A lot of four legged mammals have claws on their feet, but few species can extend and retract their claws like cats can-dog’s claws protrude from their feet at all times, and walking on hard surfaces helps to wear them down and stop them growing overly long, or becoming overly sharp and pointed.
When your cat is just walking around or chilling out, their claws will be retracted, with just the tips visible-but during other activities, your cat’s claws will extend fully to help them to fulfil important roles in their day to day lives.
If you have ever wondered why cats can retract and extend their claws, what purpose this serves for them and how the process works, wonder no longer-in this article we will examine how cat’s claws function, and why. Read on to learn more.
First of all, it is important to understand that while we commonly use the term “retractable” to describe the process that cats use to extend their claws or pull them back in, they are not strictly truly retractable, but rather sheathed-when not being used for certain specific applications, cats’ claws are pulled back into the sheaths of the claws to protect them and keep them out of contact with surfaces.
Cat claws are not like fingernails-they are an integral part of the foot, connected by bone and tissue and with their own range of movement, rather than being dead, hard tissue simply growing out of the ends of the nail bed.
At the end of the final digital bone, strong, stretchy ligaments connect the claw to the rest of the toe, and join up with the tendons in your cat’s foot to enable a range of movement.
When the tendons retract, the ligaments extend, and the claw in turn extends-when the tendons lengthen and the ligaments pull back, the claws are retracted back into their sheaths. While cats have control over this mechanism and can decide when and why to extend their claws-such as if your cat decides that they want to sharpen them on a scratching post-the behaviour is usually largely instinctive and not conscious, and your cat will extend or retract their claws as an unconscious response to what they are doing or what is going on around them.
But why does this happen, and what benefits does the process provide for cats? There are various different reasons.
A cat’s claws have very sharp points, and being able to retract them and so, keep them from coming into contact with the ground when moving is what helps to keep them this way. Dogs, on the other hand, do not have retractable claws, and so their claws become blunted and worn down to a sensible length when they walk, as they do not use their claws in the same ways as cats do.
In order to keep the claws at an appropriate length and stop them from growing so long that they begin to curl over and dig into the pads of the paws, cats regularly sharpen their claws using things like scratching posts, and other materials that provide the right degree of resistance and help the claw to shed the outer sheath as it grows, keeping the claws hard and sharp and just the right length.
Cats need their claws to be sharp for a lot of different reasons, including climbing, catching and killing prey, to provide traction when on the move at speed, and to defend themselves.
When your cat is just walking around or curled up asleep, their claws are retracted because they are not needed, and this helps to keep them hard and sharp. However, if your cat need to climb or jump and grip onto something, they need to extend their claws, and the sharpness of the claws provides grip that allows your cat to grip onto a vertical surface, and the claws are also hard and strong enough to provide this, supported by very strong, elastic ligaments and tendons to support most of the cat’s weight.
The claws can also be extended to provide traction on slippery or unstable surfaces, and to allow your cat to make fast, sharp turns on the move without overbalancing. They are also essential when it comes to catching and killing prey, and your cat will extend their claws to allow them to secure wriggling prey and keep it from escaping, using the front paws and claws to pull the prey towards their stomach while the back legs pull inwards and use their claws to disembowel the prey.
Cats can also extend their claws to scratch a particularly annoying itch or as part of their grooming-and claws are also of course a vital part of the cat’s self-defence arsenal. Cats can do quite a lot of damage with their claws when fighting or defending themselves, and if a cat lashes out or fights another cat, they will extend their claws to maximise the damage and attempt to deter the other party.
However, cats that are not serious about causing harm-such as if they want to swipe at another cat (or person!) in warning without causing any damage-will keep their claws retracted unless the situation escalates and warrants getting out the big guns!