Nail Biting in Cats-Cat Chewing and Biting Claws

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Nail biting and claw chewing in cats

Have you ever watched your cat chew and claw at his nails and wondered if this is normal or not? The answer isn’t a short yes or now, it depends on the context. There are three reasons for nail-biting and chewing in cats.

  • Normal grooming
  • Medical
  • Behavioural

Normal grooming:

Chewing and biting the claws is a part of normal grooming. Like an onion, the claws are made up of several layers which grow from the inside out. Over time the outer layer becomes worn and frayed,  and the cat will chew and bite at the claw during grooming to remove the outer layer to reveal a sharp claw underneath.

Most cases of nail-biting in cats are normal and require no treatment.

Behavioural:

Some cats can go on to develop behavioural issues that can manifest by chewing the claws excessively which is similar to nail biting in humans and there can be a fine line between what’s normal and what is excessive claw chewing.

Any compulsive behaviour acts as a self-soothing mechanism when your cat is feeling stressed, anxious, bored or lonely. It can take on many different forms such as over-grooming, hair pulling, wool sucking and pica (both seen more often in Siamese than other breeds).

Medical:

A number of medical causes can lead to chronic nail biting and chewing including:

  • Ringworm
  • Infection
  • Pemphigus
  • Brittle and thick nails, most often seen in older cats

Get a checkup:

Image courtesy Jaroen, Flickr

If you are concerned about nail chewing and biting, notice any damage to toes and nails such as redness, raw skin, bleeding, hair loss of scabs, speak to your veterinarian.

They will be able to examine the cat and determine if the behaviour is normal, medical or behavioural.

Behavioural: 

Resolving compulsive behaviour will only succeed if you find and address the underlying cause.

  • Is this the only behaviour your cat is exhibiting or have you noticed other changes in behaviour such as excessive vocalisation, loss of appetite, hiding, aggression, overgrooming or going to the toilet outside the litter tray?
  • Is he damaging the claws from excessive nail biting? If he is self-harming, then this will need to be treated. If he is having a chew, but it is causing him no problems, then it may be recommended that you just leave him be.

Try to establish a cause is essential in treating these kinds of behaviours. Questions to think about include:

  • Has your cat always bitten and chewed his nails?
  • Does this appear to be a part of his grooming ritual?
  • Is there any conflict in the home (between cats)?
  • Have there been any major changes, new baby, pet, partner moved in or left home renovations?
  • Any changes to the cat’s routine such as a caregiver returning to work?
  • Has he lost a family member, another cat, person moved out?
  • Has a family member, another cat or person moved in?
  • Pay careful attention to when your cat chews his claws, is there a routine, what happened just prior to the behaviour?

How to help:

Getting to the bottom of the cause can help you to develop a strategy to assist your cat which typically requires a multimodal approach such as providing routine, addressing inter-cat conflict, reducing stress and enriching the environment.

Keep a routine:

Cats need routine, try to make your cat’s home life as predictable as possible.

  • Feed the cat at the same time every day.
  • Set aside a time during the day to play with him, the best time for this is prior to his nighttime dinner, play, feed and then sleep.

Reduce stress:

Address the root cause of stress where possible.

  • Feliway diffusers may help, they release feel-good cat pheromones which can help your cat feel calm.
  • Your cat should have a safe place to go to when feeling stressed. This can be a high perch where dogs or children can’t get to the cat, an outdoor enclosure to or even an enclosed cat bed or carrier. Teach children when the cat is on or in a safe place, to leave him alone.

Inter-cat issues:

  • Restore harmony in the home with inter-cat aggression. This may involve separating fighting cats and then slowly re-introduce them.
  • Desex entire cats can reduce territorial aggression.
  • Cats don’t like to share resources, provide multiple food and water bowls as well as litter trays. There should be one tray per cat, plus one extra.

Provide mental stimulation:

If your cat is an indoor cat, make sure you provide him with plenty of stimulation, particularly if you are out of the house for long periods of time.

  • Schedule time every day to play with your cat.
  • Enrich the environment by providing vertical surfaces (such as cat trees or shelving) for your cat to utilise.
  • Provide interactive toys to play with to relieve boredom. These can be as simple as a box or paper bag to play in and toys and puzzles stuffed with cat treats.
  • If space and finances permit, build a cat enclosure so your cat can enjoy the outdoors in safety.

Medication:

In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend anti-anxiety medications to help your cat, these can be used in conjunction with behaviour modification. There are two types of medication which can be used to treat OCD behaviour in cats SSRI’s and TCA’s.

  • SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) – Fluoxetine (Reconcile® or Prozac®), paroxetine (Paxil®) and sertraline (Zoloft®)
  • TCA (Tricyclic antidepressants) – Amitriptyline (Elavil, Endep® or Tryptanol), clomipramine (Anafranil® or Clomicalm®), doxepin (Aponal®), imipramine (Antideprin or Deprenil), desipramine (Norpramin® or Pertofrane) and nortriptyline (Sensoval).

Footnote:

Below is a clip of Monty chewing his claws during a recent grooming session.

Ultimately, if a medical cause is ruled out, and the cat is not causing trauma to the claws, is up to you to decide if you want to stop this behaviour.

I will finish with a story of my own cat, Eliot (named after the poet). She didn’t chew her claws but she did suck her own nipple.  This behaviour only seemed to occur when she was happy, she’d come and snuggle up with me, I would stroke her and she would suck her nipple as she dozed off to sleep. I likened it to a baby having a dummy, or thumb sucking.

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