Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Amazing Claws!

What do you think of when you think of your kitties claws? Do you think of them as toenails? Or do you think of a beloved piece of furniture shredded by a stretching cat? Do you think of damage done by kitty, intentionally or accidentally, when she was snuggling in your lap? There are many things we think we know about cats’ claws and lots of things most people don’t actually know.
Most people consider cat claws as just toenails. Claws are so much more than toenails though! They are an integral part of cats overall physiology as well as their number one defense mechanism. When your cat digs his claws into your new couch he is not intentionally destroying your furniture; he is stretching his back muscles and marking his territory. There are scent glands between your cat’s toes that allow him to leave his scent behind when he scratches on things. This trait came in handy when cats were wild animals and scratching usually meant trees or other such objects. It is a little less helpful when it comes to your leather couch or heirloom dining room table.  When a cat stretches and digs his claws into your furniture he is also giving himself a good workout. Stretching, using the claws, is the only way a cat has of truly exercising the muscles in his back.  We all know how refreshing a good stretch can feel after sitting at a desk all day, imagine how much better it must feel for your cat! Even when not digging his claws into something, you will notice your cat flexing his claws when he stretches, this is to help get all those muscles exercised!

Most importantly perhaps, claws are a cat’s number one defense.  Claws allow a cat to swipe out at enemies without getting too close, and allow cats to scamper up trees when avoiding predators. Without claws cats have to depend solely on their teeth to protect themselves, meaning they have to allow the predator to get dangerously close before they can make a defensive attack.
Claws are more also physically more than toenails. Cats are able to retract or extend their claws, something we cannot do with our toenails. In a normal, relaxed state cat’s claws are retracted and sheathed by the surrounding skin, fur and pads. This keeps the claws sharper longer. Cats also use their claws to help them grip things, such as food and toys. Additionally, Cats are digitigrades, which means they stand and walk on their toes (digits) instead of the soles of their feet. This means cats depend on their claws for walking, running and keeping their balance. Cats’ bodies are “naturally designed to support and distribute the cat’s weight across its toes as it walks, runs and climbs.”  This means that a declawed cat’s body is not able to properly support and distribute weight as it walks and runs.
Diagram of the cat claw from

Cats claws are technically not nails, they are an extension of the last bone in the foot. When a cat is declawed it involves amputating not just the nail but also the tendons, and ligaments around the bone. Declawing a cat is analogous to amputating your finger at the first joint. It is a painful surgery and can lead to a host of other issues. Many declawed cats become overly aggressive, trying to bite at the slightest provocation. Others develop litter box avoidance issues because of the pain in their toes, or the discomfort of litter getting lodged in the empty sockets where their claws were.     
Many people don’t realize that it is only the hook part of the claw that does damage to skin, furniture and fabric. Keeping your cat’s nails trimmed short is the best way to prevent serious damage to people or things without undergoing declawing surgery.  Giving your cat plenty of alternative surfaces to scratch is a great way to keep them from destroying your furniture.  An alternative to declawing, if your cat simply won’t go for the scratching post and you can’t bear the thought, or cost, of declawing is covering the cat’s nails with a little plastic cap. SoftPaws are the original brand of claw caps, you can apply them at home or have your vet do it. They are simply a little plastic cap that prevents your cat’s claws from doing any damage without painful and expensive surgery.

Small cat tree, perfect for kittens. Great for playing on as well as scratching!
The best way to keep your cat healthy and happy is by getting a good quality scratching post. Make sure it is a good material, most cats prefer a nice sisal material or plain wood, though some do prefer a carpeted scratching post. Try one out, if you cat doesn’t like it, you can always try one of the other materials. If you get a vertical post, make sure it is tall, at least four feet, so your cat has room to really flex those claws and muscles. One of our favorite posts is The Ultimate Scratching Post by SmartCat. This is a solid post covered in sisal, which allows the cats to really dig into it and destroy it. Younger cats can even climb to the top of it and oversee their territory from here! One of our volunteers has one that her cat loves to use, and it has stood up well, showing very little wear and tear. Prior to this one she had another Ultimate Post that lasted for the better part of ten years with three cats before it finally died.  Some cats prefer horizontal posts to vertical post, so if you find your cat scratching your carpet instead of that fancy post, trying getting him a horizontal cardboard post. Providing a good scratching post also provides the cat with a designated spot to leave his scent. 

Cats’ claws are an amazing part of their body, playing a much larger role than many people give them credit for. Yes, they can be painful when dragged across your skin, accidentally or intentionally, and they can cause damage to unsuspecting furniture. Isn’t it amazing though all the roles those little toes play in the life of a cat?

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