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Nail biting in cats: Why do cats pull at their claws?

Cats are often spotted gnawing and tugging their fur with their teeth as they groom. By doing so, they remove stubborn knots and keep their coats in good condition.

However, when a cat diverts this chewing and tearing action to its nails, what is it hoping to achieve? Has it developed a nervous habit or is there a genuine reason why a cat bites its nails?

It is normal behavior when cats bite and pull their nails to remove worn outer layers; this is simply part of their grooming regime. However, some cats can take claw-biting to extremes, which can be a sign of anxiety.

There are a number of triggers for cat nail-biting and understanding these will help to prevent excessive nail chewing.

A Tabby cat biting the claws of one paw.

Sometimes a cat bites and licks its claws as it cleans dirt from around them. Occasionally, an injury or anxiety can provoke this behavior.

On rare occasions, biting its claws transforms into an obsessive habit for a cat so always have a close look to ensure it is just performing its usual claw maintenance and everything looks healthy in the claw area.

If you spot any injury or soreness, it’s time to visit your vet for expert advice.

Is it normal for a cat to bite its nails?

When we bite our nails, it’s classed as a nervous habit. In a healthy cat, claw chewing is part of normal grooming behavior.

As long your cat doesn’t spend all day every day biting its nails into non-existence, you can assume it is simply removing outer layers.

A cat’s claws are constructed like an onion with thin layers of keratin. The outer layers naturally shed to reveal new ones and cats are often seen helping this process along with their teeth.

Do cats trim their own nails?

When a cat bites its claws, it can look like it is removing the sharp tip of each claw. However, a cat does not cut any length from its nails as it bites them.

If your cat’s nails are too long, which can occur if they don’t have opportunities to wear them down naturally, they may need a trim with specially designed cat nail clippers.

This is often the case with an indoor cat who might not naturally wear their claws down and some older cats as they become less active.

Many people trim their cat’s claws themselves but others prefer a vet or vet nurse to take on the task in case they accidentally cut into the blood vessels.

Claw biting is part of a cats regular grooming regime

Biting to reveal new claw layers

If you ever think you’ve found a cat’s claw on your carpet, don’t worry, it’ll just be an outer layer that your cat has bitten off or removed as it was clawing its favorite surface.

A cat’s nails are designed to shed. Whereas our nails grow in length, a cat’s nails grow in keratinized layers, rather like those seen in an onion.

As the outermost layer wears out, it comes away to reveal a new perfectly shaped claw beneath.

Cats scratch at objects to shed their old claw layers but will also bite and pull at them to help stubborn pieces come away.

A Scratching post is invaluable for the health of your cat’s claws (and the preservation of your furniture), so it’s wise to provide them with a couple around the house.

Try different materials and shapes. Some cats are vertical scratchers, and some prefer horizontal surfaces. Some like string-wound posts and some love carpet.

Providing scratching posts is a great way to help your cat’s claws stay healthy and should lessen the amount of time it needs to spend biting its claws.

Nibbling out dirt that’s collected under claws

Just as we get muck wedged under our nails, our feline friends collect dirt around their claws, especially if they dig in a garden.

Even walking around can embed unwanted debris beneath their nails. Cats resort to biting and chewing their claws to clean out this dirt.

You may not witness your cat biting and cleaning its claws in this way. Some cats tend to find a private spot to groom themselves, so their owners might never witness them chewing dirt from their nails.

A cat licking its paw to groom.

When cats bite their claws because of injury or infection

If a cat has an injury or infection in a nail bed or surrounding the tissue, it may lick and bite its claws excessively.

A bacterial, or fungal infection in a cat’s paw pad, between its toes, or in its nail bed can produce itching, pain, and discomfort. A cat may bite its claws in an attempt to stop these sensations.

If you notice a cat persistently biting the same claw, have a careful look to see if anything is amiss. Examine all four paws at the same time as they could all be affected.

Check all nails, nail beds, paw pads, and in between each toe. Look for patches of missing fur, redness, abrasions, or cuts.

You should also gently squeeze each paw pad as sometimes the cause can be an infection in the nail bed, which might not be apparent from the surface. An infected paw will feel warmer than a healthy one.

A cat with an injured or infected paw may be hesitant to put weight on it, so you should also observe them walking to look for a limp.

If you discover an injury or any medical issues with your cat’s paws, you should take them to a vet for treatment.

It is worth noting here that sometimes, excessive claw-biting is actually the result of dental issues. If you have eliminated all claw-related problems, check your cat’s teeth.

Biting its claws can mean a cat is frustrated or anxious

Just as stress or nerves can cause humans to chew their nails, anxiety and frustration trigger abnormal nail-biting in cats. Stress in cats is a serious condition, and any sign that your cat may be suffering from it should be investigated.

Common causes of anxiety or frustration in cats

  • Being left alone for too long or too often. Some cats can even develop separation anxiety.
  • A change in the household such as moving, getting a new pet, or having a baby.
  • Boredom.
  • Being kept inside when they are usually outdoor cats. This can be because you have moved and don’t want your cat to run away, your cat is injured, or the weather is inclement.

Concurrent symptoms of anxiety

There are other signs of anxiety or frustration that would help you identify this as the cause of the excessive nail-biting. These include:

  • Restlessness.
  • Hiding from you.
  • Uncharacteristic aggression.
  • Excessive vocalization.
  • Abnormal litter tray behavior and an upset tummy.
  • Excessive grooming. Some distressed cats will groom so much that they create bald spots or even lesions.
  • Loss of appetite.

Helping a cat with anxiety

A stressed and anxious cat under a blanket.

The best thing to do if a cat is exhibiting signs of anxiety is to remove the cause of its stress. Obviously, this is not always easy, but there are ways to help a cat cope with stress.

If you have to leave home more often, leaving your cat alone, ensure you provide it with plenty of toys and other stimulation while you are away.

Try to develop a regular time to leave and return as cats thrive on routine. Giving your cat a treat before you leave will help it develop a positive emotion with this event.

Keep as many daily routines as possible the same to give your cat a feeling of reassurance. If you know that a change is coming, you can start gradually introducing the expected alterations.

If your cat’s anxiety is out of control, seek the advice and assistance of a vet.

Cats can develop nail-biting habits?

If a cat has an infection or injury that leads to irregular nail-biting, or they bite if their claws in response to a prolonged stressful situation, it is possible for a nail-biting habit to become compulsive behavior.

A cat may continue to bite its claws long after the pain or discomfort has gone or after the reasons for anxiety have been addressed.

Some cats are more prone to developing obsessive behavior. If your cat bites its claws marginally more often than it did before the injury or anxiety, this habit is unlikely to be a problem. You should try to stop this through distraction, not punishment.

However, there are some cats whose habitual nail-biting becomes excessive to the point of causing damage. Obsessive behavior can also trigger new anxiety in your cat.

Why Do Cats Bite Their Claws? Conclusion

It can be alarming to watch your cat pulling and biting vigorously at its claws. While to us this seems the precursor to a ripped nail bed, it is not damaging to your cat.

Cats bite their claws to clean out dirt from beneath them. Broken nails and husks are also pulled off as part of a cat’s grooming routine.

When a cat’s nail-biting behavior becomes abnormal, you should learn to tell the difference straight away.

Excess or irregular claw-biting can result from infections or injury to the nail beds and surrounding foot structures. Alternatively, it can be the result of anxiety or frustration in your cat.

Abnormal nail-biting can quickly become a compulsive behavior, so it is best to treat the cause as quickly as possible.

Check your cat’s claws and paws regularly for medical conditions that might need a vet’s attention.

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