Claws are one of the cat’s main weapons, although they are not only used in aggression. They are also used in defence, in marking territory and in climbing; therefore in all respects they are a means of survival. As such, the cat must keep its claws in good condition. Exercise, grooming and scratching hard or firm surfaces keep the claws trimmed and sharpened, although the latter often brings the cat into conflict with its owner! Claws are useful tools, used in hunting as well as play. This cat is lashing out at a tantalising piece of food, but the same action, with claws extended, can be used in play or in aggression.
Yes, in the sense that they are made of protein material called keratin like human hair and nails. Each claw also has a dermis, or quick, and is covered by hard cuticle.
The cat has four claws on its hind paws and five on its forepaws. The fifth one, similar to our thumb, is used particularly for grasping during climbing and for holding prey. In ordinary circumstances the cat’s claws are retracted – sitting in a relaxed position and protected by a fold of skin. When a cat wants to use its claws, it does so voluntarily using muscles and tendons that control the movement of the toe bone to which the claws are attached.
The clawing of hard surfaces helps the cat to rid the claws of worn tissue (sheaths, or husks) and so reveal the sharp new points beneath. This activity has been compared to the shedding of the snake’s skin. But the action has another, and from the cat’s point of view, equally important function. While the claws are being sharpened, scent glands on the underside of the front paws secrete a substance that remains on the scratched surface for some time, marking the cat’s presence.
Some behaviourists have noted that in a household where there is more than one cat, the dominant cat will usually scratch to scent mark more frequently than the others, so reinforcing its dominant position in the household.
People often report that their cat has lost a claw, which they have found lodged in the sofa or in a curtain. This ‘claw’ is usually nothing more than the discarded worn sheath of the claw, and not the claw itself.
The old, worn material on the hind paws cannot be removed in the same way as that on the front paws. If you watch a cat grooming itself, you will see that it stretches out the claws on the hind feet and then grips them with its teeth. This activity forcefully pulls away the worn tissue of the claws which otherwise would remain in place.
Q. How can I stop my cat from scratching my armchair? I’ve given her a scratching post and she does it outside too.
She is probably scent-marking the chair because it carries your scent, so there is very little you can do about it other than covering it with an inexpensive, washable throw.
Old cats do tend to grow overlong claws. You can buy special clippers from the pet store, but you should be careful only to clip the ends and not to clip into the quick. Your vet can do this for you.