Cats do a lot to groom themselves and keep themselves tidy. Their adorable brush-like tongues comb through their fur, their curved claws scratch those hard-to-reach itches all over their bodies, and their teeth nibble at mats, things caught in fur, and anything else that needs a little bit of picking at.
Nail biting and chewing are just part of this routine. It happens when your fur baby uses their teeth to catch and pull at their nails, often while they're busy licking at their paws and cleaning in between their toes. Gotta keep those beans clean!
So why does this come across as a cause for concern? Two reasons, basically.
The first is that from a sheer physical perspective, it just seems so violent! Your fur baby is picking at, pulling, chewing, and biting their claws, and those tugs can be loud when they pop. How can something that looks and sounds like that not be painful or dangerous?
The second is the human condition. We people don't generally chew or bite our nails, particularly not as part of self-care and grooming.
But we do perform nail care, from clipping them to cleaning under and around them to full-on manicures. Cats just don't have access to any of those things, at least not of their own volition. They make do with what they have.
Why Cats Bite Their Nails
So why do cats bite and pull at their nails? There are a bunch of possible reasons.
The biggest reason is plain old grooming. Cat claws are pretty much constantly in contact with some kind of surface, and even indoors, there's a good chance there's dirt and debris around that they get into. As their claws wear down, they can crack and split, and dirt can get into them. It's a lot like when you have dirt or grime under your own nails; you want to clean it out, right? And you might use the little tools designed for the purpose – just called nail cleaners – but your fur baby can't do that. Not only do they not have tools or thumbs to use them, but their claws are shaped differently.
So, there's a decent chance your fur baby has dirt in their nails, and they just want to clean them out. Normally, licking will do the job well enough, but for stubborn dirt or little bits of debris stuck to their claws, they might need to use a bit more force.
Beyond just cleaning, it's also important to know how cat nails work in the first place.
For us, when our nails grow, they push outwards from the cuticle. It's a lot like hair in a way, in that it grows from the root, though, of course, our nails don't periodically fall out and start over the way hair does.
Cat claws kind of do the same thing, but they don't grow from the toe outwards, but from the quick outwards. It's a lot like rings in a tree: newer layers of claw growing up from the middle of the nail, hardening as they grow further out, and becoming the sharp, tough shell our fur babies use to scratch and scrape and climb.
Well, as new layers grow up in the middle, older layers on the outside need to be shed. Cats scratching at furniture, trees, scratching posts, doorframes, and other objects both mark their territory and shed those outer layers of claw. This is also why, when your cat is biting their nails, sometimes you find fragments of nails left behind when they're done. This is especially common if part of the nail chips away or breaks, leaving a rough hangnail that bothers them.
This isn't "ripping out their nails"; it's just the feline equivalent of giving their nails a trim. The whole process is like a fuzzy little manicure.
It's also possible that, while it looks like your fur baby is biting their nails, that's not actually the case. They might be chewing at the area between their toes or even using their claws to pick at something caught in their teeth. Regardless, though, it's all going back to one thing: grooming. It's perfectly natural and fine to let it happen.
When is Nail Chewing Abnormal?
Like everything else in this world, moderation is key. Most of the time, if your cat is chewing and biting their nails, it's perfectly fine. In fact, the fact that they're even willing to do their grooming in front of you is a show of trust; some cats prefer to hide away in a comfortable spot to do that grooming, and you might never see it.
Sometimes, though, nail biting can get excessive and cause problems or be a sign of other problems. What are those other problems? What can cause excess nail biting?
A toe or nail injury is one of the most common reasons why your cat might be excessively biting or chewing at their nails. A broken claw, for example, is a common cause. If a claw breaks, it can be sensitive and even painful, and licking, biting, and chewing can be a soothing behavior to alleviate or control that pain. It's also a way to keep a broken nail clean to help avoid infection, though, of course, our fur babies don't have the cleanest mouths, and it's still not exactly sterile.
Similarly, toe injuries like cuts, scrapes, or punctures can be painful and irritating, and they may be chewing and licking at their feet to try to soothe those injuries. If you notice your fur baby is chewing their nails but they're also bleeding, that can be a sign that something is wrong.
A related issue is if you or a groomer were trying to trim their nails and did it wrong. Too short nails can expose the sensitive inner core of the nail itself, including the quick, which leads to bleeding, pain (because of the nerve in the nail), and irritation. Your fur baby will probably lick and chew at them to make them feel better and ease that pain.
The opposite issue – nails that grow too long – can lead to the same sort of behavior. Usually, your cat will have ways to keep their nails shorter, usually through scratching things like wooden surfaces like they might find on furniture and doorframes or floors. If they can't do that, they might turn to chewing as a way to help shed a layer or three of nail to make it more comfortable to walk. Overgrown and ingrown nails are a problem with cats that are passively neglected and aren't capable of caring for their own nails.
Along the same lines, an infection can lead to excessive chewing and licking. Infections are irritating and painful, and they cause swelling, and all of this is something your fur baby wants to deal with but doesn't have the tools to handle. Until our feline friends invent their own version of modern pharmaceuticals, they'll just have to be content with licking and picking until we notice and bring them to a vet for a checkup.
Finally, there's a whole category of mental and cognitive issues that can lead to nail biting and picking. This is actually a lot like how it occurs in humans; nail biting is a stimulating activity that can occupy the mind and soothe the body despite being broadly detrimental if it's done in excess. Things that can cause it include:
Boredom. Cats that have nothing to do, no one to play with, and no trouble to get into are going to need some source of stimulation, and nail biting may be one that they turn to. This can be especially reinforced if, when you notice it, you give them attention; it teaches them that they can get attention from nail biting.
Anxiety. All sorts of negative and compulsive behaviors can crop up in our beloved fur babies when some major life change happens, including moving houses (or just a major rearranging of the furniture), an injury or illness, the loss of a partner animal or a roommate; just about any major change, really. Cats are creatures of habit, and when those habits are disturbed, they can resort to more primal and less comfortable behaviors, including nail biting.
Stress and frustration. An example from Dr. Nicolas Dodman is that something as simple as a squirrel or bird that likes to sit outside your window and taunt your cat can be a source of frustration; it's right there, priming their hunting instincts, but they can't do anything about it. That frustration needs to be let out somehow, and nail biting can be one way they get that stress relief.
With all that in mind, then, you have two more questions: how can you tell when nail biting is abnormal, and how can you stop it?
Is My Cat's Nail Biting Bad?
Truthfully, most of the time, you'll be able to tell if your cat is biting their nails to an excessive degree. You might notice that it's particularly violent or happens seemingly constantly and that their nails are short, bleeding, broken, or otherwise damaged.
If you're concerned, you can schedule a vet trip, but this is definitely not emergency vet territory unless there are signs of an injury or infection. If your fur baby's toes are swollen, leaking pus, or bleeding, then you will want a more urgent vet trip.
How to Minimize Cat Nail Biting
First of all, if you think your cat is biting their nails excessively, consult with your vet. They can advise you as to whether or not it's likely to be a medical issue that could require medication to treat, like an injury or an infection.
Secondly, if your cat is biting their nails but it's not excessive or compulsive, it's generally not a problem. Normal nail biting is just part of grooming, and you shouldn't try to stop it any more than you'd want to stop them from licking their fur.
If they have excessive nail biting, and it's not caused by an infection or injury, you have a few options.
First, find ways to alleviate their stress. Small amounts of aromatherapy, making sure they have a safe space they can go to hide where they won't be bothered, and establishing a routine are all helpful here.
Most importantly, make sure they have things they can scratch. I know you don't want them scratching the walls or the furniture, but they are going to scratch something; it's just a matter of what. Provide them with scratching surfaces that you allow and encourage them to scratch.
Ideally, you want to have several different kinds of surfaces so they can care for their nails in different ways. A good trio would be a wooden post they can scratch, a sisal post, and one of those disposable cardboard pads they can go to town on. All three of these serve different purposes and suit different needs. You can read more about scratching posts here.
Put scratching posts and objects in different areas as well. You want them to be able to be used as territory markings as well as grooming tools, after all.
It can also be a good idea to help keep your fur baby's nails trimmed yourself. Some cats don't mind their paws being handled and their claws being trimmed – as long as you're careful not to hit the quick – but others absolutely hate it. Don't stress your cat out fighting with them! As long as they can care for their own paws, you shouldn't make things worse, but if they do have problems, professional grooming or vet care can help.
So, after reading this article, did you have any questions about nail biting, why cats do it, or anything else related to the topic? If you do, be sure to leave me a comment down below, and I'll get back to you as soon as possible! I'm always more than happy to help my readers however I can!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more