Let me start off by saying that some nail biting in cats is very normal, healthy feline behaviour. It may sound like a peculiar thing to say, but just because you see your cat pulling at his or her claws gently with teeth once in a blue moon, does not mean you necessarily have any cause for alarm. I’ll get into why in the body of this article.
That being said, it is absolutely, 100% true that there are excessive forms of nail chewing as well, ones that can stem from both physical and psychological issues (yes, we’re talking about stress again), so you absolutely should keep an eye on things to make sure your feline’s engaging in a safe form of nail biting. Needless to say, if you have any alarm or worries whatsoever over how much or how aggressively your cat is pulling at his or her nails, don’t hesitate to talk to your vet. You absolutely could have sniffed out a somewhat subtle symptom of an underlying medical condition, or could’ve uncovered a not-so-obvious hint at your cat’s anxiety levels being quite high. Good on you for doing a quick check up on things, and I’ll do my best to get you informed on as much as I can relevant to the topic of nail biting in cats so you can be a bit more informed.
I’ll start us off by discussing normal nail biting in cats, why they do it, why it’s healthy if it’s not done excessively, why your cat may be just doing his or her cat thing and nothing more if there’s some gentle pulling with his or her teeth on claws/paws.
After that, I’ll be discussing more excessive forms of claw chewing in cats. Basically, if your cat does bite and pull a lot or aggressively at his feet, you’ll first want to look for medical conditions that could result in the symptom of this claw pulling. I’ll list as many as I can find so you can run through the list your vet comes up with in addition to the ones I’ve listed if you want to. If no underlying medical condition is present, your cat could be aggressively pulling and biting at his or her claws due to a physical injury or stress related factors, which I’ll discuss as thoroughly as I can, but you don’t want to jump to conclude injury or anxiety are the culprit until after you’ve had your vet have a look and run tests to confirm there’s nothing medical hidden behind the chewing behaviour. Physical injury could be the result of the aggressive pulling action, and stress shouldn’t be assumed unless everything else is ruled out.
Let’s jump into things, and yet again as a reminder – if you have any concerns about your cat’s foot chewing, you should book a visit straight away. Tell them your concerns about the nail biting, and list any other behaviours that flagged your attention as potential symptoms. Tell your vet when your cat bites his or her nails and the extent to which the biting takes place and if there are particular times it happens more. Is there ever blood, for instance? Does it only happen after eating? Those kinds of things. Now to begin with the healthy toenail biting discussion..
Normal Nail Biting in Cats: Why Healthy Felines Will Sometimes Pull at Claws
Cats’ nails often get dirt, dust, debris, hair, fur, and quite a lot of other things stuck in them. If the mere act of licking doesn’t do the trick freeing what’s lodged in their claws, while grooming, healthy cats will sometimes bite gently on their toenails to get what’s stuck out.
As Dr. Carlo Siracusa states for PetMD: “When we see a cat cleaning its paws, it may chew on its nails or around its paw pads to get rid of dirt, litter, or other debris […] All of these can get stuck in the paw pads, so it is a necessary part of the cleaning process.”
Cats also chew on their claws at times to help them remove their nails’ outer layer. Essentially, a cat’s finger and toenails are a bit like an onion. On the outside, there’s the old, used up, sometimes broken or chipped, and often quite dull layer – worn due to use. This old, outer layer eventually falls off. Typically, the outer layer falls off with quite a bit of scratching (it’s the primary reason why cats love to scratch so very much), through kneading, and also through regular daily use of their nails as well. When the old outer layer falls off, it exposes a new, incredibly sharp inner nail that then becomes the new outer layer for a time. As that new outer layer is used up and begins to wear and grow dull, it’s shed, and the process is repeated over again. Old, dull layers are slowly but perpetually being shed off to reveal new, sharp layers beneath them.
If a cat hasn’t successfully gotten off an outer layer of a nail that needs to be shed through the process of scratching, kneading, or through daily use, a cat may take to chewing or pulling with it’s teeth to expose the new, sharp finger or toenail inner layer. As Kate Hughes for PetMD puts it: “If a cat’s nail starts to break or shed, it’s not uncommon for the cat to chew off the hanging piece to stop it from catching on things.”
It isn’t the ideal way to get an outer layer off, scratching is, so you can help your cat out by adding a slew of scratch-able objects wherever your cat spends time in your house. It’s also ideal to have a variety of different types of scratching surfaces, as well as posts at different angles, in particular, if your cat doesn’t like using the ones he or she’s got. Some cats prefer using horizontal surfaces, others vertical, and others yet in between, at around a 45 degree angle.
The best way to do this on a budget? Try cardboard cat scratchers if your cat likes to scratch up horizontal surfaces, and small cat trees if your kitty prefers to claw up vertical ones. Think your cat may like a bit of both? Grab one of each – or one inexpensive medium sized cat tree, as a lot of cat trees combine both horizontal carpeting that can be scratched with vertical sisal scratch posts for kitties to get their claws into.
Hate the look of cat “stuff” everywhere? There are plenty of human “things” cats would be happy to scratch up if you let them. Check out this article on scratching post alternatives for some ideas.
The more a cat scratches the more chance these layers have of falling off through the scratching process, thus the more you remind your cat to scratch by keeping scratchable objects in the vicinity, the better. That being said, when a cat tries to pull off an outer layer of a nail with it’s teeth, this doesn’t typically hurt a cat, and it rarely seems to lead to problems like bleeding. It’s only when the nail biting is excessive or aggressive that it becomes problematic.
Abnormal Feline Nail Biting: When Chewing on Paws Is Problematic
Feline nail biting may be perfectly natural and normal behaviour most of the time, but that doesn’t mean that certain types of claw pulling and biting aren’t problematic. If your cat is aggressive or bites at his or her nails excessively, it may be a symptom of another issue.
Come across this article knowing full well your cat gently nibbling on his or her feet is fine? Noticed that lately your cat seems to be pulling at his or her nails in a way not typical to his or her average grooming session? Good on you for noticing the change. Let’s get into a few different signs you may want to look out for if you’re not currently in this situation, however:
Signs Your Cat’s Nail Pulling Could Be Problematic
A few indicators your cat’s nail biting could be abnormal include:
- Biting quite frequently, more than usual for the particular cat, and/or compared to other cats.
- Biting to the point where your cat begins to bleed.
- Biting to the point of a lesser physical injury, such as redness, hair loss, or raw skin.
- Excessive and/or aggressive biting coupled with other symptoms/changes in behaviour.
If you believe your cat’s nail biting is potentially abnormal, speak to your vet about the behaviour, including details about:
- How often you’ve noticed your cat bites his or her nails.
- If your cat bites his or her nails more frequently at specific points of the day (after eating, for instance).
- If you’ve noticed any other unusual behaviour, like a loss of appetite or excessive licking & over-grooming (i.e. barbering) in general.
- Any changes you can think of to your cat’s diet or environment.
If the claw pulling behaviour is abnormal, it’s likely down to a medical or psychological issue. There is one other option, let’s start there, then get into the other two.
Physical Injury Can Sometimes Cause Abnormal Claw Pulling, but…
While physical injury is sometimes the culprit when it comes to abnormal nail pulling, it’s also true that cats who excessively chew or pull at their nails can cause themselves physical injury. What this means is the physical injury could be either the symptom or the cause of the abnormal claw pulling behaviour.
Which came first: the physical injury or the abnormal nail chomping? There may be no way to know for sure. Thus, while you should absolutely scan your cat’s paws for injury, you should still double check to make sure the cause is not either a medical or psychological issue that led the physical injury to be there in the first place.
Medical Issues That Sometimes Cause Abnormal Claw Pulling in Cats
CPC Cares has a great shortlist on medical issues that can cause chronic nail chewing:
- Brittle and thick nails, most often seen in older cats
Kate Huges for Pet MD sheds some light on the way infections in particular can result in felines excessively chewing on paws:
Bacterial or yeast infections may cause a cat to pick at his paws, and, by extension, his nails. These infections can be difficult to prevent, especially in animals who are genetically prone to them. […] Infections can also be the result of contact with chemicals that have an irritating affect on the paws. […] Additionally, if an owner cuts a cat’s nails too short, it may lead to infections because the blood vessels in the claws are no longer protected.
Whether or not your cat has a medical issue – from parasites to infections – can only be determined by your vet.
Already taken kitty to the vet’s office? Fluffy have a clean bill of health? Time to take a look at our last option: stress & anxiety.
The Psychological Issue That Can Cause Felines to Nail Chew Excessively: Anxiety
There are quite a lot of things out there that can stress out a cat. Typically, kitties like one heck of a lot of routine, disdaining nearly any change that’s big enough to disrupt their daily schedule. Small things from construction being done in a neighbouring apartment or house, to large things like the introduction of a new cat to the household, can really shake up a cat psychologically and make him or her stressed and anxious. There are plenty of things you can do if you get to the point where stress and anxiety are the only answers left to explain excessive and/or aggressive nail biting in your cat.
The first step? Trying to identify any changes that may have occurred around the time the abnormal claw pulling began. Did you move houses? Change your cat’s food? Did your indoor cat begin to see neighbouring cats visit more and more often at the window?
If you can think of one or two changes that may have triggered the anxiety, try alleviating the anxiety as much as possible by countering the change. Keep your cat confined to one, safe room in the house with everything he or she wants and needs, until your cat gets used to that small space, then slowly and steadily re-introduce your cat to the rest of the house when he or she is ready. Put your cat back on the old food, slowly and steadily introducing the new food with an increasing percentage added of the new food each day. Start with 5% of the meal being the new food, then 10, then 15.. until finally you’ve transitioned completely in a way your cat is not stressed over. Cat stressed over neighbourhood visitors? Try to remove the visual stimulus by closing the curtains, or finding a way to keep the neighbourhood cats away from your window completely. Whatever you can do to relieve the particular stressor should help your cat’s anxiety levels considerably.
Other things you can do in general to reduce stress and anxiety include keeping as regular a daily routine as possible when it comes to your cat. Feed your cat at different times each day, or don’t always play with your cat at the same time? This may be causing your cat stress. One way to find out is by keeping a daily routine for a few days to a week to see if it helps your cat keep his or her cool a lot better and reduces the stress biting.
Try to keep as much as you can about your cat’s environment the same for as long as possible. Then try keeping an eye out for when your cat typically begins to nail chew – this may be the perfect clue as to what’s stressing your cat out. If you discover a potential stressor – like a lack of happiness using the litter box or something that has to do with food time since your cat starts nail biting after these experiences – try testing out a few different changes (slowly, and one at a time) to see if any fixes ends up being a solution to the anxiety. Can’t think of what to test and try in terms of changes that could make your cat less stressed? Leave me a comment down below and I’ll do my best to brainstorm with you!
Your Thoughts on Nail Pulling in Cats?
Have you ever seen a cat bite, chew, or pull on his or her nails while grooming? Have you ever seen a cat do this in a way that’s abnormal, aggressive and/or excessive?
Do you have any advice for cat owners who have kitties who bite their nails in an abnormal way?
Please leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments down below; you could really be helping another pet parent out considerably!