Cats shed fur from their coats throughout the year, and they will also tend to go through a larger moult twice a year as the seasons change, to grow in their new coat for the coming warmer or cooler weather. They also shed the occasional whisker too – and finding and keeping a shed cat’s whisker is considered by some people to be lucky – as well as sometimes shedding the sheaths of their claws too.
For the new cat owner, finding a shed claw sheath for the first time can be somewhat alarming, as the sheaths look a lot like a complete claw – but shedding the sheaths of the claws is a normal process for cats, and one that does not indicate that something is amiss.
In this article, we will explain why cats shed the sheath of their claws, what role this fulfils, and how to help to keep your cat’s claws healthy and strong. Read on to learn more.
Your cat’s claws are made up of a hard, keratinous protein that is very strong and tough, as you will no doubt realise if you have ever spotted your cat climbing a tree (or your curtains) using their claws to grip on and hold the cat’s weight.
Unlike the claws of dogs, however, which continue to grow ever-longer unless they are trimmed or worn down by walking on hard surfaces, your cat’s claws grow to a sharp point and self-limit in terms of the length that they will grow to.
Whilst occasional problems do arise in terms of overly long or sharp claws curling inwards to press into the pads of the paws, cats’ claws will not continue to grow and grow like dog’s claws do if left unchecked.
The sheath is the outer layer of the claw itself, and claws grow in layers, starting from the newest growth at the centre and the oldest layers of growth on the outside.
To remain functional, a cat’s claws need to be strong, sharp, and a practical length, which means that when they begin to get a little long and dull on the tips, your cat will shed the sheath of their claws to reveal the newer, stronger growth underneath and the associated sharp points.
In the domestic cat, the claw sheaths shed cyclically around every three months – which means that every three months or so, your cat will have shed all of their previous claw sheaths, give or take.
Taking this into account, it is common to find shed claw sheaths around the house, possibly lodged within the sisal rope of a scratching post or embedded in a particularly scratch-able doormat!
Cats need to scratch things to keep their claws sharp and short enough to be practical, and this process helps to slough off the older sheath of the claws to make it easier to shed and remove to make room for the new claw growth.
Scratching on things also allows your cat to flex the muscles in their paws, extending and retracting their claws, keeping them in good condition and enabling your cat to grip, climb, and catch and hold prey.
Providing a scratching post to enable this will help your cat out – and if you don’t provide a scratching post, your cat will almost certainly find themselves an alternative, such as a doormat, the legs of your sofa, or even a tree or branch outside.
If your cat’s claws grow overly long and scratching alone doesn’t help them to shed the sheaths and maintain their claws, you may need to trim the very tips of the claws off – although you should take great care to ensure that you only nip off the bare minimum, and don’t cut too close to the blood-rich nerve endings in the claws, which will bleed heavily if nicked as well as being painful and distressing for your cat.
Shedding the sheaths of the claws around every three months or so is normal, as mentioned – but your cat’s claws themselves should be hard, strong and healthy. Whilst you may occasionally see a partially detached claw sheath on one of your cat’s claws (and you should leave this well alone and not attempt to pull it off or otherwise remove it) your cat’s claws should not be weak, thin, or flaky.
If your cat’s claws are overly soft or very weak, they may be lacking in calcium or another essential vitamin or mineral, and you should talk to your vet about why this might be, and potentially, use supplements to correct this.
However, you should never give supplements or dietary additives to your cat without checking with your vet first – these may be inappropriate for the issue at hand, or even cause harm, as well as doing nothing to ascertain and correct any underlying issue that may be causing the problem in the first place.