Unlike dogs, whose claws are out all the time, cats only extend their claws when they are playing, fighting, or scratching. When they are done using them, they retract their claws, sheathing them like a sword into a scabbard.
When the claws won't retract, it is probably because they have gotten too long or too thick to fit back in the paw, says Margie Scherk, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia. Older cats are particularly likely to develop thicker nails, she adds. Even young cats can have fat, long claws, especially if they don't spend enough time grooming them by scratching trees or carpets.
Daily scratching by cats is essential for keeping their claws neat and short, but it requires a certain amount of work. If your cat has an underlying illness like arthritis, diabetes, or kidney disease, he may not be up to the job, says Dr. Scherk.
Cats with hyperthyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland is overactive, have the opposite problem. They have plenty of energy, but their claws will grow unusually fast -- too fast for these cats to keep them suitably short.
If your cat is able to sheath all but one of his claws, he could have an infection, a broken bone, or a tumor on that particular toe, says Grant Nisson, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in West River, Maryland. Each of these problems will probably be accompanied by pain and swelling, he adds.
It is rare, but occasionally cats will have trouble retracting their claws because of a nervous system disorder or feline leukemia, which can cause a loss of muscular control, says Dr. Nisson. They want to retract their claws, but the muscles simply won't respond. In addition, some cats, particularly the Burmese breed, may develop a potassium deficiency called hypokalemia, which also causes a loss of muscular control.
See Your Vet If...
- Only one claw won't retract
- Your cat is a Burmese
- Your cat is in his senior years
- The toe is swollen or tender
- Your pet has begun having trouble walking, getting up, or climbing stairs
- One or more legs is dragging
- He has a limp that doesn't go away
- One or more legs is in an awkward position
- There is swelling in the toes, feet, or legs
- Your pet can't get up
- Your pet is constantly licking or biting his feet
- The nails are broken, cracked, or bleeding
- There are cuts, blisters, growths, or burns on his paw pads
- Your pet is lame first in one leg and then another
- He has pain when jumping off a bed or changing position
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