The cat claw is unique anatomically, serving several functions for the cat. The claws of the forelimb are uniquely retractable in cats, allowing them to sheath their claws when not in use. The cat can actively unsheath their claws by contracting forelimb muscles which pulls on the tendons attached to the ends of the forelimb digits. This exposes the claws.
The cat may wish to expose the claws for several reasons. When hunting, the cat will use the claws to grasp prey. During times of conflict with other cats or other animals, the cat may wish to use it’s claws to defend itself. Lastly, the claws will need to be exposed for the purpose of scratching inanimate objects. Outdoors this may include trees, fences and other solid surfaces. Indoors, cats may scratch furniture, door frames and carpet.
Scratching inanimate objects serves two purposes. The first is to renew the claw by dislodging the old nail growth and exposing a new, sharper claw underneath. The second purpose is for marking. In this latter case, the claws do not need to be exposed. The cat is using the paw pads to mark surfaces with pheromones, in order to communicate it’s presence and ownership of territory to other cats and animals. Take note when your cat is going through the motions of ‘scratching’ at home. Sometimes the cat is actually renewing the claw surfaces, in which case you may heard the points of the nails catching on the scratched surface. In the second case, the marking may not include the nails, and therefore the rubbing may be silent. Sometimes both will occur. In these cases, the cat is sometimes trying to chemically AND visually mark the surfaces in order to indicate territory presence and ownership. It is important to understand these behaviours, as they are natural to your cat and both are very necessary. In addition, increased scratching and marking may occur in times of anxiety and stress, when environmental resources are threatened or restricted. Simply readdressing the situation may reduce the anxiety and subsequent increased marking.