What are a cat’s claws made of that makes them so sharp? Well, feline claws (or nails) are made of the same protein that makes up human claws, er, nails – keratin! As you might remember from Part 4 of our series, the protein keratin also makes up the hardened barbs on the tongue called papillae. Because Kitty’s nails can retract into skin sheaths under the toe pads, the nails are prevented from wearing down and allow felines their soft, silent walking. Kitty will also keep those nails retracted during soft play, or at least some of the time. I’m sure we all have been on the receiving end of those “Eighteen Weapons of Mass and Sharpened Destruction”…ouch!
Just like a human’s nails, cat’s claws continuously grow. In fact, many older cats have thickened nails that if not trimmed can grow around and into the pad. This is a very painful scenario that may cause an infection, or at least a raw hole in the pad. Regular nail trimming can help save the health and comfort of your cat.
An instinctive behavior in the wild is for cats to sharpen their claws and ‘mark’ their territory by scratching trees, wooden fences and other pliable surfaces. Remember reading in Part 5 about the sebaceous glands which are tucked in between the foot pads? By scratching surfaces Kitty is able to emit the pheromones (scents) detectable only to cats. Today’s indoor cats still practice this instinctual habit by scratching and marking furniture, carpet, drapery and bedding. Many people assume that the cat is ‘bad’ because of this destructive behavior and do not understand that it is a very natural and instinctual activity.
How can you control this conduct? It is a good idea to supply a cat tree with perches and a scratching post or board. This will give the cat his own ‘territory’ by leaving his scent, where he can relax one minute and sharpen his nails the next. Other methods to deter scratching are with unpleasant herbal sprays or with specialty cat deterrent tapes. Cats’ paws are extremely sensitive to touch, having evolved to detect the slightest vibrations of prey rustling through leaves and brush. This acute sensitivity makes ‘sticky’ surfaces exceptionally annoying and cats will avoid scratching any place so uninviting. Both options are nearly invisible to the human eye or nose, yet yield clearly visible results.
Kittens begin to scratch at about eight weeks, which is the perfect time to introduce them to a scratching post, cardboard scratching box or other approved scratching areas. You can experiment with styles and materials to find what your cat likes best. Of course, adult cats can also be trained to use these surfaces.
Unfortunately, some cat owners are under the misguided impression that declawing their cat is an easy, harmless, quick fix for unwanted scratching damage. The truth is, whether performed with a scalpel or new laser technique, declawing is major and potentially disfiguring surgery that can have lasting effects on both the cat’s physical and behavioral health. Declawing changes the way a cat’s foot meets the ground, causing changes in the way they walk and creating discomfort. Litter box aversion is a behavioral problem that causes them to stop using the litter box because of associating pain with the act of covering waste.
Most importantly, because of the absence of their first line of natural defense, declawed cats may become biters in situations where they feel threatened or powerless. Bluntly put: If performed on humans, declawing is the equivalent of cutting off each finger at the last knuckle. Other humane alternatives to declawing include trimming the nails, which is part of the regular grooming routine we at Downtown Tabby Inc. perform. This is one of the most effective ways to reduce or lessen the damage scratching can cause. Another effective alternative is soft, vinyl caps such as Soft Paws or Soft Claws. These are safely glued to your cat’s nails and blunt the nail tip to help prevent damage. These should be removed and reapplied approximately every six weeks.
If you do have a cat with intact claws, no worries if you end up seeing a discarded nail somewhere in the house. Just like the occasional whisker, it is completely normal for Kitty to discard their nail sheath. After the nail has grown past the blood supply it is naturally shed to make room for the newer and sharper nail underneath. Scratching can help your cat shed the old nail sheaths and is yet another reason to make your home Cat Friendly with multiple scratching surfaces.
Is your furry feline friend sending you secret signals? Do you notice specific tail twitching or different meows? No, you’re not crazy – at least to us! Our next installment will focus on the many different ways Kitty communicates with their humans and other furry friends.