By Kate Hughes
For people, nail biting is a nervous habit that must be conquered. For cats, it’s a pretty normal grooming behavior. “Up to a certain level, it is a normal part of feline grooming routines,” explains Dr. Carlo Siracusa, clinical assistant professor of behavior medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia.
While nearly all cats chew on their claws to a degree, owners should be cognizant of their cats’ grooming behaviors—if the chewing becomes excessive, it could be indicative of other issues.
Normal Nail Chewing and Maintenance
As Siracusa notes, some nail chewing is to be expected when cats groom. “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,” he says. “All of these can get stuck in the paw pads, so it is a necessary part of the cleaning process.” Additionally, 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.
Also, while it is normal, depending on the cat, an owner may not actually see this behavior take place. “Many cats like to retreat to a private and comfortable place when they’re cleaning themselves, so owners of those cats wouldn’t often see their cats grooming,” Siracusa says. “Of course, there are also cats that don’t care at all and will just sit in front of you and do whatever they have to do. Owners definitely know which type of cat they have.”
Siracusa adds that cats are usually pretty adept at keeping their nails maintained without a lot of chewing, if provided opportunities to scratch. “If a cat has a scratching post or a piece of carpet that she can claw at, she’ll be really good at doing her own nails,” he says. “I recommend having several types of scratching posts available, horizontal, vertical—as well as different materials—to keep the cat interested.”
It is when cats do not have the means to scratch and file down their own nails that problems may arise. Siracusa warns that sometimes nails can grow too long and cause lesions on paw pads or even difficulty walking. “However, a healthy cat, if given opportunities to scratch, will be able to have healthy nails without the need for constant biting and chewing,” he says.
Abnormal Nail Chewing and What Causes It
There are situations, however, when nail biting in cats falls into the “abnormal” category. This chewing behavior is excessive and obsessive, and very, very noticeable, according to Dr. Nicolas Dodman, a pet behavior expert, professor emeritus at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, and author of The Cat Who Cried for Help.
When it comes to abnormal chewing behavior, it usually comes down to one of two root causes: an injury or infection is causing the cat to pick at her paw, or the cat is suffering from anxiety.
“Like many of the people who compulsively chew their nails, excessive nail chewing behaviors in cats are often related to anxiety,” Dodman says. Anxiety in cats can have many different causes, such as animals in the house, a dislike of being alone, and challenges in the cat’s environment. “This could even be something as simple as a squirrel that likes to sit outside your window and taunt your cat,” Dodman says. “The cat becomes frustrated because he can’t do anything about it.”
To help lessen anxiety, he recommends that owners ensure that their cats have a reliable routine and are getting enough exercise. If these steps fail to improve a cat’s anxiety, owners can also try mood-stabilizing medications. “It may take a couple of months before you start to see improvement with medication, but it should help even out the cat’s anxiety and help him feel more calm,” Dodman explains.
Then there are infections and injuries. 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. “Some cats, like Persians, are just genetically predisposed to skin problems,” Siracusa notes. Infections can also be the result of contact with chemicals that have an irritating affect on the paws. “Those little soft pads are exposed to a lot,” he says. 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.
Know Your Cat
In and of itself, nail chewing in cats is not a cause for concern. If it is accompanied by an injury, or starts becoming much more frequent, then it’s time to take your cat to the vet. “You have to know your cat,” Dodman says. “When a new behavior manifests—especially an obsessive one—it is always a good idea to go to the vet for a checkup.”