Why Do Cats Have Retractable Claws?

As if cats weren’t wonderful and mystical enough, their bodies are marvelous machines of natural engineering. Their retractable claws are one tiny part of their makeup but they have an important purpose in their survival as a species. Usually numbering 18, cats’ claws are remarkably versatile allowing them to roam in many different types of landscapes.

In Peacetime

Of course, claws are there to help animals perform a variety of tasks including defense, eating, foraging, running, and climbing. So if claws are obviously necessary, what’s the point of having them retract?

Cats are unique with their retractable claws – almost all felines have them and outside of the Felidae family, some animals in only one other species are known to have them. If you can imagine how mischievous and curious your cat is, then you might understand the need to retractable claws. Cats tend to get themselves stuck in messy situations and if they didn’t have retractable claws, they would get stuck more often! Retractable claws prevent them from getting caught on things. You’ve seen it happen – your cat is reaching for you and ends up ensnared in your sweater or shirt. Imagine a cat in the wild, getting caught on vines or trees – it would be easy prey.

Since cats don’t always need their claws, they have the protective sheath which helps to prevent damage or blunting. Sharp claws aren’t necessary for a housecat but to a lion they are intrinsic to a long lifespan. Cheetahs who have semi-retractable claws suffer from this blunting of the claw. Because cheetahs are always on the run their claws are never fully sheathed. Consequently, their claws become reduced to nubs with the constant wear and tear.


Kittens learn important skills as part of their playtime. They will wrestle with their littermates or prowl around their surroundings looking for the next interesting thing that moves even slightly. When littermates play with each other it’s important that they don’t hurt each other in the process of learning their lessons in survival. You may have also noticed this when your cat plays with you. He will swat you but he won’t scratch you unless it is inadvertent. Cats know how to have fun and they know who to have fun with. They are aware of their enemies and their friends and they know when to unsheathe those claws.

Please Don’t Declaw Your Cat!

If you find Kitty is scratching up the furniture and not retracting those claws enough, there are multiple alternatives to mutilating his paws. You can buy all sorts of products to apply to areas where he likes to scratch. There are claw covers which sort of act like acrylics – they fit neatly over the claw and you glue them in place. These claw covers should not interfere with your cat’s movements. If you’ve got a compliant kitty, you can try to clip the tips of his nails taking care to stay a couple of millimeters away from the quick.

You can buy toys and cat towers to try to take their attention away from your furniture. Cats have very good control over their claws but they often feel the need to scratch up your stuff either from boredom, stress, or an innate desire to mark their territory. Scratching or kneading the furniture is how they calm themselves. Eliminating the underlying need for scratching will possibly make them more likely to retract their claws.

By Gabrielle Allemeier


Vet Street: What’s the Deal With…Retractable Claws?
Life With CH Cats: 8 Fun Facts About Cats’ Claws

About the Author
Gabrielle Allemeier volunteers her free time as an animal rescuer and foster pet parent. As an animal lover, she enjoys sharing the knowledge she has gained from her experience with a variety of animals. Along with being an animal lover, Gabrielle is a globetrotter. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her terrier, Thisbe.