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The Hidden Meaning Behind Your Cat’s Nail-Biting Habit

When humans bite their nails, it’s usually dismissed as a nervous tick or a bad habit. At worst, it is thought of as impolite or unhygienic. Why do cats bite their nails? While it’s generally considered normal, it can sometimes cause concern for reasons we’ll discuss below.

Grooming your cat is quite the process, thankfully, they take on most of the task. Why do cats bite their toes? It’s just part of the grooming process on most occasions – who doesn’t love a good pedicure?  Excessive biting can be a sign of an underlying problem, though. It could be a behavioral issue brought on by stress or anxiety.

It could also be a medical issue, which may require a visit to your vet. Either way, you’ll want to monitor such behavior, as it may lead to more significant problems if ignored.

Read on to find out why cats bite their nails and when you should be concerned. 

grey cat with paw up

Contents

Why Do Cats Bite Their Nails?

Cats Biting Nails and Toes Is Normal (Usually)

Cats love to groom. Part of that process is cleaning their paws and getting “between the toes”, as it were. Cats will chew and bite claws and toes to eliminate unwanted debris and detritus, like litter or sand. This is especially noticeable in cats that enjoy the outdoors.

white cat's claws up close

Cat claws also have a specific layered structure. This means that the nail’s outer layer tends to wear and fray. Cats sometimes chew their claws to help remove their nails’ outer layer. Underneath, a fresh new layer awaits with added sharpness and shine.

The biting works in tandem with other methods. Your cat may use scratching posts, outdoor tree bark, or your favorite sofa for scratching to wear down or sharpen their nails. In general, cats like to keep them sharp, keep them clean, and keep them at healthy lengths.   

It’s always a good idea to provide your cat with a suitable scratching post to help them keep their nails in tip top condition!

ginger cat claws up close

When Should You Be Concerned?

It’s worth noting that you may not always notice when your cat is chewing. Your cat isn’t in view 100% of the time. And some cats like a bit of privacy when cleaning.

But if your otherwise healthy cat does not have proper facilities to claw, it may resort to excessive chewing. This is an easy problem to fix – try a high-quality scratching post or a horizontal scratching board (different strokes for different cats).

black and white cat and white scratching post

Beyond this easy fix, there are situations where nail-biting is abnormal. It may be a sign of one or more ailments that need more urgent addressing. Excessive nail biting is usually ascribed to either a medical or a behavioral problem. So let’s look at a few common issues and possible remedies.

Medical Reasons – Why Do Cats Chew Their Nails?

As with any person or animal, medical issues come in various forms. It’s best to let a vet advise on the best course of action with any medical issue. But it is worth knowing the possibilities.

Veterinarian listening to cat's heart
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From infections to pre-existing conditions, your cat may be suffering from one of the below:

1. Pemphigus

Pemphigus is an autoimmune disease that affects a cat’s skin. It is classified into five different subtypes. Pemphigus foliaceus is the type most commonly associated with cats.

It manifests as irritation in sensitive areas like the face (eyelids, nostrils, ears), genital area, and yes, the paws. Lesions appear on the beds of the toenails, forming painful crusty areas. The cat will attempt to lick or clear these, resulting in excessive claw attention.

ginger cat with green eyes and tongue out up close

2. Ringworm

Feline dermatophytosis is a relatively common skin disorder. Despite its common name, it’s got nothing to do with worms. It’s a fungal infection picked up from the environment or other animals. In many cases, the fungi are disposed of through routine grooming.

But when the fungus takes hold, it will affect hair and nails – substances rich in keratin. The fungus may also infect and inflame the skin. Untreated ringworm causes hair loss, scales, infected claws, and nails,  which results in excessive grooming.

It should also be noted that humans can catch ringworm from cats through broken skin. If you notice any changes in your cat’s health or behavior, it’s best to contact your veterinarian.

silver siberian cats grooming each other

3. Other Infections

Cats may also suffer bacterial or fungal infections affecting their nails and paws. Many can be triggered unexpectedly, so you might wonder, “why does my cat bite his nails?”. Some breeds are also genetically predisposed to certain conditions – Persian cats, for example, are susceptible to a number of disorders such as haircoat disorders, dental diseases, overgrown nails and eye discharge (source).

Cats may also react to chemicals or detergents used on home surfaces. So always be sure to keep household chemicals out of your kitty’s reach!

white-persian-cat on side lying on ground

4. Nail Problems in Older Cats

Elderly kitties can require a lot of special attention, like extra grooming and cat food for old cats. Older cats may suffer a hormonal imbalance that results in nails that are too thick or too brittle. They can suffer from a variety of age-associated conditions, such as cognitive decline and tumors.

As your cat ages, you might find yourself asking, “why does my cat bite her nails?”. In all cases, seek the advice of a vet. Many issues can be managed, especially if detected early.

grey cat eating woman's fingers

Behavioral Problems – Why Do Cats Bite Nails?

Why is my cat biting his nails? Stress or anxiety can also be the sources of many behavioral issues. Sometimes abject boredom or even loneliness is to blame. Contrary to popular belief, mental conditions are not solely human experiences. Cats can develop depression and other mental illnesses.

Aside from over-grooming, you might also see symptoms like hair loss (or, more accurately, hair-pulling) and a compulsive eating disorder, pica. Sufferers of pica (human and feline) compulsively eat non-foods like material, paper, cardboard, etc.

grey and white kitten having claws cut

Is your cat suddenly quiet or more vocal? Has it stopped eating, or does it run and hide when it didn’t before? Sometimes these other behaviors may indicate something is wrong.

In most cases, one or more of the following actions may help to alleviate the situation.

Read more about How to get your cat to eat.

1. Reduce Stress

Cats tend to find solace in safe spaces. One of the first things you can provide is a high perch or a cat carrier that’s isolated and free from any stressor. You may also think about acquiring a pheromone diffuser to help calm a stressed feline.

Ginger cat upside down on a scratching tree why do cats chase their tails
Amazing where you can end up when you chase your tail

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⇒ Getting a new kitty? Check out my guide to How to Look after a Kitten, Best Kitten Wet Food Options and Best Kitten Dry Food Options

2. Monitor the Interaction Between Cats

If another cat may be causing anxiety or aggression, you may have to re-introduce them. Combative cats also struggle over shared resources. Try multiple food bowls and litter trays. Cats are susceptible to each others’ smells around objects.

⇒Read more about Smells cats hate

3 ginger american bobtail cats
american bobtail cats

3. Provide Stimulation

A bored cat is a cat that may develop behavioral issues. This is more prevalent in cats that remain indoors. In this case, you should try to provide a home environment that simulates the outdoor environment as much as possible.

High surfaces to climb and walk, cat trees, toys, and even hideaways and closed cat boxes will work here.

cute kitten playing with colourful toy

Playtime is also going to be more important to emphasize. Make sure you offer enough high-energy play with your cat, also to burn off that extra energy. Be sure to reward appropriate play, though, or your cat may attack you playfully at unexpected times.

4. Maintain a Strong Routine

It sounds a little out there, but developing and sticking to a routine is as beneficial to a cat as it is to you. Start a regimen whereby you feed your cat simultaneously every day. Play with your cat simultaneously every day and for a set amount of time(s), and schedule a short grooming session every day if possible.

Grey tabby plays with plush mouse

5. Consult a Vet About Medication

In extreme cases, ask your vet about medication. A TCA (Tricyclic antidepressant) or SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) may work as well for a cat as it does for a human.

Cats are surprisingly vulnerable to anxiety, especially when there’s a change in the environment.

Unrecognizable veterinarian cleaning ears of a cat with cotton buds why do cats bite their nails

Anxious cats can be problematic to themselves and others in the home, so it’s best to be safe rather than sorry.

Final Thoughts on Why Do Cats Bite Their Nails

There you have it. Cats biting claws isn’t unusual. But occasionally, a cat may exhibit excessive biting that needs your attention and remedy.

Hopefully, one of the fixes I’ve suggested above helps. As always, when in doubt, consult your vet. At the very least, it will reduce your anxious nail-biting over the issue.

black and white cat growling
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