Why Do Cats Have Retractable Claws?

There are three reasons as to why cats have claws, and believe it or not, their claws are not for climbing up your curtains, carving your favorite chair into ribbons or digging into your carpet! The three main reasons for claws is simple: Survival, Survival and Survival!



Cats are incredible climbers. They use their claws for climbing up trees by gripping the tree bark. Climbing trees or objects allow cats to escape their would be predators by perhaps climbing then jumping to safety from one area to another. Claws not only allow cats to climb up and down but also allow them to hold on so they don't fall! Unfortunately, their curved claws aren't ideal for climbing back down objects such as trees. When descending butt-first is the only option for a cat to descend, they may panic and freeze. When a cat can't climb down from a tree we all know who is called (and it's not Ghostbusters) it's your friendly neighborhood firefighter!


Cats are carnivores, meaning eating the meat of other animals is what gives them most of their nutrients.

Retractable claws are a great aid for cats when hunting. They are able to catch and grip prey with their claws and make escape impossible! Their claws aid them when running by providing traction. On a side note, the cheetah is the only cat species who cannot retract their claws. Their claws are helpful when chasing down and catching their prey by providing better traction when running.

A Sharp Defense

Coyotes, raccoons and hawks, oh my! All the animals mentioned and even larger animals prey on cats. So what's a poor feline to do? Use their claws to fight them off! Your cats claws are their first line of defense which is one of the reasons why you should never declaw a cat. Declawing is also painful for your cat as well as traumatic but if your cat somehow escapes outdoors, the declawing decision could be a death sentence for your defenseless cat if he cannot defend himself against larger animals. Without claws your cat doesn't even have the option to climb to safety!

A better option than having your cat declawed is to ask your vet to show you how to safety trim his nails (or have the vet trim them). This will aid you in keeping your furniture safe and your cat ready to protect himself!

But Why Retractable Claws?

Cats claws aren't really retractable as they are 'sheathed.' An elastic ligament attaches the claw to the final toe bone. When your cat becomes frightened or excited, the tendons are pulled back by his muscles and the claws are exposed. If a cats claws couldn't be sheathed, he would stick into virtually everything from curtains and carpets and even the tree he is trying to climb down. The gripping power of the claws of a cat are quite astonishing. Their claws act much like Velcro when extended but they don't need them all of the time! Even a kitten has control over its claws but it's all about instinct when danger is near and the claws come out!


The cat's claws will be kept sharpened by instinctual scratching which cannot be stopped. Scratching also allows them to pull off their old claw "sheaths".

Cats not only scratch objects to calm themselves down because of anxiety, cats scratch because they're trying to mark their territory via the scent glands located at the bottom of their paws. Curbing this destructive behavior by substituting a sturdy scratching post in lieu of a couch should be considered in order to give your cat a positive place to scratch. You may also consider placing posts strategically around the house and even cover them with the scent of catnip to attract your cat away from furniture. This simple action may just save your favorite easy chair and couch from becoming a shredded cat-tastrophe! Sorry about that last one!

By Tom Matteo

About the Author
Tom Matteo has been a freelance writer since 1992. He specializes in hardware and software reviews for computers and gaming systems, and occasionally writes about such topics as animal behavior and care. Tom resides in Bethlehem, PA with his wife Tina and his beloved cockapoo, Angel.