While by now I’ve got used to finding tiny cat nails all around the house, stuck to the scratching posts and sadly to the couch, the first nail I ever found sent me on a spiraling internet search. It took a vet check-up and their detailed explanation to help me understand why such a thing would happen in the first place!
Why are my cat’s nails splitting? Cat’s shed the outer layers of their nails naturally, but brittle-looking claws and regular nail splitting can be a sign of old age or poor health. If the tools you’re using to clip your cat’s nails are dull, it can also cause them to split.
If you want to know more about the reasons behind your cat’s nail splitting and what you can do to improve their nail health, then keep on reading!
Why Are My Cat’s Nails Splitting?
It can be disconcerting, especially for new cat parents, to find your cat’s nails looking as if they’re about to fall apart, and while the explanation behind this can be innocent enough there are other possible reasons that are worth knowing about and that may require our attention.
Reason 1: Shedding The Old Nail
In many ways, cats are very different from humans, and something that might seem troubling to us can be a natural process for them. One such process is the shedding of their nails. Not only is it a natural phenomenon for your kitty’s claw sheath to fall off, but it’s also beneficial. According to Dr. Roy Smith, DVM, this nail splitting and falling happens to each claw every two to three months on average.
As your cat’s nail grows beyond the blood supply, the surrounding layer starts cracking to make room for the new nail and once the process is over this layer is naturally discarded, similarly to a snake shedding its skin. The old layer either falls off on its own or most likely is removed through our cat’s scratching activities. Research shows that a cat’s claw architecture is really complex, as the “birth” of the new nail happens from within, “this built-in shedding mechanism maintains sharp claw tips and ensures the freeing of the claws from the substrate.”
Reason 2: The Cat Clippers Are Blunt
While many cats are fully capable of trimming their own nails, there are those who are unable to wear them down enough and as a result, their untrimmed claws grow into the pad, causing injury and even infection. That’s why many owners try to stay on top of clipping their cat’s sharp claws, but blunt clippers and a bad clipping technique can also result in broken or split nails.
Choosing the right tools can be difficult, but we’re lucky that the market offers us a variety of clippers. Some cat parents prefer special scissors that are modified to hold their cat’s paw in place, others go for plier-like clippers or the ones that have a sliding guillotine blade. If you’re new to this, I’d recommend a super simple and a budget-friendly choice for clipping your kitty's nails, like this set on Amazon!
The thing you need to remember is that no matter which clippers you end up investing in, the sharpness of the blade is crucial. Cutting a cat’s nail isn’t similar to cutting our own, and even we can hurt ourselves if we use blunt tools. In the case of cats, the pressure from the dull blade can cause the nail to split, break and bleed, and if left untreated, such tears can also lead to infection. So, make sure to always keep the clippers clean, and replace them when they’re no longer as sharp.
Reason 3: Old Age
You might find cat nail clipping unnatural and I can understand why, since cats in the wild usually tend to their needs through natural means, but we also forget that the life of a feral cat isn’t all that peachy. In the wild cats don’t live as long, and a lot of the time they face many health issues, infections, and claw problems that go untreated, and prove fatal. According to AHS experts, “the average life span of a cat is dramatically shorter for those that roam freely outdoors — by as much as 10-12 years!”
Our housecats don’t live a completely “natural” life, but responsible cat owners try their best to enrich their indoor environment. I imagine most of us wouldn’t be too keen on getting dead gifts from our cats regularly and since they can’t hunt we play with them to satisfy their predatory needs, and we feed them. When it comes to nail grooming, being the smart kitties that they are, they look for alternative objects to trim their nails like scratching posts or our furniture.
If you walk your cat on the leash, they might end up scratching a real tree, just like this tiny black panther who clearly knows that this bark tree was designed for his claw needs.
But not all cats get daily walks, and not all cats can rely on scratching posts, for example, senior cats, tend to have mobility problems, they become physically and mentally weaker. As your cat keeps getting older you might find that they have difficulties using the litterbox, they might forget to groom themselves, and scratching posts might stop being their priority. This nail neglect can lead to splitting ends, overgrown nails, discomfort, and further scratching post avoidance.
A major paw health problem in older cats is osteoarthritis which is “a degenerative condition of the joints in which the normal cartilage cushion in the joints breaks down. Eventually, the bones in the joint rub against each other, causing pain, decreased joint movement, and sometimes the formation of bone spurs or other changes in and around the joint.” This pain can make it even harder for cats to trim their own nails.
That’s why it’s important to introduce nail clippers into your kitty’s life as early as possible. This way, as they grow older, they’ll have no problem trusting you with their paws, and they won’t face any nail consequences if they stop scratching their nails altogether!
Reason 4: Chronic Nail-Biting
During their daily grooming sessions, aside from their coat, cats also clean their paws and nails, and if they find a split nail they will chew and bite it to let the new nail come through. While this is a normal part of their cleaning technique, chronic nail-biting in cats is not and it can be triggered by health issues, most commonly by ringworm, a fungal infection, which causes skin irritation and dandruff.
Excessive grooming is also a common symptom of anxiety in cats and you might notice them intensely chewing their nails, which in turn can lead to broken nails, and wounds, the perfect environment for infections. Once again, age can also cause excessive nail chewing because senior cats commonly experience stress related to pain from arthritis or other conditions, like thyroid problems, or even dental health problems.
Reason 5: Sign of Poor Health
Finding a split nail isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless it happens regularly. If you also notice blood or your feline companion keeps pulling their paw away from you in pain, every time you try to clip their nails or check their condition, then it’s probably time to take their nail situation more seriously.
The state of your cat’s nails can also be a symptom of their overall health. A broken or injured limb can make it difficult for your cat to scratch their nails on their cat tree, as well as a medical condition that kept them in a lethargic state for a certain period, which left their nails untrimmed and full split ends.
The health of your cat’s nails, coat, and skin could also reflect their nutrition, and if they’re not getting enough vitamins, or they even have a certain deficiency then their nails might begin to look brittle and break easily. According to Jennifer Coates, DVM, “dietary protein is used to develop and maintain muscle, skin, fur, nails, tendons, ligaments, cartilage, enzymes, hormones, antibodies, and more.”
Getting nutritional advice from your cat’s veterinarian, and making sure your kitty is eating enough and eating healthy will benefit all aspects of their life, even something so small as their nail.
Reason 6: Nail and Nailbed Disorders
Since cats keep their nails hidden most of the time it can be difficult to detect a medical problem unless you’re actually looking for it. If you find that your cat’s nails keep splitting, or they don’t look healthy, it’s important to go further in and examine every inch of their claws and the paw itself. Dr. Lluis Ferrer, DVM, states that this way “the owner will notice that the animal’s toe or nailbed is inflamed, swollen, and clearly causing pain.”
You might find that a split nail is nothing more than that, or you might discover that your kitty has a nail disorder. The nature of a nail disease can be the result of a traumatic injury, perhaps they broke the nail because they were stuck to a surface they were scratching or they had a bad landing. It’s also possible that a fungal, bacterial, or viral infection created the nail splitting in the first place.
There is a variety of nail diseases that can result in splitting such as Onycholysis, which causes the separation of the nail from underlying structures, and Onychomalacia which leads to the softening of the nails. Furthermore, common disorders in the feline claw department are Paronychia, which affects the nailbeds. Or it could be an autoimmune skin disease, Pemphigus foliaceus (PF) in which case you might notice crusting of the nail beds and footpads.
It’s also worth mentioning that while nail bed tumors are a rarity in felines, other types of cancer could spread to the nail bed location. This is why it’s important to keep an eye on our cat’s overall health from the tips of their ears to the sharp points of their nails.
Should I Be Worried If My Cat’s Nails Are Splitting?
Finding old nails is part of being a cat parent, especially if you give your kitty plenty of opportunities to scratch their heart away, but if left unchecked regular nail splits can be a sign of ill health.
If you’re concerned about your cat’s claw condition, keep an eye on any behavioral changes since they usually occur when a cat is in pain. Of course, every cat can react differently to physical discomfort; some might become quiet and avoid contact, while others will start mewing more than usual and they will react more aggressively to your approach. Malcolm Weir, DVM, states that “you may also hear her purring at times you would not normally expect it.”
When it comes to paw injuries or nail and nailbed disorders, you don’t have to rely only on your cat’s mood to understand that something is wrong. Fortunately, there are physical signs that are easy to detect, like limping, licking their paws, or even keeping them tucked in at all times. So, if you found that your cat’s nails are splitting, give their paws a thorough examination, observe their emotional state and if you’re still not sure then take your feline companion to the vet so they can put your worries to rest!
What To Do If Your Cat’s Nails Are Splitting?
As cat parents, we are responsible for the health and happiness of our fur babies, and while we might not have complete control over what the future holds, we can make sure that they have a rich environment. Basic necessities, hunting games, and of course our attention should always be our top priority when it comes to our cats, but we also shouldn’t forget their scratching outlets!
Not only does this cat necessity help your kitty keep their claws free from dead nail layers, but it’s also part of their exercise routine, which helps them extend and retract their back muscles and ligaments, as well as strengthen their legs and shoulders.
Nowadays we have so many different cat posts, made of different textures and materials that can lure even the pickiest kitty. You can have tall cat trees that they can climb all day long, and you can have scratching posts that look like actual trees! No matter what post you’ll eventually choose, make sure you do it as early as possible and use positive reinforcement through treats and praise to redirect their claws from your furniture to their own cat tree.
Of course, when it comes to nail grooming our cats can do as much, and scratching posts might not work for all cats since older cats or cats with mobility issues might find them difficult to use. That’s why clipping your cat’s nails with sharp and good-quality clippers should be an important part of their grooming routine. If you’re late to the party and your kitty isn’t too keen on getting their nails clipped by you, then a professional pet groomer or a veterinarian could do this job for you.
If on the other hand, your cat tolerates your trimming technique, regular veterinary visits are still a must. Not only can your vet tell you if your cat’s nail splitting is normal or not, but they can literally save their lives! So, if you’re feeling suspicious every time you look at your cat’s nails then give your vet a call!
How To Trim Your Cat’s Nails Without Splitting Them?
Getting your kitty to sit still while you trim their nails might seem impossible to some, but with patience, a good technique, and most importantly the perfect tools it can be done quickly and painlessly for the both of you. As I’ve mentioned before, making sure you have the right clippers with a sharp blade can keep your cat’s nails from splitting. A dull blade can damage the nail by crushing it instead of creating a clean slice. Once you’re done clipping you could also use a nail file to smooth the end of the nail to further minimize the chances of them splitting.
The part of the nail you have to worry about when clipping is the sharp tip at the very end because you don’t want to get too close to “the quick” the pink part of the nail where all the blood vessels and nerve endings are. You also don’t have to trim every one of your cat’s nails all at once. If you’re too stressed, shaky and your cat is trying to get away from you then chances are you’ll do a poot job at trimming their nails. During this commotion, you might cut more than just the tip, or a wonky cut can lead the nail to split and tear instead.
In my experience, the best way to approach your cat’s nail trimming is through a professional first. You can ask your vet to show you what trimming technique is best and to walk you through the whole process. Some nervous cat parents might need a few nail-clipping tutorials to become confident and get it right, but there’s also no shame in giving the nail-clipping responsibility to your kitty’s veterinarian.
Are Broken Nails The Same As Nail Splitting?
When it comes to checking your cat’s paws it’s important to understand what a healthy nail looks like and the difference between nail splitting and breakage.
The epidermal structure of human and cat nails is comparable in makeup since they are both made of a hard protein called keratin. The dead layer we see splitting on their nail is actually a thin sheath consisting of dead keratin, that is breaking away to let the sharper nail take its place.
The curved shape and sharpness of feline claws make them an important tool and a great weapon. Our feline companions rely on their claws to climb up trees, hunt and catch their prey, but they’re also the first line of defense against predators. But what’s really fascinating is that unlike humans and many other animals, cats don’t walk around displaying these sharp talons, instead they retract their claws with the help of muscle and ligaments, into a protective skin pouch, until they’re in need of them.
Dogs for example don’t hide their nails and that’s why you can clearly hear the clicking sound they produce when they walk, while cats are far more subtle, letting their paw pads hide the sound of their steps as they approach.
Even though their nails are so tough and dangerous, they’re still a sensitive area. If you take a closer look you’ll see the pink center, called the “quick” where there are blood vessels and nerve endings which can make clipping tricky. That’s why declawing, an illegal in most countries surgery, is considered inhumane, and if it was performed on humans, it would be like cutting off each finger at the last knuckle.
Identifying A Broken Nail
A broken nail can be a truly painful experience for humans and cats alike! While nail splitting clearly looks like the nail is losing the top layer, a broken nail up close might look more like a bad clipping job and it can also happen to any cat, from simply getting their nail stuck on a carpet, or from a bad landing. Senior cats are even more susceptible to broken nails since the structure of their claws tends to be weaker.
According to Krista William, DVM, “Kitties with broken nails will hold up the foot, limp around, and whine in discomfort. Plus, the bleeding that accompanies a torn nail further complicates the matter.” If you find that your kitty has a broken nail, then it’s best to take them to the vet. There they can assess how serious the tear is, stop the possible bleeding and treat the wound with cat-friendly products.
If you notice that your cat’s nails are splitting make sure to examine them thoroughly for any tears or breaks. Moreso, longer nails are more likely to break, so it’s extra crucial that you keep up with your cat’s nail trimming. This way you’ll minimize any nail splitting, broken nails, and subsequently infections!
Finding that your cat is constantly breaking their nails is never a good sign, it could be a symptom of an underlying medical condition, and it’s something that definitely deserves your vet’s attention.
After all this nail-splitting information I think it’s time to remind ourselves that this is something normal, as long as we pay attention to our cat’s overall paw health and claw needs, by investing in scratching posts, good nail trimmers, and regular vet checkups.
And let’s not forget that our cats are truly unique companions, and more often than not they’re here to teach us that no detail is too small, even if it’s the size of their nail!
Let us know if you were also traumatized when you first saw your cat’s dead nail on the floor, and what method helps you keep their nails as split-free as possible.