Cats are very mysterious animals! They have a lot of habits that just don’t seem that logical from a people point of view.
But to your cat, it all makes perfect sense. This includes when cats bite their nails. Because most people bite their nails out of stress or habit, it might be tempting to assume your cat is stressed out or bored.
But as you will learn in this article, your cat has a much more pressing health reason for biting at their nails. Read on to learn why your cat does this!
Why Do Cats Bite Their Nails?
The main reason why cats bite their nails is to keep the nails maintained, sharp, and useful.
Over time and with daily use, the nails will become worn, dull, and sometimes cracked. Luckily, the nails grow in with multiple layers.
When the outermost layer is no longer useful, the cat will bite at that layer to remove and discard it, exposing a fresh sharp useable claw underneath.
See an example of a Cat Biting Their Nails
In case you aren’t sure whether your cat’s behavior is actually nail-biting, this short YouTube video will give you a clearer picture of what it looks like when a cat bites their nails.
As you can see from the viewer’s comments, there are lots of different theories as to why cats bite their nails. And there is no one single reason that cancels out all the other possible reasons, either.
Just like people sometimes bite their nails as a way of self-grooming, out of stress, or because of an irritating hangnail, cats likely have all kinds of reasons why nail-biting makes sense to them at the moment.
What Is Claw Pulling in Cats?
As CPC Cares points out, nail-biting in cats is sometimes also called claw pulling or nail chewing.
Nail chewing, nail-biting, and claw pulling are all recognized forms of self-grooming in cats.
The reason the same behavior has gotten different names is that it can look different depending on where you are standing and what part of the nail your cat is working on.
A Quick Lesson on Cat Foot & Nail Anatomy
One of the easiest ways to get a grip on health reasons for cats biting their nails is to learn about cat foot anatomy.
Your cat’s feet aren’t quite like your own feet. For starters, cats actually don’t walk directly on the paw pads. Instead, your catwalks on their toe tips. In the world of veterinary science, this style of walking is called “digitigrade.”
This would be kind of like if you tiptoed around all the time instead of walking mostly on the flat parts of your feet.
Of course, your cat can retract or extend the claws as needed using interior muscles and tendons in the foot. But with each extension and use, the claws get a little less strong and a little less sharp.
Luckily, your cat’s claws are not made of bone, as Committed to Claws explains. Instead, they are made of keratin, which is the same material that your own fingernails and hair are made out of.
However, the claws do grow right out of the toe tip bone, which is why declawing basically cripples a cat for the rest of their life.
Interestingly, keratin forms in layers rather than as a single unit.
This is why cats love scratching things so much. You may have first discovered this when your cat started scratching the table legs or couch frame. So you bought your cat a scratching post.
Now (hopefully) your cat scratches their claws on the scratching post instead.
Perhaps after your cat has had a good scratching session, you might see what looks like skin-colored small bits on the ground. These are the exterior keratin sheaths from the nails.
Your cat has used the scratching post to actually slough off those exterior keratin layers that are no longer hard and sharp enough for use. With the scratching away of this exterior layer, a new sharp fresh strong layer is revealed underneath.
Do You Need to Clip your Cat’s Nails?
This brings up a very good question many first-time cat carers have – should you cut your cat’s claws?
Or will your cat take care of their nails by biting or chewing at them?
In other words, is it better to trim your cat’s nails or let your cat take care of them as needed?
In most cases, your cat will automatically bite or chew at their own nails as the need arises. As Vetwest Animal Hospitals highlights, outdoor cats in particular generally do not need nail trims because their lifestyle keeps their claws naturally maintained.
But it is still important to check, especially if your cat stays indoors much of the time or full-time.
For example, if your cat lives an indoor-only lifestyle, they may need a scratching post or the occasional nail trim to keep their claws well maintained.
Sometimes a cat may have medical problems such as arthritis that can make biting or chewing at the nails or using a scratching post more difficult and painful.
And cats in their golden years may become less diligent about basic foot and nail hygiene.
This is why, as Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine explains, it is important to learn how to trim or clip your cat’s nails just in case your cat needs help.
Alternately, you could have your feline veterinarian or cat groomer do this for you as needed. If you are not sure what to do, you might ask your veterinarian or groomer to demonstrate the technique for you and let you practice with their supervision.
Medical Reasons for Cats Biting Their Nails
While most cats bite at their nails just to keep them sharp and well maintained, there can also be medical causes for feline nail-biting.
If your cat suddenly starts biting, chewing, or pulling at their nails more forcefully or more frequently, it is important to look more closely to see if medical issues may be brewing.
Yeast infection or fungal infections like ringworm can cause irritation and discomfort. Your cat may be biting at the nails or paw pads to try to ease the discomfort.
Autoimmune diseases such as pemphigus can cause the skin to become irritated on the paws, face, and ears.
As Tufts Catnip outlines, aging can cause the nails to become brittle, soft, or thickened.
This makes it harder for a cat to maintain their claws and they may start biting or pulling at the claws as a result.
Because a cat’s claws are like tools, it is not uncommon to see a cat with an injury that has caused the claw to tear or break. This is especially common with younger cats that are more active.
As VCA Animal Hospitals explains, squamous cell carcinoma causes tumors to form in the nail bed as well as in the ears, eyes, and nose.
When a tumor first forms, it may not look like what you expect. Sometimes it even causes a scab or opens a sore and then as your cat bites at it, it gets worse.
When you are not sure what is causing your cat to repeatedly pull at or bite at the nail bed area, the best solution is to make an appointment for your cat to be seen by a feline veterinarian.
How to Tell When You Need to Clip Your Cat’s Nails
While most cats tend to be self-maintaining in terms of nail care, as you just read, there are some situations where your cat may need your help.
But how can you know when it is time to clip your cat’s nails?
You hear that telltale “click click click” sound
If you are hearing your cat’s nails audibly clicking as they walk across a hard floor, this is a sign the nails have gotten too long.
You can try to offer a cat scratching post first, but if your cat doesn’t use it and you still hear the clicking sound, it is time to clip the claws or ask your veterinarian to do this for you.
You notice your cat is struggling to reach their claws
As we mentioned here earlier, arthritis and old age can sometimes make it hard or painful for a cat to self-groom the claws, especially on the back paws.
If you notice your cat trying and struggling to reach the claws themselves, you may want to just go ahead and schedule a claw trimming or take care of this for your cat yourself.
By understanding the anatomy and structure of your cat’s nails and common cat claw problems, you can make sure your cat has able to maintain healthy claws, paws, and feet.