What is the Dewclaw on Cats?

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  • What is the dewclaw?

    The dewclaw is a rudimentary claw attached to a short digit located on the inside of the cat’s front leg at the wrist. Unlike the other four claws, the dewclaw is non-weight-bearing and doesn’t make contact with the ground.

    Cat paw anatomy

    While some dog breeds such as the Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Cao Fila de Sao Miguel, St Bernard, East Siberian Laika, and Estrela Mountain have a rear dewclaw, cats don’t. Unlike the front dewclaws, rear dewclaws are poorly connected to the leg and more vulnerable to trauma. These extra digits on dogs are known as hind-limb-specific preaxial polydactyly.

    Anatomy

    The dewclaw comprises two bones, the proximal phalanx, and the distal phalanx. The distal phalanx contains a pointed ungual process, surrounded by the claw. Tendons attach the dewclaw to the inner wrist.

    Bones of the cat foot

    What is the function of the dewclaws? 

    The dewclaw is similar to the human thumb, although not quite opposable. It gives the cat additional grip as it climbs up or down a tree and is used to hold prey.

    Cat gripping a tree
    The circled dewclaw on this cat can be seen making contact with the tree, giving the cat extra grip as it descends.
    Cat gripping a toy with its dewclaw
    Notice the cat using its dewclaw to grip the head of the toy.

    Can cats extend and retract their dewclaw?

    As most cat lovers know, cats can partially retract their front claws when not in use, reducing wear and tear. The dewclaw is always extended.

    Dewclaw injury

    Dewclaw injuries are less common in cats than in dogs, but they can potentially rip or tear if the claw gets caught and torn off on something.  While not life-threatening, damage to the dewclaw is painful. It will need to be treated by a veterinarian who will trim the damaged nail, apply a bandage, and may also prescribe pain relief and antibiotics to prevent infection.

    Dewclaw removal

    Some hunting and working dog breeds have their dewclaw removed to reduce the risk of trauma. Removing a cat’s dewclaw is unnecessary unless it is deformed.

    Care

    Trimming cat claws

    Because the dewclaw doesn’t contact the ground, it does not naturally wear down and can grow long enough to curl back into the footpad. Senior cats are at increased risk due to inactivity and loss of flexibility.

    Pet owners should check their cat’s claws every 4-6 weeks and trim as necessary, being careful to avoid the quick inside the claw, which has a rich blood supply and will bleed if nicked.

    When are dewclaws removed?

    Dewclaws are sometimes removed when a newborn feline is between 3 to 5 days old. If not done this time, it is recommended to wait until the pet is 12 weeks old. Dewclaws are occasionally removed while the pet is spayed or neutered.

    The most frequent removal of dewclaws occurs as part of an onychectomy, or the declawing, process. This includes the amputation of all or part of the distal phalanges of the animals toes.

    How to care for a cat after dewclaw removal?

    If your cat has a dewclaw removed, they will need extra care for a few days or weeks following the procedure. Since a dewclaw is a cat’s equivalent of a finger, it requires proper management after removal.

    Here is the best way to care for a cat after dewclaw removal:

    • Pain Management: Your veterinarian will most likely prescribe pain medication for your cat. If it’s a liquid, it’s easier if one person holds the animal and the other administers. If the pain medication is a pill, you can wrap it in a treat for your cat to enjoy.
    • Recovery Area: After surgery, your cat’s wound will be delicate. You should ensure proper healing by providing a small crate or closed area for your cat to rest and heal. Providing access to the entire home encourages rough play or climbing, which could interrupt the healing process. Ensure this small area has everything your cat will need: food, water, toys, and a litter box.
    • Wounds Clean: The most important part is to keep the wound clean. If the wound gets dirty, it can lead to serious infections. Your vet should provide instructions on how to properly care for the wound. However, the easiest way is to use a bowl of lukewarm water and wipe the paw with a moist rag. If you notice any signs of infection, contact your veterinarian.
    • Litter Box: An open wound means that normal litter doesn’t work. It can get into the wound and cause infection. You should change the litter to a clump free or other dust-free litters. Vets sometimes recommend newspaper or pellets. Additionally, a larger box would be ideal to allow your cat extra room during this healing process.

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    Is removing dewclaws cruel?

    This is a highly debated subject within veterinarian circles. While it was believed for many years that removal of cat claws was a humane procedure, many places have outlawed the practice. Removing dewclaws is not considered necessary unless there is a medical reason to do so. Some consider the practice cruel as it does amputate the first knuckle of your cat’s toes.

    Should you remove dewclaw on indoor cat?

    As mentioned above, dewclaw removal is an unnecessary practice. It was historically performed at a higher rate for indoors cats compared to outdoor cats.

    How late can you remove dewclaws?

    Dewclaw removal is usually recommended when there is a medical reason such as injury or illness. Dewclaws can be removed at any point in a cat’s life, but there are additional risks for a senior cat to undergo anesthesia. If you have concerns, contact your veterinarian.

    How much does dewclaw removal cost?

    You can expect to pay between $200-$500 for a dewclaw removal depending on the age and weight of your cat. A cat who has dewclaws removed while under anesthesia for a spay or neuter will be less expensive than separately.

    Can cats be born without dewclaws?

    Yes, cats can be born without dewclaws, but it’s not common. Pets born with deformed or extra dewclaws are recommended for removal to prevent trauma during play and activity.

    Author

    • Julia Wilson, 'Cat World' Founder

      Julia Wilson is the founder of Cat-World, and has researched and written over 1,000 articles about cats. She is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. Full author bio