8 Fascinating Facts About Your Cat's Claws

Cat claws. Our cats are so cute when they use their little claws to be busy little bakers and "make biscuits" on the couch pillow or blanket. But the claws hurt. And don't even get us started on what damage the cat claws can do to furniture.

Cats need their claws, but is there anything else to love about them? It turns out cat claws are a fascinating anatomical feature that are even less like human nails than you might think, even though both human finger nails and cat claws are both made out of a similar protein called keratin.

Playful grey kitten isolated on white.
Your cat is armed with some serious tools.
credit: SerhiiBobyk/iStock/GettyImages

1. Cat claws are tools, not nails

Our fingernails and toenails are flat and come out of the tops of our fingertips or toes. They are basically just a hard layer that provides a little bit of protection to the sensitive tips of our digits. A cat's claws, on the other hand, are sharp, hooked tools that allow them to catch and hold prey (or that feather toy they really love), climb to get away from that neighborhood dog, tear meat from bones (they would do that if you didn't put delicious food in their bowls every day), and defend themselves if they get into fights.

2. Cats claws retract

Yes, most people know that cat claws retract when they're not being used. But this doesn't happen the way you might expect. Because cat claws come out of the tips of their toes, when a cat's claws aren't being used they rest up and back a little bit from the toe tip. The tips are still peeking out, but they might be hard to see through the cat's fur.

Unless you trim your cat's nails, you might hear them clicking when they walk across a hardwood or tile floor. This is a clue that they don't completely retract. When your cat wants to use her claws, she extends them with a tendon, the same way that you might point your toes. When they're not being used, cat claws stay sharper this way. Cats do not retract their rear claws.

Photos of polydactyl cats at Hemingway house, Key West
Polydactyl cats have an extra claw. See the claw that looks like a thumb on their paw?
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3. Cats can have more than five toes

Most cats have 18 toes — five on each of their front paws and four on each of their back ones. Some cats have a few extra toes and they're known as polydactyl cats. The cats belonging to the late author Ernest Hemingway are famously polydactyl. His estate in Key West, Florida, is home to about 50 polydactyl cats that have six toes on their front paws rather than five.

This is caused by a genetic mutation, not a particular breed of cats. If one parent is polydactyl and the other has the normal number of toes, then four or five kittens out of 10 will have extra toes. Being polydactyl usually means extra toes on their front feet, but sometimes it can happen on their back feet as well.

4. Cats are either right- or left-handed

In 2018, researchers in Belfast studied 44 domestic, spayed or neutered house cats and found a strong gender preference for paw usage as well as a strong paw preference. The cats' owners observed which paw the cats led with when stepping down stairs or over objects and which paw they used when reaching for food.

The study found that most of the cats displayed a definite paw preference, especially when they were reaching for the food (73 percent of the cats favored one paw over the other). Male cats preferred to use their left paws while females preferred to use the right. Does your cat agree with the study?

5. Cats shed their claw sheaths

While it's annoying if cats scratch where they're not supposed to, scratching is a completely normal behavior. Cats scratch partly because it feels good, partly to sharpen their claws, and partly because it helps shed their claw sheaths. If you've lived with a cat for a while, you've surely found "skeletons" of cat claws around the house. These are in the shape of a claw but empty, so to speak.

The claw is made of a protein called keratin, which grows from a blood supply within the nail. As the outer part grows and gets bigger, it starts to die when it is not as close to the blood supply. Then it becomes a "sheath," which wraps around the healthy, younger nail. The dead keratin sheds every two to three months in a healthy house cat, leaving the claw "shell" on the scratching post and the healthy nail behind.

Vet nurse examining the claws of a cat
When trimming, cut only the claw, not into the nail bed.
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6. Cat nails are always growing

Like human fingernails, claws grow throughout the cat's entire life. This is one reason why cat nails should be trimmed. Indoor cats do not wear down their claws as much as outdoor or feral cats do. If you trim your cat's claws, they can "knead" on your lap without pain. There are other benefits too.

Sometimes a cat's claws can catch on furniture or other household objects and if your cat can't get its nail unstuck, it can hurt them. Dull claws cause less damage than sharp ones to furniture or anything else your cat may scratch on. Special curved nail clippers for cats make this a pretty easy task. Just be careful not to cut into the pink part of the nail, which would be like the nail bed on a human finger. this will cause pain for your cat.

7. Declawing is more than just removing the claw

The process of declawing a cat is more involved than what many people think of as the human equivalent of getting their nails trimmed. One method involves a clipper that amputates the last bone on each toe. Another method uses a laser to cut through the claw tissue. Yet another procedure involves severing the tendon that allows your cat to flex her claws.

With that method, the claws are still there but your cat can not extend them. This would be problematic because since we already learned that your cat's nails are always growing, these nails would need to be continually trimmed to keep them healthy and keep them from snagging on things.

Declawing is now widely considered unethical and harmful to cats. The Humane Society Opposes declawing except in cases when it's medically necessary, and many countries and states have outlawed declawing.

Most vets agree that training your cat to scratch in a way that is not destructive is the best bet, to reduce the inconvenience to you and allow your cat to keep his claws!

striped kitten rubs against a wooden beam in the yard in the Sunny spring garden closing his eyes with pleasure
Cats have scent glands on their paws as well as their cheeks.
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8. Cats have scent glands on their paws

Scratching is actually about more than just grooming nails. Cats have scent glands on their paw pads. They also have scent glands on their cheeks, lips, forehead, flanks, tail and rectum. So sometimes when your cat rubs her head on you, it might be because she's marking you as "her territory." When a cat scratches on a tree or a piece of furniture, she could be marking it in the same way.

Cats' claws can be a nuisance to humans (and our furniture), but remember that these claws are actually pretty cool, and that most of their annoying characteristics can be eliminated with regular trimming, and providing appropriate scratching outlets for your cat.