Cat Claw Disorders

In humans, the health of our nails is an important indicator of our overall health. Most people do not think of their nails as anything more than a cosmetic area of our bodies that have no function beyond appearance. However, the color, shape and strength of our nails tells us important things about our immune system and any underlying health issues we may have. The same is also true for our cat's nails.

Claw Disorders in Cats

Generally, an injury or disorder to one claw signals a problem with that one area, while any condition which is apparent in more than one nail may be signaling an underlying medical condition that affects the cat’s overall health and needs medical attention. Some of the more common disorders include:

  1. Nail bed infection – can be bacterial or fungal.
    • Fungal infections (such as Onychomycosis) are usually caused by dermatophytes (a microorganism that can cause disease) that grows on the skin, fur, nails or feathers in animals, which can cause swelling and pain around the infected nail. A fungal infection generally takes several weeks to grow and manifest itself with symptoms. This type of infection will turn your cat’s claws brittle or may even cause them to become deformed.
    • Bacterial nail infections which generally occur within 3 to 5 days following a nail injury, are the result of bacteria (such as paronychia) which has begun to grow around the injured area.
  2. Torn nails – is most often the result of a cat trying to maneuver itself out of an area where it has become stuck. A torn nail is painful and will usually cause a young cat to whine until the pain subsides, while an older cat may be less likely to show signs it is injured.
  3. Cat Nail Bleeding – generally the result of an injury or some debris that has become lodged near the nail. Removing the debris should relieve the condition. Try to stop the bleeding first if possible; corn flour can be used.
  4. Brittle nails – (Onychorrhexis which results from exposure to too much moisture or water) or nails which split or peel excessively (Onychomadesis) – which is a shedding of the nail that happens too often. Either condition should be checked by a veterinarian.
  5. Nail biting – is not uncommon in cats while they are grooming, done to remove the outer casing of the nail sheath from the claw. Providing a scratching post for shortening the nails will help reduce this behavior, while helping to keep the nails at a shorter length and removing the outer sheath when it is ready. Excessive nail biting is cause for concern.

If any of the above conditions exist and are not treated, they can result in further damage to the nail and possible swelling and infection of the surrounding areas.

Signs and Symptoms

Most pet owners know their pets well, and know when a certain behavior is unusual or when their pet is uncomfortable. A common sign that your cat may be experiencing a problem is difficulty walking or no longer jumping up on furniture or down to the floor, which indicates your cat has a painful paw. A broken or torn nail will be painful, so normal activities and movements will be diminished. Being familiar with your cat’s daily habits and routines makes it easy to spot abnormal behavior.
Another symptom of a cat with a paw problem is excessive licking at a paw beyond the normal routine of cleaning it. Cats also use their paws to groom their heads and ears, so if you notice a refusal to do so, or a great reduction in the time your cat spends grooming those areas; this may signal there is a problem with their paw which makes it too painful to continue using it. A fungal infection may not manifest itself visually until it has grown for several weeks, so a cat with a tender paw may still need medical attention. It is always a good idea to talk to a veterinarian if you are unsure.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you discover a damaged claw, inspect the surrounding area to make sure it is not swollen, red or bleeding. Also make sure only one claw is infected. If you see more than one claw with a problem, it is likely there is an underlying medical condition that will need professional care and possibly medications to treat it effectively. An infected swollen paw may have a fungal or bacterial infection and need to be drained, treated with antibiotics or have a nail removed to reduce the pain and discomfort and help the paw heal properly.

Preventing Paw Problems

Although we can’t spend every moment following our cats around to make sure they don’t get into mischief or hurt themselves on a playful adventure, there are some things we can do to help prevent injuries to your cat’s claws:

  • Check your cat’s nails regularly for any damage, splitting, discoloration or deformity. When monitored regularly, you will be able to notice a change or problem in its early stages, making treatment easier while also helping to reduce any long term damage or further problems.
  • When grooming your cat’s claws, make sure not to cut them too short, which could damage or expose the quick to bacteria, or cause the nail to bleed, risking further complications or even infection.
  • Check your cat’s paws for debris whenever it has returned from outdoors, to make sure even a small object does not become lodged deeper into the paw or paw pad, causing further damage and making it more prone to infection and disease.

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