Cat claws are tough and sturdy, meaning they hurt when raked across the skin. Feline claws can also permanently mark furniture or even glass windows. Thankfully, cats usually keep their claws retracted. If this is not the case, you need to train your cat to do so.
Teach a cat to retract claws through play. When approached with claws unsheathed, make a high-pitched yelping sound and stop the game. This mimics the behavior of a feline, teaching the cat that claws hurt. This training only works if your cat is willfully unsheathing claws. Some injuries and health issues make claw retraction physically impossible.
If the claws are constantly unsheathed, your cat likely has a physical or psychological concern. All cats should know how to retract their claws. If a feline is not doing so, there will be an underlying reason.
Table of Contents:
- 1 Do Cat Claws Retract?
- 2 When Do Kittens Learn to Retract Claws?
- 3 My Cat Doesn’t Know How to Retract Claws
- 4 Training a Cat to Retract Claws
- 5 Should I Declaw My Cat?
Do Cat Claws Retract?
A cat’s claws are not simply long nails. Cats have five claws on each front paw, but this is where the similarity to nails end. Fingernails sit at the top of human digits, shielding fingers and toes from damages. Claws, on the other hand, are extensions of a cat’s bones.
As cats lack opposable thumbs, claws are essential. Felines use their claws to hold on to any prey that has been captured. Claws provide grip when a cat is climbing a tree or other vertical surface. Anybody with leather furniture will know that claws also scratch surfaces.
As claws are so important to a cat, they are often sheathed. This protects the claws from wear and tear. Your cat needs its claws to be sharp when they are required. In addition, cats walk on their toes, making them digitigrade animals.
This ensures cats can sneak up on prey undetected. If claws are unsheathed, this surprise attack will be impossible. The tough keratin of feline claws makes a telltale, “click-clack” sound on hard surfaces. As a result, cats willingly retract their front claws when not in use.
Retracted claws are not actually buried inside a cat’s paw. Instead, they are lifted from the ground and hidden by fur. When required, claws are extended by flexing a tendon.
Point your leg straight forward with your toes pointing forward. Now lift your ankle so that it points toward the ceiling. This is essentially the movement a cat makes to expose its claws. The reverse of the movement will retract the claws until needed again.
Do a Cat’s Back Claws Retract?
Cats can retract their hind claws, but rarely feel the need. As explained by the Journal of Morphology, the same muscle is used to achieve this. The plantaris is a small but critical muscle located along the calf. It is by flexing the plantaris a cat can sheathe claws.
Cats do not often sheathe their back claws as they are regularly walked upon. Digitigrade animals walk on their front toes. This means that back claws are ground down organically. This makes the cat less defensive about the state of its hind claws.
Rear claws are also infrequently used for protection or hunting. This makes cats less concerned with managing their wear and tear. The front claws are far more important to a cat’s sense of safety and instinct.
Why Do Cats Unsheathe Their Claws?
Cats unsheathe their claws for four primary reasons. It is important to recognize which of these applies to your cat. This will help you focus your training when teaching the cat to retract its claws.
Personal protection is the main reason that any cat unsheathes its claws. Alongside teeth, claws are the main mode of self-defense at a cat’s disposal. As explained by Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, exposing of the claws is a classic sign of fear in a cat.
This is why cats sometimes lie on their back. As cat owners learn to their detriment, this is not a request for a belly rub. This gives the cat easy access to all claws, if needed. In this position, a cat quickly and efficiently fights back when faced with danger.
If your cat is keeping its claws unsheathed at all times, it feels insecure. This needs to be addressed. A relaxed cat will always retract its claws. Something in its environment makes your cat feel it needs to remain on the defensive.
Feline claws also play an active role in hunting. When a cat pounces upon prey, it typically disables it with a bite to the neck. Claws are used to hold the prey steady until this can be achieved.
Claws are also used to tear flesh from bone on rodents and birds. Not all cats want to eat their prey. For many felines, the thrill of the hunt is enough. This means the cat will avoid using teeth further until necessary.
Scratching with the claws is among the most common instinctive behavior in felines. As explained by the Canadian Journal of Zoology, this is a form of scent marking. Your cat is claiming these items as their own by scratching your furniture, windows, or stairs.
Scratching is a common but unwelcome action in cats. The only way to combat this is by giving your cat something else to scratch. Cats will always use their claws for this purpose. Expecting them not to do so is unrealistic.
Many cats enjoy climbing to high places. Such a location provides the cat with an elevated vantage point. It can safely survey terrain from here, checking for threats or prey. Climbing to higher ground can also furnish a cat will some much-needed quiet.
If your cat likes to doze on a closet, it will likely have learned how to jump this high. Climbing a tree or fence is more challenging. This requires dexterity and a great deal of scrambling. A cat’s claws, especially the dewclaws on the front paws, provide traction.
When Do Kittens Learn to Retract Claws?
Kittens keep their claws permanently unsheathed for the first 4 weeks of their life. This enables the kitten to knead its mother’s teats and gain milk. Once the kitten reaches a month in age, it can retract claws at will.
Most kittens will instinctively retract their claws. Cats of all ages understand the importance of protecting the front claws. The kitten will also take its lead from its mother or older felines in the home. Cats, especially kittens, are born imitators.
Kittens also learn the importance of retracting claws through play. Kittens are boisterous and not afraid of rough-and-tumble games with littermates. This can lead to accidental injury if the kitten is not careful.
Kittens, and their mothers, inform each other when claws should be unsheathed. If a kitten hurts a playmate, it will be told so. The kitten will quickly come to understand that claws are to be exposed sparingly.
My Cat Doesn’t Know How to Retract Claws
As discussed, cats learn how to retract their claws during kittenhood. It is rare for a cat to make it to adulthood without this skill. One exception could be feral or semi-feral cats. These felines may have lacked the key educational lessons of early life.
It remains likelier that your cat knows how to retract its claws. It is either choosing not to or is physically incapable. Both of these scenarios are concerning and need to be managed.
If a cat keeps getting its claws stuck, it will grow distressed. Cats are fiercely independent, and the inability to move freely causes stress and anxiety. Naturally, permanently unsheathed claws are also dangerous. Your cat’s claws will be sharp and eventually cause harm.
Your cat’s inability to retract its claws may be due to fungal or bacterial infection. This is likeliest if your cat has torn a claw through impact or biting. Such injuries invite foreign bodies into the claw. The most common infections that prevent claw retraction are:
- Paronychia – a bacterial or fungal infection that spreads from the skin to the claw
- Onychomycosis – contagious fungal infection, commonly known as ringworm
Seek advice if you suspect that your cat is living with these issues. Both are eminently treatable but will require a prescription.
Cats can be skilled at masking illness or injury. In the mind of a cat, displaying obvious discomfort is a sign of weakness. It encourages rival felines to steal territory or resources.
Unfortunately, leg injuries can lead to an inability to retract claws. In fact, this may be a telltale sign. If your cat’s claws are permanently unsheathed, look closer. You may notice the cat trying to mask a limp.
As explained by the Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, injuries to the plantaris are common. Your cat may have injured this tendon while running or jumping. Calf muscle injuries will also impact the plantaris.
Refer back to our previous comparison of claw retraction to flexing the ankle. If you have twisted your ankle, or pulled a calf muscle, this will be impossible. The same applies to a cat with a plantaris injury. The cat cannot perform the action required to retract claws.
Muscular injuries are typically short-term in felines. With sufficient rest, most cats are mobile again in a few days. It may be to two weeks before your cat is fully mobile again, though. Bear this in mind when assessing its use of claws.
It is a common concern for senior feline owners that an old cat can’t retract claws. This rapidly becomes problematic. As older cats are less active, they will not wear down their claws naturally. You’ll need to stay on top of the length of a senior cat’s claws.
Senior cats lose the ability to retract claws through a lack of flexibility. Arthritis is the bane of the existence of many older felines. As the cat ages, its joints and muscles become increasingly stiff. This can include the plantaris.
At best, a senior cat will find retracting the claws painful. Every time it flexes the plantaris, it experiences a surge of discomfort. At worst, the leg muscles will completely seize up. This will make it impossible to flex the planters and retract claws.
Combat this by treating the root issue. Offer your cat supplements to ease the symptoms of arthritis. While there is no cure for this ailment, it can be managed. Massage will also help. If you focus gentle massage around the cat’s calves, pressure on the plantaris will ease.
Refusal or Lack of Understanding
If you eliminate health or age as explanations, the cat is choosing not to retract claws. This does not necessarily mean that the cat is behaving badly, though.
The cat does not understand claws are dangerous or feels a constant need to defend itself. Whichever of these reasons apply, you must train your cat to retract its claws.
Training a Cat to Retract Claws
The method of training a cat to retract claws depends upon the cause. As discussed, some cats are physically unable to retract their claws. All the training in the world will not help until this has been rectified.
If the cat is willfully refusing to retract claws, training can be adopted. This can be a lengthy process if the issue is psychological. With patience, though, you will be able to ensure that your cat remains safe.
Cat Not Retracting Claws During Play
Play is important to cats of all ages. Playing with toys stimulates a cat’s hunting instincts, as well as providing exercise.
If the cat grows excited during a game, it can unsheathe claws. This needs to be managed, for your safety. Follow these steps to teach your cat keep its claws retracted during playtime:
- Play with your cat as standard.
- Allow your cat to approach with claws unsheathed – try to avoid being scratched.
- When claws come close to you, make a high-pitched yelp.
- Stand up and turn your back to your cat, ceasing play, for 30 seconds.
- Repeat the process. If your cat unsheathes claws again, stop play for a minute or two.
- Repeat once more, giving your cat one last chance.
- If the claws are unsheathed again, cease play for the day and try again in 24 hours.
Your cat will quickly get the message. Unnecessary unsheathing – and use – of claws will bring fun to a rapid end. This will encourage your cat to keep its claws firmly retracted in the future.
Cat Not Retracting Claws Around Pets, Children, and Strangers
If your cat constantly unsheathes claws around others, it is feeling insecure and afraid. This must be managed. Cats, especially older felines, cannot live in a constant state of anxiety. This will take its toll on the cat’s heart over time.
If other pets are causing this reaction, consider reintroduction. Keep the animals in separate locations, only allowing them to interact through a barrier. Feed both pets together, again separated. This is to forge a positive association.
Eventually, allow both pets to roam free again. If the reintroduction has been successful, the cat will retract its claws. This suggests the animals have learned to co-exist. If not, discuss the problem with a feline behaviorist. Your cat is struggling to cope with sharing its home.
This concern can be magnified if strangers enter your house. New babies are also at risk. Cats are nervous by nature and loathe change. Your cat is concerned about the intentions of these infiltrators. Cats also get jealous if they feel other humans are stealing ‘their’ attention.
Work to reassure your cat that nothing will change. This means providing extra attention and being particularly rigid about routine and schedule. The cat will adapt eventually and let its guard down. Until then, be vigilant about not leaving it alone with anybody vulnerable.
Should I Declaw My Cat?
If your cat cannot or will not retract its claws, you may consider more drastic action. The act of declawing a cat is called an onychectomy. This is a controversial practice, and many vets will refuse to perform it.
An onychectomy is not a manicure. Feline claws are not nails. An onychectomy involves cutting off the tip of the cat’s toe bone. This is akin to having the tips of your fingers surgically removed.
Cats that undertake an onychectomy are likely to live in constant pain. As cats are digitigrade, a declawed cat also struggles to retain balance while walking. An onychectomy should only be considered in a medical emergency. Even then, it’s the last resort.
Instead of an onychectomy, consider fitting your cat with claw tips. These are plastic caps that sit on your cat’s claws, blunting the edges. Claw tips do not prevent a cat from retracting claws, either. This means that their use may inspire a feline to start retracting.
Trimming a Cat’s Claws
Keeping a cat’s claws trim will remove the need to consider any external action. While it’s never advisable to leave claws permanently unsheathed, your cat may not have a choice. If you keep the claws trim, the physical risk is reduced.
If you wish to trim your cat’s claws manually, you’ll need patience. As we mentioned, a cat’s claws are its primary form of defense. What’s more, cats loathe being physically restrained. Your cat is likely to make a fuss when having its claws trimmed. If you are ready to trim your cat’s claws, follow these steps.
- Purchase a pair of nail clippers from a pet store. Keratin is too tough for scissors.
- Familiarize your cat with the sound of the clippers before starting work.
- Calm your cat. The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery recommends cat-specific music for this.
- Massage the paw so that your cat is used to being handled.
- Locate the quick of your cat’s nail. This is where the blood vessel meets the keratin.
- Cut above the quick. If you cut too deep, the cat will bleed profusely.
- Rapidly and without fuss, clip the nail.
It is advisable to settle for trimming one claw a day, at least initially. Over time, your cat will start to accept having its claws trimmed. If you cannot face the task, ask a groomer for help.
All cats older than four weeks should be able to retract their claws. If you need to teach a cat to retract claws, be kind and patient. If your cat is physically incapable of doing so, focus on remedying the cause.