The Claws Have It. The Mysterious Process Behind How Cats’ Nails Grow

A cat’s claws are an important part of their anatomy, providing several key functions. Cat claws consist of the nail and nail bed, and go through a continual growth process throughout a cat’s life.

Cat claws start growing from the nail matrix deep under the skin at the end of each toe. As new nail layers generate, the nail is pushed forward and the dead nail material hardens into a solid claw. This is an ongoing process to replace claw material that sheds or is worn away.

Understanding how a cat’s nails develop and grow is useful for trimming them properly and promoting healthy nail growth. This article will cover the anatomy of cat claws, the growth process, growth rate, reasons for growth, trimming tips, potential problems, and keeping claws healthy.

Parts of a Cat’s Claw

A cat’s claw is made up of several parts:

  • Nail – The hard outer covering made up of keratin that protects the tip of the claw. The color varies based on the cat’s coat.
  • Nail bed – The skin under the nail, which has blood vessels and nerves. The nail grows from here.
  • Quick – The soft tissue that contains nerves and blood vessels that nourish the claw. It extends partway into the nail.
  • Cuticle – The continuation of the nail bed that folds under the claw. It attaches the nail to the skin.
  • Claw sheath – The hard outer keratin covering over the nail and nail bed that slides as the claw grows.

The main parts involved in nail growth are the nail matrix (part of the nail bed), nail plate (hard keratin), and quick. Understanding the parts of a cat’s claw is important for properly trimming nails.

Nail Growth Process

A cat’s nails grow from the nail matrix, which is the part of the nail under the skin at the cuticle. The nail matrix contains cells that rapidly divide and produce keratin, the protein that makes up the nail. As new keratin cells are produced, older keratin cells are pushed forward and packed together, forming the hard nail.1

microscopic view of keratin cells forming a cat's nail

The process of keratinization transforms soft keratin into hard keratin through the removal of moisture and compaction of the cells. The hardened keratin emerges from the opening at the top of the claw sheath as the nail grows. The bulk of the nail is made up of specialized hard keratin, while the outer layer is a softer keratin that helps reduce wear.

Keratin production and nail growth occur continuously in cats. The part of the nail right next to the cuticle is the newest growth, while the part farthest away is the oldest. As new layers emerge, they push the older nail layers forward until they eventually break off at the tip.

Growth Rate

On average, a cat’s nails grow around 0.75 millimeters per week. However, the rate of growth can vary quite a bit based on factors like the cat’s age, breed, and overall health. Older cats tend to have slower nail growth compared to kittens and younger adult cats. Certain cat breeds like Siamese and Burmese are also known to have faster nail growth rates. Health conditions affecting nail growth include nutritional deficiencies, chronic diseases, and nail or paw injuries. In general, the average weekly nail growth rate falls somewhere between 0.5-1 millimeter per week, but this can fluctuate quite a bit from cat to cat.

According to sources: https://blog.catbandit.com/do-cats-quicks-grow-answering-the-most-common-questions-about-cat-nail-growth/

Why Cat Nails Grow

Cats have claws for several important reasons related to their survival and natural behaviors. The main uses of a cat’s claws are for protection, traction, climbing, and hunting.

Cats use their claws to defend themselves when feeling threatened. By scratching another animal with their sharp claws, they can cause injury to get away from danger. Their claws also provide traction when running, walking, jumping, and climbing. When climbing trees or furniture, a cat’s claws grip surfaces to help pull themselves up. For hunting small prey like mice or birds, cats rely on their claws to catch and kill their food. Retractable claws give cats the advantage of stealth attacks and protection when not in use.

Because these behaviors and abilities are essential to a cat’s survival and natural instincts, their claws grow continuously throughout their lives. The claws wear down from regular use and therefore need to be replaced with new growth. Allowing claw growth enables cats to maintain all their innate abilities and fulfill their needs as predators.

Sources:

https://www.quora.com/Do-all-cats-have-claws-If-not-what-causes-some-cats-to-be-born-without-claws

How Do Cat Claws Work? How They Come Out & Retract

Trimming Cat Nails

Trimming your cat’s nails regularly is an important part of keeping them healthy and preventing problems. The frequency depends on the cat, but a good rule of thumb is to trim them every 2-3 weeks. Using the proper technique and tools can make the process easier on both you and your cat.

someone trimming a cat's nails with a nail clipper

The best tool for trimming cat nails is a dedicated cat nail clipper. Do not use human nail clippers, as these will likely be too large. Look for clippers designed specifically for cats. Guillotine-style clippers with a guard help avoid cutting into the quick. Scissor-style clippers also work well.

To trim the nails, it’s best to have another person gently hold and soothe the cat while you clip. Isolate one paw at a time. Apply gentle pressure on the toe pad to extend the claw, then clip just the sharp tip of the nail. Be careful not to cut into the pink quick, as this contains nerves and blood vessels and will be painful and bleed if cut. Only trim the clear portion of the nail.

Trimming just the tip helps blunt the claws while avoiding going too short. Work carefully and patiently, and offer treats to reward cooperation. Trimming frequently prevents the nails from becoming overgrown and curly, which can lead to painful snagging and splitting.

It’s normal for elderly or indoor cats to need more frequent trimming, as their nails grow faster. Outdoor cats may wear down their nails more through activity. With practice and patience, regular trimming can become quick and painless for both you and your cat.

Sources:
https://be.chewy.com/pro-tips-for-cutting-cat-nails-a-step-by-step-guide/

Declawing

Declawing, or onychectomy, is a surgical procedure where the entire third phalanx bone of each toe is removed to prevent claw growth. It is an elective and irreversible procedure. The surgery is performed by sedating the cat, making an incision near the toe, dislocating the third toe bone, and then using surgical scissors or a scalpel to amputate the bone. The incisions are then closed with surgical glue or bandages.

Declawing may prevent scratched furniture and injuries from scratches. However, it comes with a number of health risks and behavioral side effects. Complications can include long-term pain, lameness, and back pain from altered gait. Other risks include infection, tissue necrosis, and regrowth of deformed claws.[1]

x-ray view of amputated toe bone after declawing surgery

Many veterinarians and animal welfare organizations strongly recommend against declawing except in rare cases of medical necessity. Alternatives like regular nail trims, nail caps, or scratching posts are safer and more humane options. Overall, declawing is considered an ethically controversial procedure due to the pain it inflicts and the potential lifetime consequences for the cat’s health and behavior.

Nail Problems

Cats can suffer from a variety of nail problems that require attention. One common issue is overgrown nails, which occurs when the nail becomes too long and starts to curve, making it difficult for the cat to walk or use the litter box. Overgrown nails should be trimmed regularly to avoid complications.

Broken or injured nails are also common, especially in active outdoor cats. Cats that experience a broken nail may limp or avoid using the paw until the nail starts to heal. Serious breaks may require a vet’s attention. Keeping nails trimmed can help avoid breaks.

Nail infections are less common but still occur, especially with outdoor cats. Signs include swelling, redness, bleeding or pus around the nail. This requires veterinary treatment with antibiotics and possibly nail removal. Maintaining clean, trimmed nails can help prevent infections.

Rarely, cats can develop tumors or cancer in their nail beds. Melanomas are the most common tumor. Signs include nail discoloration, thickening, bleeding or detachment. Veterinary care is essential for diagnosis and treatment.

Regularly inspecting and trimming a cat’s nails can prevent many common nail problems. Seek veterinary advice for any signs of injury, infection or abnormal nail changes. Proper nail care is essential for a cat’s health and comfort.

Promoting Healthy Nails

There are several steps cat owners can take to promote strong, healthy nails in their feline companions. Proper nutrition is important, as cats need nutrients like protein, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals to support nail growth. Feeding a high-quality cat food designed for your cat’s life stage can provide balanced nutrition for overall health, including nails.

a cat scratching on a tall carpeted scratching post

Providing scratching posts and surfaces is also key, as scratching helps cats remove old nail sheaths and mark their territory. Vertical scratching posts with a rough texture give cats a place to scratch and stretch their claws. Placing posts near windows, cat trees, and in other areas cats frequent encourages use.

Some cat owners try nail caps or covers to protect furniture from scratching. These are plastic caps glued over the nail. However, some cats dislike them or may chew them off. Routinely trimming claws can be an alternative.

If you notice nail problems like cracks, infections, ingrown nails, or other abnormalities, see your veterinarian. They can assess your cat’s nails, diagnose any issues, and provide appropriate treatment.

With proper care, most cats can maintain strong, healthy nails throughout their lives. Focus on nutrition, scratching outlets, and routine nail care for your feline friend.

Conclusion

In summary, understanding how cat nails grow is important for promoting good paw health. Cat claws are comprised of a nail bed, quick, and outer sheath that covers the bony nail underneath. The nail root in the quick produces cells that push the nail outward as it grows, at a rate of about 1/8 inch per month for an adult cat. Nails grow continuously throughout a cat’s life to replace worn or broken claws.

Regular nail trims are necessary to avoid overgrown, painful claws that can affect walking and scratching abilities. While declawing was once a common practice, it is no longer recommended as it removes the nail bed and can cause long-term problems. Keeping nails trimmed and monitoring for issues like broken claws or infections is key for healthy paws.

With proper care and routine nail maintenance, cat owners can ensure their feline companions maintain proper nail length and paw health for life.

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