It looks as though domestic cats pluck their claws but they are in fact nibbling or chewing off the old outer-casing from their claws. They use their small incisor teeth which clamp around an individual claw encouraging the outer sheath to disconnect and fall to the ground. Another way that cats remove the outer sheath is by scratching a post or a fence or whatever is available and suitable. Cats use this alternative technique for the paws on their forelegs. They will “pluck” the outer sheath from the claws of the hind feet with their teeth.
The process is more like the shedding of a snake’s skin rather than the sharpening of a nail. Domestic cats must sense when the outer sheath of their claws are coming loose, which is a moment when encouragement from their nibbling will release it to reveal a glistening, sharp as a tack, fresh and brand-new claw beneath.
I’m sure that all reasonably observant cat guardians have seen what looks like a cat’s claws lying on the living room carpet or hardwood floor. I remember a concerned visitor to this website seeking advice because she believed that her cat was losing her claws. If she had looked closer she would have noticed that they were hollow indicating that they were sheaths rather than the claw itself.
The cat’s claw cannot become detached because it is embedded into bone; the bone of the last and distal phalange of the toes of the cat. It’s quite a short section beyond the last joint at about half a centimetre in length. When a veterinarian declaws a cat they take it off at that joint. It is quite unnerving to think about it but sadly the veterinarians who do it no longer truly understand what they’re doing or sense the gravity of the operation. It’s just another operation, carried out very quickly and not uncommonly botched leaving behind fragments of bone because the guillotine has not cut through the joint cleaning. These fragments cause permanent discomfort at the least for a declawed cat. Laser declawing avoids the problem of bone fragments remaining but it is not the wondrous operation that veterinarians sell to the public. I have seen gruesomely burned and bloody paws after laser declaw surgery.