The Anatomy of Cat Claws

Not only is reading a few science facts about your cat's claws super interesting, but it might also save you some blood loss!

Jan 6, 2024By Abigail Gould
anatomy of cat claws

Raise your hand if you love kittens! Now, raise your hand if you need a band-aid!

If you're still occasionally meeting the business end of your cat’s claws (even though your baby is all grown up now), then this article has everything you didn't know you needed. Besides, reading up on cat anatomy is absolutely time well spent!

How Do Retractile Claws Work?

tabby cat protracting claws

Cat claws work in a very specialized way. Claws grow out of a bone, called the third phalanx. A growth center, that has its own blood supply and nerve endings, supports the claw, delivering continuous nourishment to these hardworking appendages.

So, the third phalanx ends at the quick (or nail bed). From the quick, the claw grows out and down in a curved, rather dangerous hook shape. The phalanx is moveable, just like the tips of your fingers. And a clever system of tendons controls the protraction and retraction movements of the claw.

When your cat wants to use his claws, he will engage his muscles. Then his claws will protract—visibly moving out from the fluff between his toes—and down to where they can be put to unobstructed use. This action is performed by a tendon that contracts as the muscles are flexed. When the cat’s paws are relaxed and his muscles find a rested position, his claws will be retracted.

Cats’ claws do not settle back into their paws completely. Instead, a resting paw will have claws that are nestled back into folds of skin with tips that you can still kind of see.

Should You Trim Cat Claws?

yawning cat extending claws

Many cat parents are conscientious about doing regular claw trimmings. Especially if they have expensive furniture. But how necessary is snipping off the tips of your cat's claws?

Cat experts tend to agree that it is a good idea to trim your cat's nails to keep them healthy. However, if you’ve ever attempted a claw-trimming session yourself, you’ve probably realized that cats are somewhat protective over their sharper ends.

When you look closely at an extended cat claw, you might see a layer of pinkish-red tissue. What you are actually seeing is the quick, connecting your cat's claws to their end digits. The quick is very sensitive because it’s full of nerve endings and blood vessels.

If you were to accidentally cut too much of the nail off, reaching the quick (ouch!) Twinkles would start to bleed—and so would you.

In other words, getting the whole trimming business right is a good idea. However, it’s also a skill that takes practice for both of you!

Walking On Tiptoe

calico cat outdoors

Cats are known as digitigrade animals. Due to their anatomy, cats are technically always walking on their toes. Whereas you are plantigrade.

In most cats, their front paws have five clawed toes, and their back paws have four. Each carpus (“kitty-wrist”) may also have a shorter, inner digit called the dewclaw.

When a cat walks, the claws in her front paws don’t touch the ground. This means that their claws are not subjected to unnecessary use, and their weaponry stays sharp. It also allows cats to walk super softly, without making a sound. The claws on the rear paws are not as sharp because they experience more wear.

According to experts, “Removing claws changes the way a cat's foot meets the ground and can cause pain like wearing an uncomfortable pair of shoes.” To declaw a cat, the entire third phalanx along with the nail bed, and claw are all removed, also severing the tendon. That’s why the procedure is regarded as an amputation.

How Claws Benefit Cats

cat using claws and biting stick

We often say, “cats have nine lives”. While it is true that cats are wily, intelligent creatures that are good at escaping danger, we often take for granted how fragile these little beings really are. Cats are very small, light, and are outranked in strength by most dogs and even young children.

In terms of defense, cats have their speed, their wits, their teeth for combat, and their claws for escape. Without claws, cats have no way of climbing to safety.

Additionally, as you probably already know, cats have an instinctual need to scratch. While it might not match your personal taste in home decor, scratching serves a variety of necessary functions in the life of your cat.

Scratching helps your cat exercise and stretch her muscles. Since cats have scent glands in their paws, scratching is also a way of marking their territory. And scratching is an emotional outlet—a way of communicating and releasing tension. Plus, cats sometimes need to scratch themselves, and there’s only one good way to get an itch!

Understandably, a cat that cannot scratch becomes frustrated. Moreover, biologically speaking, cats are predators. They need claws to capture prey.

Why Do Cats Knead?

two kittens cuddling

Kneading, as you’ve probably discovered for yourself, is one of the most important uses of the kitty claw. When Twinkles gets all the snuggles, he will express his contentedness by purring, and the kneading ritual will begin.

One commonly held idea is that when kittens are young, kneading their mother helps to yield her milk to their hungry bellies. This nourishing, comforting, affection-seeking behavior becomes a habit at an early stage and is carried through into adulthood.

Cat paws are also full of scent glands. So not only is kneading essential to feeling cuddly, but it also marks the possessions that Twinkles really likes.

Yes, cat claws are even important to their social lives. Whether it’s swatting another feline or making themselves comfortable, being sharp is just part of being a cat.

Soft Paws and Cat Claws

grey cat paw

So, all this about the mechanics of retractable cat claws is quite interesting, but is it helpful? Yes, it is!

Understanding how cat claws work is important because it relates to the way your cat behaves. And let's face it, cats have the power to make your life easy, or... well... less easy.

Whether it’s prowling, hunting, playing, climbing, kneading, or scratching—claws are necessary for everything cats do to be happy.

Abigail Gould
By Abigail Gould

Abigail’s experience with animals comes from growing up on a farm. She has been fortunate enough to look after cats, dogs, ducks, geese, chickens, and guinea pigs. Of all the pets she’s cared for, guinea pigs have been the most entertaining, dogs the most rewarding, and cats the most essential!