To be clear I am referring to the small cat species of which there are 30 (plus the domestic cat) . The cat breeds are not separate species of domestic cat. They are all domestic cats and the domestic cat is techically one of the wild cat species albeit domesticated and socialised when living in the human home.
And also to be clear all the species – click this link to see the full list and where they live – can retract and extend their claws. Claws are generally referred to as ‘retractile’ when in fact they are protractile (protrusible). That’s because the default or relaxed position of the claws is when they are retracted or withdrawn into the paw. They are normally sheathed by the paw and are only displayed when the cat tightens the special muscles by a voluntary action.
This is an important distinction as if the cat had to use effort to retract them they’d have to use almost continual effort as claws are nearly always retracted or hidden. Effort is only exerted when it is necessary to use the claws for self-defence or catching prey. And of course when scratching a tree or a scratching post to slough of the outer cuticle, stretch the back muscles and exercise the protractile mechanism.
When it is time to protract (extend) the claw the musles contract the tendon that pulls the terminal phalanx (distal phalange is another way of describing it) forward on which the claw is embedded (see image below). This exposes the claw and brings it into contact with the surface that it grasps.
The importance of claws in a small cat’s life cannot be overestimated which is why it is so cruel to remove them when declawing domestic cats and kittens. They are an essential part of the small wild cats anatomy.
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