cat doesn't retract claws
Behavioral Problems

How To Teach a Cat To Retract Claws

Feline claws are sharp, so they hurt when raked across the skin. These claws can also cause damage to furniture, curtains, and carpets. If your cat doesn’t keep its claws retracted, you’ll need to train it to do so.

You can teach your cat to retract its claws through play. When approached with claws unsheathed, make a high-pitched yelping sound and stop the game immediately. This mimics the noise made by another cat, teaching it that claws hurt. This training will only work if your cat is willfully unsheathing its claws. If your cat’s claws are always unsheathed, it may be thwarted by injury, disease, or infection.

Cats usually learn to retract their claws into the paw at around 4 weeks old. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. If so, you’ll need to take the necessary steps to teach your cat to keep its claws retracted.

Why Are Cats Claws Retractable?

A cat’s claws are not just long nails. Fingernails sit at the top of human digits, shielding the fingers and toes from damage. Claws, on the other hand, are an extension of a cat’s bones.

As cats lack opposable thumbs, the claws are used to hold on to captured prey so that it’s unable to escape. When a cat is climbing a tree or fence, the claws provide the necessary grip to make it to the top. Feline claws are also used for marking surfaces and claiming territory.

Cats are digitigrade animals, meaning that they walk on their toes. This ensures that they can sneak up on prey undetected. If claws are left unsheathed, the tough keratin will create a click-clack sound on hard surfaces. So, cats prefer to retract their claws when not in use.

Do Cats Back Claws Retract?

As explained by the Journal of Morphology, the plantaris muscle is used for claw retraction. The plantaris is a small but critical muscle located along the calf. By flexing the plantaris muscle, a cat can sheathe its claws. Cats can retract their back claws, but rarely feel the need to do so.

Digitigrade animals walk on their front toes. This means that cats’ back claws are ground down organically. Rear claws are also infrequently used for protection from predatory animals and hunting prey.

cats claws always out

Why Do Cats Retract Their Claws?

Cats unsheathe their claws for four 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.

Protection

Along with teeth, claws are the main source of self-defense at a cat’s disposal. As explained by Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, the exposing of the claws is a classic sign of fear in cats.

This is why cats sometimes lie on their back. As owners learn to their detriment, this is not a request for a belly rub. This gives the cat easy access to all four claws, if needed. In this position, a cat can quickly and easily fight back when faced with danger.

If your cat is keeping its claws unsheathed at all times, it feels insecure. A relaxed cat will always retract its claws. Something in its environment makes your cat feel that it needs to remain on the defensive.

Hunting

Feline claws also play an active role in hunting. When a cat pounces upon prey, it usually disables it with a bite to the neck. Claws are used to hold the prey steady until this can be achieved.

The claws are also used to tear flesh from bone on rodents and birds. However, for many felines, the thrill of the hunt will suffice. This means that the cat will avoid using its teeth until it’s absolutely necessary.

Marking

Scratching with the claws is among the most common instinctive behaviors in felines. As explained by the Canadian Journal of Zoology, this is a form of scent marking. Your cat is claiming these items as its own by scratching your furniture and stair carpets.

Scratching is a common, but unwelcome, activity engaged in by all cats. The only way to control it is by giving your cat something else to scratch, such as a scratching post.

Climbing

Cats enjoy climbing to high places. This location provides a cat with an elevated vantage point. It can safely survey terrain from here, checking for potential threats and prey.

If your cat likes to sleep on top of a closet, it will have learned how to jump this high. Climbing a tree or fence requires more dexterity and 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 kittens to knead their mother’s teats and get milk. Once the kitten is a month old, it can retract its claws at will.

Most kittens will instinctively retract their claws. Cats of all ages understand the importance of protecting the front claws from damage. A kitten will also take its lead from its mother or older felines in the home.

Kittens also learn the importance of retracting their 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 come to understand that claws shouldn’t always be exposed.

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. The exception could be feral or semi-feral cats as these felines will likely 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 of doing so. 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.

Infection

Your cat’s inability to retract its claws may be due to a fungal or bacterial infection. This is likeliest if your cat has torn a claw due to an impact injury 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 claws
  • Onychomycosis – a contagious fungal infection, commonly known as ringworm

Seek advice if you suspect that your cat has one of these issues. Both are eminently treatable, but will require a prescription.

Injury

Leg/foot injuries can lead to an inability to retract claws. If your cat’s claws are permanently unsheathed, you may notice the cat is masking a limp.

The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association stated that 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.

If you have twisted your ankle, or pulled a calf muscle, you won’t be able to flex your ankle. The same applies to a cat with a plantaris injury. The cat cannot perform the action that’s required to retract its claws.

Old Age

As older cats are less active, they will not wear down their claws naturally. Senior cats lose the ability to retract claws due to a lack of flexibility. Arthritis is the bane of many older felines. As the cat ages, its joints and muscles become increasingly stiff, which can affect the plantaris.

A senior cat will find retracting the claws painful. Every time it flexes the plantaris, it experiences discomfort. Perhaps the leg muscles will seize up, making it impossible to flex the plantaris and retract the claws.

Training a Cat to Retract Claws

The method of training a cat to retract claws depends on the cause. As discussed, some cats are physically unable to retract their claws. All the training in the world will not help until this issue has been rectified.

If your cat is willfully refusing to retract claws, training can be given. This can be a lengthy process if the cause is psychological.

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 its claws. Follow these steps to teach your cat to keep its claws retracted during playtime:

  1. Play with your cat.
  2. Allow your cat to approach with claws unsheathed.
  3. When claws come close to you, make a high-pitched yelp.
  4. Stand up and turn your back to your cat, ceasing play, for 30 seconds.
  5. Repeat. If your cat unsheathes claws again, stop play for 1-2 minutes.
  6. Repeat once more, giving your cat one last chance.
  7. If the claws are unsheathed again, cease play and try again in 24 hours.

Your cat will quickly get the message. Unnecessary unsheathing of claws will bring fun to a rapid end. This will encourage your cat to keep its claws retracted in the future.

Cat Not Retracting Claws Around Others

If your cat constantly unsheathes its claws around other animals and people, it is feeling insecure and afraid.

If other household pets are causing this reaction, you should consider a reintroduction. Keep the animals in separate locations, only allowing them to interact through a barrier. Feed both pets together, again separated to forge a positive association.

Eventually, allow both pets to roam free again. If the reintroduction has been successful, the cat may retract its claws. This suggests the animals have learned to co-exist.

This concern can be magnified if strangers enter your house, including newborn babies. Cats are nervous by nature and loathe change. Your cat is concerned about the intentions of these infiltrators. Cats can also get jealous if they feel other humans are stealing their attention.

cats claws won't retract

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 as feline claws are not nails. An onychectomy involves cutting off the tip of the cat’s toe bone. As cats are digitigrade, a declawed cat may struggle to retain its balance while walking.

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, so their use may inspire a feline to start retracting its claws.

Trimming A Cat’s Claws

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:

  1. Purchase a pair of nail clippers as keratin is too tough for scissors. Familiarize your cat with the sound of the clippers before starting work.
  2. Calm your cat and massage the paw so the cat is used to being handled.
  3. Locate the quick of your cat’s nail. This is where the blood vessel meets the keratin.
  4. Cut above the quick. If you cut too deep, the cat will bleed profusely.
  5. 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.

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.