Scratching is a normal behaviour for cats. When a cat is anxious, happy, excited or frustrated, he can release some of the build-up of emotion by scratching.
When relaxed, the cat’s claw is in its natural position, as though ‘retracted’. The claws don’t really retract. The claw is actually part of the bone of the distal phalanx (the last bone on the cat’s toe). There are tendons and ligaments attached to the bones of the toe and when the cat is relaxed, the attached tendons naturally shorten and the distal phalanx is ‘pulled’ back so that the claws are not seen. When the claws are visible, the digital flexor tendon and the superficial flexor tendon extend the distal phalanx thus extending the claw so they are visible. When extended, the cat can grab onto things (scratching post, trees, carpet and, yes, furniture) to stretch.
Cat claws grow in layers and eventually they shed the outer layer, known as the sheath. This is another reason a cat scratches, to ‘slough off’ the old sheath, which then exposes a new sharp claw. This also is usually what is happening when you notice your cat biting and pulling on his back claws.
A cat with nails that are not regularly trimmed is at risk for getting them caught in fabric and in the carpet and subsequently twisting and spraining their paw or leg. Trimming them can prevent painful broken claws. Cats’ claws also splinter sometimes and these can be cleaned up by having a nail trim, which will help prevent them from splitting down to the nail bed and ripping off.
Your cat can also scratch you and aside from it hurting, it can cause you to develop a serious infection. Remember, they use those same claws to dig around in their litter box.
If the nail is left to grow, it will curl and embed itself into the cat’s paw pad, causing pain and infection. This will cause the cat to walk awkwardly by compromising the normal mechanics of its feet, altering the legs, hips and spine, again causing discomfort for the cat (imagine with each step the cat takes, the pressure put on the paw that has the sharp claw embedded into it).
The NCGIA recommends nail trims every four weeks, “though your cat may require trimming more or less often depending on diet, age, metabolism, and exercise”. You will be the best judge by checking your cat’s nails regularly and seeing how quickly they grow.
If you don’t know how or don’t want to trim your cat’s claws yourself, you can have your veterinarian or groomer do it for you. If you want to learn how, ask your veterinarian or your groomer to show you.
Soft Paws are also a fun and practical service available. If your cat has these soft vinyl caps put on, you will still need to have your cat’s nails trimmed. They will sometimes fall off with the sheath as it is discarded but if they do not, they are easily removed at the time of nail trimming.