat grooming its back paws then start biting and pulling on its claws? If you answered yes, then you have seen how your cat sheds the hind foot claw sheaths…by chewing them off!
When It Comes To Cat Claws, Always Remember:
For instance, if you are just learning about cat claws, you’ll want to try this: Look at your own fingernails where you’ll see the “Quick. The pink that we see under our own nails is the “living flesh” of blood vessels and nerves… like that which is seen at the base of light colored cat claws. Just as we feel pain and can bleed if we accidentally cut our nails too short (cutting into the quick), the same thing will occur if we trim our cats claws too short.
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The Function and Benefits of Cat Claws
Now that we have an understanding of the physical nature of the cat’s claw, let’s explore how the claw functions and provides benefits to the cat through movement, exercise, hunting, survival and territory marking behavior.
The cat’s body is an intricate design which comes together in a way that allows the cat to move with stealth, grace and balance. Have you have ever watched “how” a cat walks? Unlike most mammals, a cat actually walks on its toes...this makes it a Digitigrade!
Think about if for a minute...If you have ever tried walking around on your tippy-toes, you probably know how difficult it is to stay balanced...it’s unnatural for us...it’s not how our bodies were designed.
In this illustration, we see three different styles of anatomy:
As we’ve discovered earlier, felines are digitigrades. Unlike humans, in cats, only the phalanges, or toe bones, make contact with the ground. You’ll remember that the cat’s claw grows out of the last bone in the toe, that being the Distal Phalanx.
Can’t Visualize How A Cat Walks?
To get an idea of how a cat walks compared to a human or deer, let’s do a simple activity…stay with me and use your imagination!
Using your hand, let’s simulate how a Plantigrade, Digitigrade and Unguligrade walks:
Plantigrade: With your palm flat on the desk, “walk” your hand around, rolling as though from heel to toe..
Digitigrade: With your fingertips on the desk and your palm held up, walk your hand around.
Unguligrade: Bend your hand so your fingernails are flat on the desk. While keeping your fingernails flat, walk your hand around.
It’s simple thing, but this exercise really puts a “tangible” connection to the anatomy of the feline foot. Now when you look at the photograph of the cat’s foot, it’s easier to see and understand that the cats claw is “one” with the toe…and it’s the toe that the cat uses to move, to walk, to run…very important knowledge to have when thinking about cat declawing.
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Take a moment to imagine your cat’s habits. After a long night’s sleep your kitty awakes...it uncurls itself, and more often than not, heads for it’s nearest favorite spot to hook its claws into for a good stretch.
When your cat digs its claws into the selected surface then pulls back, it is using it’s own clawhold to provide resistance. The experience is something like “kitty cat claw isometric exercising”!
This simple action can provide exercise and stretching for the muscles in the legs, back, shoulders and paws. In fact, this is the only way for the cat to stretch and tone the shoulder and back muscles.
Hunting and Play
Cat play comes in many forms...some play is gentle with passive, soft paw interaction.
But, for other times, cat claws are mandatory equipment!
For example, a simple stroll across the back of the sofa...a walk along a ledge or branch...or walking on top of a door would call on the claws to aid in balance.
An indoor cat might use its claws during play to climb up its cat tree...
Just as an outside cat might use those same cat claws to climb up a real tree to escape danger.
Hunting is a natural instinct in all cats. In the house during playtime or in the wild while hunting...cat claws are a valuable tool in catching and holding onto prey....whether live or stuffed!
Even in playtime cat claws are important…as is evident with bunny kicking toy prey:
When traction is part of the action, the cat’s claws work much like spikes on the shoes of an athlete.
As this site proclaims, cats talk. One way they talk is with their claws, as a marking behavior.
A Final Thought
As guardians to our cats, we have a responsibility to learn as much as we can about their minds, bodies and needs. You see, I believe that knowledge is power…and the more knowledge we have about our cats, the more prepared we feel to care for them.
The wealth of information we have discovered about cat claws is, of course, a perfect example.
By learning about the physical claw, reasons for scratching and the impact the toes and claws have on mobility, we are all better prepared to provide the proper scratching options and understand the actions of our felines…it may seem like a lot to absorb, but if it means less people choosing cat declawing…then that’s ok!
Kitty may not consider it a “day at the spa”, but even cats need manicures and pedicures! Will you trim your cats claws or have the vet do it?