Monday, 6 February 2017

Getting To The Point About Cat Claws

I’ll bet there isn’t a single cat owner among you who, at this very moment, isn’t bearing visible proof that your cat has claws.  Those crusty streaks on your arms and legs; those pastel pink “neener neener” streaks that prove she barely laid a glove on you.

And in most households, furniture, carpets and door and window casings also bear visible proof that your cat has claws.  But, I didn’t call you here today to tell you that.  Instead, I invite you to join us as we take a look at these interesting anatomical features.

While the claws are keenly capable of slicing you and your household to shreds, that is not their main purpose.  Claws were in place long before we became BFF with them because the cats had to get along in a pretty tough world.

Their claws provide traction that enables them to evade danger and chase prey, climb trees as required by both those pursuits, and maintain a grip on narrow branches until their tormentors move on.  They use their claws to scatter debris to cover up their scent when they answer a nature call, and, of course, the one we all think of first:  dispatch and tear into prey.

Like our fingernails, toenails and hair, a cat’s claws are composed of a protein called keratin.  But the similarity pretty much ends there.  There’s also a layer of dead keratin, called the sheath, which coats the cat’s claws.

That’s why house cats scratch on carpets and furniture while outdoor cats use trees and rocks.  That activity removes the sheath, leaving a freshly sharpened claw that’s ready for action.  You probably find them around the house from time to time.  I have a sheath from an African lion’s claw that a zookeeper gave me many years ago.  Pretty impressive weapon.

Cats claws also contain a “quick,” appearing as a pink streak in the center of the claw.  That contains the claw’s blood supply.  You have to be careful when clipping your cat’s claws.  If you cut the quick, it’s painful to the cat and it bleeds generously.

But the biggest difference between our nails and their claws is that the claws are retractable.  When not in use, the claws are held in place by tight, elastic ligaments.  When she needs to use her claws, to climb up your leg for instance, she employs a muscle (if you’re taking notes, it’s the deep digital flexor) that defeats the ligament, keeping the claw retracted. When you gingerly remove her from your leg, she relaxes the muscle and the claws retract. 

Medical problems with the claws aren’t too common, but they can happen and often involve bacterial, viral and fungal infections or injury.  One of the most obvious signs of a problem is if the cat starts limping.

A little more subtle symptom is when the cat constantly licks her paw.  That’s easy to ignore because licking the paw is such a routine part of grooming.  You might note if the cat pays particular attention to a certain digit or if the licking is uncharacteristically frequent. 

While the cat usually maintains the claws, owners sometimes have to clip them.  I’ll bet a tech at your vet’s office will teach you.  When you can hear them clicking on a bare floor, it’s time for a manicure…or is it a pedicure?

Bob Bamberg has been in the pet supply industry for more than a quarter century, including owning his own feed and grain store in Southeastern Massachusetts, USA. He writes a weekly newspaper column on pet health, nutrition and behaviour and his articles appear on  and

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