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Why Do Cats Need Their Claws?

December 10, 2012

I once read that a cat’s claws could be considered the “Swiss Army knife of the feline toolbox.”

Photo courtesy AJC1

At first glance, that can seem like a bit of an overstatement. I also realize that this topic can be highly controversial in the cerebellar hypoplasia community. I’ve met folks who have tremendously different opinions: Folks who have no qualms with declawing their cats, and folks on the other end of the spectrum who believe it’s wrong to trim your cat’s nails.

No matter which camp you’re a member of, take a moment to brush up on how cats use their claws. It may help you better understand your cat’s behaviors and needs.

So why exactly do cats have claws and how do they use them? Here are four reasons:

Attacking Prey

Outdoor Cats: For cats who live or roam outdoors, claws are an essential tool when dealing with prey. Cats use their claws to hold down their prey (whether it’s a meal or a gift for you), while they deliver the fatal bite at the back of the prey’s neck. Without their claws, cats wouldn’t be able to catch or hold on to their prey, which (in extreme cases) could lead to starvation.

Indoor Cats: Hopefully your indoor cat won’t be catching a mouse any time soon, but that doesn’t mean that indoor cats don’t exhibit the same behavior. Watch your cat carefully the next time he’s playing with a toy. Have you ever seen a cat hold on to a toy and kick it with his back legs? This is essentially the same behavior. Sure your cat may be playing instead of hunting, but the basic instinct is the same. Indoor cats without claws may feel powerless when it comes to catching their “prey,” so it’s a good idea to let your cat catch and attack the toy now and then, instead of immediately pulling it away.


Photo courtesy ambienttraffic

Outdoor and indoor cats: Both indoor and outdoor cats use their claws to communicate, too. Clawing into a surface, like a tree, scratching post, or even your favorite chair, leaves messages for other cats. When the cat scratches a surface, it not only leaves a visual territorial mark, it also leaves an olfactory mark as the paw pads’ scent glands brush over the area.

That said, most of us don’t want our cats to scratch and leave “messages” around our home. Purchasing the proper scratching post and taking some time to encourage its use can definitely help.


Outdoor Cats: We’ve all seen a TV show or movie that shows a predator chasing a cat when suddenly the cat uses his claws to scale up a tree or fence to get to safety. Claws provide an additional option for mobility. Without claws, cat would only be able to walk or jump to other destinations, which can be limiting.

Indoor Cats: Here’s where some CH cat parents may get squeamish. Since some CH cats have trouble jumping, they often climb to get to get onto a couch, bed, or cat tree. However, some find this behavior destructive, and may discourage it. Yet without their claws, indoor cats – especially those with cerebellar hypoplasia – can be significantly unsteady.

Certainly cats with mild cases of CH may not miss their claws too much, but some owners will tell you that claws are  essential to their cat’s mobility. This doesn’t only include climbing onto furniture, but being able to grip onto carpet while walking or playing, and more.


Photo courtesy play4smee

Last, but not least, a cat’s claws are its main source of defense. From swatting at another cat to teach him to stay out of his territory, to disciplining the family dog, to smacking us when we’ve upset them – claws can convey a powerful message.

Without claws, cats can feel powerless in situations. They can certainly bite, but having four paws’ worth of claws in their arsenal is certainly the better deal. Some claim that cats who have their claws removed may develop behavioral issues, like biting, to compensate for their lack of claws.

In the end, it’s up to each one of us to decide what’s best for our cat and family. However, I firmly believe that cats were born with claws for a reason. That said, there are certainly things we can do to make sure that claws aren’t an issue in our everyday lives.

Does your CH cat have claws? How does he use them? Have you done anything around your home to encourage or discourage claw-related behaviors? Please share in the comments!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2012 8:16 am

    My CH cat has her claws. She would have no way to get up on furniture or climb the stairs without them.

  2. December 19, 2012 1:51 pm

    Claws are essential to CH cats!!!! My cat, John Philip Sousa, has severe CH. He needs his claws to stabilize himself even when walking on carpet. Despite the fact that they can become needle-like sharp, his claws are life changing to him. Thankfully, I am able to regularly trim them.

  3. Krispy permalink
    February 24, 2013 7:21 pm

    Do you still have a news letter? I may be adopting a special needs kitty.

  4. April permalink
    March 7, 2018 9:36 am

    I just adopted a kitty with CH a little over 2 weeks ago. I work with a local rescue and have been learning about CH for the past few months thanks to this litter of kittens, so we were pretty well prepared before adopting. My little girl Tippi had her spay surgery last week and hasn’t really used the cat tree since then. She was all over it before the surgery! She loved sitting on one of the shelves and watching the fish tank, but hasn’t climbed it since the surgery. We figured she was a little loopy and more unstable thanks to lingering anesthesia and pain meds, but last night I noticed something…. While she was under, they trimmed all her nails down low! No wonder she hasn’t been able to climb! With her moderate CH she relies heavily on her nails to climb up on the couch and up the cat tree. I’m going to let the other adopter (who has her brother) as well as the foster who still has the last kitten know that they trimmed nails during the surgery to allow them to be informed before both of their surgery appointments this week. Her nails will grow back, so it’s not that big of a deal in the long run, but I’m just annoyed at the vet/vet tech for their lack of knowledge. Just one more reason I’m not happy with that vet office, but it’s who the rescue goes through, so I’ll just suck it up for now and find a vet with CH experience through my preferred vets office.

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