Cats, Claws, Panic

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischCats, Claws, Panic

(Annals of Pard, X)

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Do cats bite their nails? I mean, do cats other than Pard bite their nails?

After breakfast, Pard washes his face. Sometimes the soft swipe across the jowl with the spit-dampened front paw turns into something else: he holds that paw pad-first to to his mouth, gets a claw between his teeth, and tugs it. He tugs repeatedly, and hard enough to make a not wholly agreeable tooth-on-claw noise.

In the afternoon, when he is doing All-over Spitbath and Yoga Grooming, he lies comfortably on the lower end of his backbone, seizes one hind leg with one front paw, gets a hind claw between his teeth, and tugs it at the same way. He must be using his felines (surely they aren’t called canines in a cat?) because his other teeth don’t look capable of a grip like that.

I never had a cat before that did this. Sometimes I think he’s cleaning his claws, as we clean our fingernails. Sometimes I think he’s getting off the little shells that claws discard as they grow out. Sometimes I wonder if he’s so bored he bites his nails.

Does anybody know?

Pigeons Passing?

Pigeons Passing?

Do cats have panic attacks?

One night last month Pard stayed up in the uninhabited part of the attic all night long. In the morning he didn’t come and walk around on me and purr till I got up. He didn’t come and walk all over everything in the bathroom purring with his tail in the air while I got dressed. He didn’t gallop down the stairs ahead of me and stand around purring extremely loudly with the tip of his tail between his ears while I put his kibbles in his bowl.

He didn’t come down at all till I called him with his food call, prrrt-ticky-ticky! and rattled the kibble-can. And I had to come clear upstairs with it. Then he ventured down the attic stairs — stair by stair, paw by paw — eyes like searchlights, ears back, mouth tense, tail low: textbook illustration of Very Anxious Cat. It took him forever to get all the way down to the kitchen, and then he was too anxious to eat — the first time ever that he didn’t clean his bowl industriously and immediately. He’d nibble, and then freak out again and crouch, or run back upstairs. He never did finish that breakfast.

He was that way all day. He wanted to be with me, but was not sociable and couldn’t relax. He led me once up to the attic, and we walked all around in it. I wondered if maybe something like a raccoon or big rat had got in there and given him a scare. But there was no sign of that, and no particular place that spooked him, there or elsewhere. He was just totally, globally spooked. It was very spooky.

It really is not the kind of attic that has ghosts.

I did think of Strange Animal Behavior Before Earthquakes that I used to read about in newspaper supplements in 1938.

The only thing besides earthquakes I could think of that seemed a possible cause for such a panic was my overnight bag, which I’d set out the day before. He’d sniffed it then, with no alarm whatever, and got into it, because it is his privilege and duty to enter all enterable spaces and explore them. He has explored that bag twenty times. He got out again, and thereafter ignored the bag. I wasn’t going to travel till the next day, and anyhow wasn’t in the state I’m sometimes in before a trip; though he’s definitely sensitive to stress and high tension, I don’t think he was picking up my travel nerves. Anyhow, his way of acting out my tensions is to do The Forbidden Things — leap up to the mantelpiece, attack the embroidery on the Morris chair, disintegrate the sofa leg, etc. — and then go hide in plain sight in my armchair, exactly like a wicked three-year-old.

He remained unhappy all day, licking his lips often, tail held low, unable to settle down and sleep — barely distracted from his anxiety for a moment by crunchy Greenies, usually the delight of life.

I wasn’t happy about leaving him, wondering if some physical ailment was making him act this way, though he didn’t move or act as if in pain. He hid out somewhere again all night, but he did come in and walk around on me at six-thirty. He was still tail-down and purrless, but behaving more normally. So I went on my trip.

When I called home, Charles reported that Pard was doing better. Next day when I got home he was pretty well back to normal and the day after that he was fine.

He’s not what I’d call a spooky cat. He’s shy with people, mostly because he sees so few. Sudden noises can scare him (though sometimes he obviously just wants an excuse to race upstairs with a lot of hysterical scrabbling and a huge black bottlebrush tail. After which he saunters back down. Noise? What noise?) And he still generally prefers looking out the window to going out the door. When he does go out onto our second-story verandah, he’d rather one of us was with him; he’s tense and cautious, tail down, the whole time he’s out. Often he doesn’t even go all the way down the stairs to the garden. But mostly, usually, basically, he is a cheerful little body, tail high, purring me awake in the morning, devouring his breakfast and dinner, racing joyously after Greenies, in full control of his household and its routine.

What was that awful night and day of fear? Do cats have panic attacks out of the blue? Does anybody know?

If you know about Nail Biting Cats or Cat Panics, you can tell me in the Comments. I will read all reports with interest and gratitude.



Cats, Claws, Panic — 34 Comments

  1. I had a cat that did the same nail-biting thing. I always assumed it was part of their grooming, but I could be wrong.

  2. Our neutered, 3.5-year-old Don Croqueto goes into dilated-pupil, ears-to-the-back running frenzies twice a week, normally in the afternoon, at around 6-8pm. He visits every room and jumps on top of every sofa and bed in a matter of seconds as if trying to fulfill a quota. He tries to go so fast that skids and looses traction on the hardwood floor. Then, whatever possesses him, goes away and he becomes again our overweight, placid cat.

  3. Four out of five of my cats have done the nail-biting thing. They are usually either grooming or pulling off the old “husk” when they do that, so you were absolutely right.

    Cats and dogs do seem able to have anxiety attacks (which is why we hear about some of them being prescribed Prozac). But since this sounds like an isolated incident, I’d have to agree with you that something must have gotten into the attic (or possibly on the roof)–another cat, or some other animal–and the scent was lingering and making him anxious. Poor kitty! My cat is very wary and anxious and prowls around when the neighborhood stray is outside wanting to be fed and petted. Once he’s gone and I’m back inside, she comes and snuggles with me very deliberately, eradicating his scent with hers.

  4. It’s much more common for them to use scratch pads/ furniture to shed the old claws, but my oldest cat uses his teeth too, like he’s eating corn-on-the-cob. He leaves the husk-claws behind like discarded plastic half-moons, and seems to have less trouble with getting his claws stuck in blankets or loose-weave covers than the other two.
    The panic attacks–this isn’t much of an explanation, but he may literally have been seeing things:
    And perhaps the teeth are called canines to encourage cats to sink their teeth into their traditional adversaries? (That is a tactful rather than truthful explanation, but much better than imagining how humiliated the cats would be, if only they knew.)

  5. I’ve had numerous cats occasionally bite their claws when grooming. I assumed something was stuck in the claw that needed more than licking. But they don’t do it routinely. I’d wonder if it was a nervous behavior if Pard does it all the time. My Dorothy could be Pard’s twin, btw – same white bib and white feet.

    As to the panic attack: Dorothy has seizures occasionally, almost certainly caused by anxiety – and I therefore do what I can to reduce her anxiety. There are a few things that will absolutely trigger a seizure 24 hours later, especially the truck that comes by periodically to sweep the street. It perhaps has something to do with the low growling frequency of the noise, since plows don’t do this to her, nor dump trucks, nor bulldozers, nor other loud noises, though she doesn’t like them. (The kind Public Words department in my village now calls me to schedule the sweeps so I can bring Dorothy into the kitchen, close the door and turn on the dryer so she won’t hear it. No seizure when I do this).

    The hypervigilant behavior you’re describing always follows the seizure for a day or two as (I assume) the brain chemistry takes time to recover. This is, in effect, post traumatic stress in my cat – who doesn’t even know she’s had a seizure, of course. Occasionally the hypervigilance follows a mini trauma without her ever developing a seizure. She will stay away from windows, hunkering down in a dark spot in the hallway. She will tip toe through very familiar territory sniffing and looking carefully to see that everything’s okay. Sometimes she sleeps all day, or she may not be able to sleep at all for a day and then spends a day sleeping. In an ongoing way I’m trying to think about the differences between being scared and being anxious. I think some loud noises scare my cat, but the things that make her anxious and are problematic endure longer, and leave her feeling she can’t escape. I’ve learned she feels anxious if/when she hears me being angry or anxious on the phone, so I try to take care not to show that in my voice.

    One of the things that has helped a lot – enough so that she has gone as long as 8 months without a seizure – is a Feliway plug-in dispenser. It apparently needs a couple of weeks to take effect, but there is a spray that can be used for short-term events (spraying the car and/or carrier before taking kitty to the vet, for example).

    It would seem almost certain that Pard had a scare of some sort, and perhaps it affected him more than usual because he couldn’t escape to his usual hidey holes. I’m impressed that he was interested in returning to the attic (with you!). Seemingly not a cat given to anxiety often, a big boy who prides himself on Handling Things. And of course he’s outdoors sometimes, so he’s accustomed to all sorts of novel events and noises. I wonder if it was just a squirrel. If he’s used to the noise of a squirrel on the roof from down in the house, and then heard it when he was in the attic and it persisted, that might have done it. Have you thought of spending the night in the attic?

  6. Could he have seen or smelled something like a bobcat or mountain lion passing by, to frighten him? I’ve seen pictures on youtube of such large cats looking in a window or a screen door at a domestic cat, and they are both curious enough to approach a remote house to look it over, and so good at stealth that a human might not have noticed anything if they passed in the night, or at dawn or twilight. You appear to have enough natural(ish) terrain close by that wild animals might use to hide in and pass through. If Pard is somewhat scared of other cats, a really large one like that might truly spook him.

    • Because he was hiding in the attic, scared to come down, and would run back upstairs during his first breakfast after the scare, it sound to me more as if he was frightened by something downstairs, maybe seen through the window as you say he likes to watch there; rather than it being something in or about the attic scaring him. It could even be a largish bird diving towards the window near him, or a badger, a fox, some kind of marten, or a snake. I have no idea in which part of the country you live or what kind of wildlife could live near you. A stone marten damaged my dad’s car when it was parked in my sister’s carport; a fox passes through her garden sometimes, and we’ve even seen a badger once. She lives on the edge of town, with a cultivated field, a scrap of forest, other houses & gardens and a railroad track close by, in the densely-inhabited Netherlands, so it’s not as if you need to live in a wilderness to get medium-large wildlife.

  7. I have never had a panic-prone cat, but my aunt did. Purrcat, we finally concluded, heard voices. He could be fine for weeks or months on end, but then sometimes he had an episode, set off by apparently nothing, which left him freaked out for a day or two. My aunt had worked with mentally ill humans, and she thought he might be kitty schizophrenic. He would hide for hours, race away in terror from familiar people he loved, beg to be let out the door and then crouch down timidly when the door was opened for him, unable to decide whether to go out or not. Sometimes he was startled by nothing into jumping straight up off the floor from all fours and puffing up into full hair-raised display mode before he landed. So far as one could tell from him during his normal phases, he’d never been abused by humans, though he was found on the streets at about 1 year old. I don’t know if there really is such a thing as a mentally ill cat, or if there are kitty panic attacks. It doesn’t sound as if Pard is anything like as troubled as Purrcat was. I just thought I’d relate some feline behavior I’ve observed in my time. I’m sure with love and affection and tolerance Pard will make a full recovery.

  8. My 18 year old cat occasionally freaks out, tearing around the house. There seem to be two causes of it. One, if he’s not getting enough moisture, he’s having trouble finishing his box duty and may literally be trying to shake up his system to get it to move. He’s frantic because things are not cooperating. I may find a Klingon–er, cling-on outside the box after such an episode.

    The thorough episodes that involve tracing the entire apartment, trying to reach the top of the fridge, and hovering under the air intake, I think involve something moving into the attic.

    We’ve already been through a couple of weeks of moving our entire wardrobe out of the closet so maintenance can reach the attic. As I recently told him, if squirrels have moved into the attic again, we’re just going to have to live with them. But he responds every time a squirrel goes over the roof, and when they stay, he can be nutty.

  9. I’ll add that I also have both my cats freak out by tearing around the house, jumping up on the walls, having their tales puff up, sometimes batting at each other and battling with each other. I think of this as exuberant behavior, more common in the spring, and very different from the timorous one-paw-carefully-in-front-of-the-other behavior I get when either is anxious.

    In thinking about this I doubt the overnight bag was the cause of this. Might be that he went to it for security as an enclosed place, or even, if we want to anthropomorphize – as we clearly do – a way to communicate to you that he didn’t want you going away overnight, or that the problem was when you were away from him. “Don’t leave me, Mom!”

    • I am trying to add a comment for Ms. LeGuin about her cat but not sure how to do it. Seems like in this spot I’ll just be replying to kathy. Can anyone tell me how to do this right? Ms.LeGuin is a really important writer in my life and I”m always glad to have an opportunity to communicate with her. Also I have cats. Thanks, whoever replies! Pat

  10. Our big 9 YO Siamese grooms his nails, too. I have never had a cat as fastidious as he is, but he definitely tends to his appearance.

  11. I can confidently confirm the nail-biting as normal. Cat claws grow from the inside out, and if the dead outer part isn’t coming off on its own, it can get uncomfortable for the cat, which is what often leads to furniture getting scratched. As weird as it looks and sounds when they start gnawing on their own claws, it’s a perfectly healthy (if messy and a potential OW if you step on the old claw) thing they do.

    Not sure about the panic attack. I’ve seen cats get really unusually touchy for, say, a few hours at most, but never all day. But if he’s back to normal and has stayed that way without recurrence, I really wouldn’t be worried.

  12. Our 5 yo black cat Shakir regularly chews on his back claws. He uses the scratching posts, too. I’m relieved to hear this is a common behavior as I’ve never had a cat that did it before.

  13. My cat Rudy, an indoor-outdoor cat, had something like that. For a whole week afterwards he walked around being pensive, refusing to purr or play, and not his regular self at all. At the end of the week, petting him, I discovered toothmarks – two under his jaw, and two on top of his head! Something had tried to eat his head, and he needed a week to think over the implications.

    He also did the nail-tugging thing.I’ve seen it often enough that I consider it normal.

  14. We have one cat who chews at his claws to work the old husk off, one who would never dream of it. It’s a thing.

    Re panic, our adventurous wanna-get-out-in-the-yard-and-slay-all-of-everything! tabby did get out one evening, and a visiting friend went to fetch him in again; it’s a thing, it happens. Usually he just lurks under the orange tree, and is easy to scoop up. This time he dashed out with his tail already bottlebrushed, ran the length of the yard, screamed and ran back again. Katherine scooped him up – and he screamed and screamed, and scratched and bit at her so badly she was band-aided all over, and I had to scrub the blood off the patio next morning. He’s never done that before or since, but something spooked him that night. Raccoon, possum? Skunk? We’re in California, anything is possible…

  15. Many of the cats that I have lived with bit at their nails, sometimes they did pull off the shell.

    I’ve always lived with multiple cats, and they sometimes do strange things. I would not worry too much about Pard’s hiding for now, but if it keeps up it may be something to ask a vet about. Perhaps Pard was simply having a bad day.

    Good luck

  16. My sweet silly Tobycat bites his nails. He sits smack in the middle of the room and chomp chomp chomps. I’m not sure if our Pyewacket does the same; if she does, she’s much more circumspect about it. She’s a very ladylike cat, most of the time.

    They don’t usually have random freakouts, but my husband assures me they can predict earthquakes.

  17. We’ve had several cats that tug the old casings off their claws. Of the two current cats, once does, one doesn’t. With him it’s frequently the inner claw of either front paw, and yes, it’s noisy. We joke he’s trying to make his thumbs grow… and we all know what would happen if cats had thumbs…

    I enjoy your stories of Pard. But then, I enjoy *all* your stories.

  18. When I read of Pard’s episode I immediately thought of the story by Neil Gaiman story “The Price” in which a cat protects a family from the devil, who is haunting the nearby woods. I wanted to tell you about the story since I think you would enjoy it, but I think it is too dark to explain what happened with Pard.
    Though it might not be the devil he saw, maybe there was a Presence? His “searchlight eyes” really seemed suggestive. Not that there was necessarily a scary Presence, but even a benign one might still give him pause. Seeing beyond must surely be disconcerting.
    What to do though? What do any of us do when faced with the uncanny? Stay close to loved ones, chase down greenies, keep our eyes and heart open. Learn to purr all over again…

  19. These responses are reassuring, informative, useful, funny, endearing, and fascinating. Thank you all. I know now who to come to with cat questions! —

  20. Animals (and people too of course) can make strange associations; these associates can lead them to have anxiety triggered by seemingly-innocuous stimuli. It does sound like something terrified your cat, but you may never know if it was a Truly Scary event like the prowling wildcats suggested above or if it was just the Deep Doom of a particular strange noise.

    When people call to ask me about things like this (I’m a vet), I do usually suggest that they bring the cat in (or if that’s not possible, that they have a housecall vet come see the cat), just because sometimes cats are nervous and hiding from life because they feel terrible and don’t understand why. I’m glad he got better.

    Yes, they’re called canines no matter what mammal we’re talking about. Even in people – incisors, canines, premolars, and molars.

  21. Both of my siamese cats used to bite their nails – and we’d find little nail “shells” afterwards. The second one I think used to clean his whole paw like that – a bite here, a chew on the nail, a lick on the pad etc.

    Recently I read an article about cats’ vision – it seems they can see UV light, so sometimes get freaked out or interested in things we simply can’t see. I’ve noticed cats occasionally staring into nothing, or taking sudden turns while walking across rooms as if to avoid something hanging in front of them, but now I suspect those could have been reflections or particularly interesting patterns on UV light that were just invisible to our apparently inferior eyesight.

  22. All of my cats bite their nails, and of the three Troy tugs and pulls with the most vigor. Sometimes they split, and then I find the cast off shells when I inadvertently step on them with my bare feet. I can only speak for my own cats (if I can even do that), but I think nail biting is what they do to keep them honed, clean, and in good shape. Their nails (or more precisely claws) are useful tools as well as weapons, and must be maintained. I doubt it has anything to do with anxiety, unless it is the restlessness of being a barely domesticated predator living in the confinement if a human home. As for panic attacks? Who can say?

  23. We have a grey tabby who uses her teeth on her claws as well, both front and back, and it’s the only time I’ve seen this behavior (out of about a dozen cats). She sits in the position you describe to do the back ones. Her claws are thicker and longer than I’ve seen on any other cat and she’s more adept at picking up objects with her paws than I’ve previously seen. We interpret it as cleaning, perhaps honing as well.

  24. Since I’ve mostly had to live in city apartments (second floor or higher), I’ve only had indoor cats who haven’t been exposed to wild visitors, so the only panic I’ve seen was my first kitten’s terror at her first thunderstorm–“It’s too big to see and it’s GROWLING AT ME!!!” Luckily, since I regularly talk to my cats, they’re good at reading my tones of voice, so a few reassuringly calm sentences and some ear-scritching were enough to settle her down.

    As for the mad runs, have you seen the cartoon strip ROSE IS ROSE? The cartoonist sometimes “explains” such odd behavior from the cat’s point of view: those mad scrabbling runs are actually an attempt to keep one’s footing as the world inexplicably wobbles around in spacetime; sleeping in the middle of doorways isn’t a deliberate attempt to trip people but a dreamquest, seeking wisdom by sleeping under the mystic triliths erected by the Ancients, and–my favorite–a trip to the vet is seen as an alien abduction, from being taken by a mysterious vessel to a distant place inhabited by other helpless abductees, intrusively probed, and so on, ending with the only comfort being support meetings with other former abductees in a row atop the back fence.


  25. I agree with the other commenters that the audible claw-biting is normal cat behavior. I’ve had several who’ve done that. As for the panic, whatever scared him was likely present in the house, from his behavior. Do you have a pet door that might let wild animals in at night?

    I don’t believe squirrels would scare a cat. Mine go crazy trying to catch through the window the squirrels that come to the bird feeders. Foxes seen through the window produce no fear here, either. We had a pack of coyotes come and raise a hooting chorus that raised the hair on the back of *my* neck, and the cats did disappear during that, but only for a short while. By the next day they were fine.

    Possums and raccoons outside don’t scare them. I’ve had about 20 cats over my life, and none have ever displayed what you’re describing Pard doing. I’m a little worried about him, too. Do please let us know if you receive more light on this puzzle.

  26. I’m wondering if you ever give Pard catnip. Although most cat owners I know look at this plant as completely harmless and a bit of fun for their pet, but my own observation of my cat under its influence made me think otherwise. Often after the euphoria had worn off, Tallulah would seem to be seized by an anxiety similar to what you described in Pard. She would look up suddenly at something I could not see then dash away and hide. It never lasted for as long as you described but it was enough for me to decide to stop giving it to her. I think that the effects of catnip in cats could be similar to a powerful psychedelic in humans.

    By the way, I’d be interested if Thisbe, with her vet’s expertise, has any thoughts or opinions about catnip.

    • Perhaps I should say “companions of cats” rather than “cat owners”… or maybe, “those owned by cats”?

  27. Regarding VAC, very anxious cat syndrome: this is a real, observable, repeatable phenomenon. At least, it is all those things in our house. I think, like fish, some cats have an heightened sensitivity to electrical and magnetic fields. So, some may sense irregularities in such fields.

    I know our cat sees the world as a very different place than we see it. Even when we are at our most imaginative, most sensitive. Our cat seems to go through times of anxiety that are not related to weather or earthquakes. He’s just really very bothered. There are times that he regards a patch of wall or a door with much aggression. This is always in one part of our home. Is there a ghost? I haven’t seen it, but my eyes have limitations, and a cat would see things differently….

  28. Regarding Ms. Ursula LeGuin’s cat. I have three cats (all petunias, as Ms. LeGuin maintains all cats are) and have observed variants of these behaviors. My cats often pull on their claws when bathing. I’m assuming they are just trying to remove the old claw cover so that the new one can grow more efficiently, but that’s a guess. They may very well be biting their nails with anxiety. My vet has prescribed a bit of prozac (wrapped in a Greenie pill pocket) for each, since they are indoors all the time and I don’t spend as much time with them as I should, though we have numerous short encounters throughout the day and I love them dearly and never tire of telling them so.

    Panic attacks? Yes, I think they do occur, and I think stimuli which I don’t notice probably set them off. Sometimes it’s two days under the bed for no reason; sometimes lack of appetite; sometimes crankiness at being bothered. My favorite is the hysterical running around to no fixed destination, since I trust it’s good exercise for them. More often than not it goes away by itself. Otherwise I schlepp the fellow to the vet, which puts any previous panic into perspective for him or her.

  29. Our oldest rescue cat bites her claws. I’ve never had a cat do that before, either, and I’ve had at least a dozen cats, too. We also find little claw shells around the house. She doesn’t like to use any of the many scratching posts in the house (or, thankfully, any of the furniture), so we just assumed this was her way of keeping her claws healthy.

    The funniest part is that she’s taught our two other rescue cats, both of whom we got as kittens, to bite their claws too, even though they enthusiastically use the scratching posts (and one chair which is now a lost cause).

    Our current cats are not panic-attack prone (so far), but I have had cats in the past that were. I’ve always figured they could just See Things and that if the Things were anything I needed to be concerned about, the cats would let me know. But they always got over it and pretended that nothing had ever happened.

  30. I realize that this post is weeks old and others have weighed in, hopefully helpfully, but yes, the cat I had throughout childhood did both of these supremely weird things, Ursula, and she lived to a ripe old age. The claw-chewing thing is, I think, as you suspect, just a way to get rid of claw husks. Sometimes she’d just Be Scared. You’d snap your fingers or cluck your tongue and she’d leap three feet in the air. I used to think it was because she lived in a house with many people and wasn’t very well-suited to it (she worshipped my mother, though), but now I think it was simply a very old house and she would hear or catch sight of things that we didn’t see or couldn’t hear or see, being her particular size and species. My wife’s cat used to talk to the walls. We had no idea what was bothering him until he had to go live with my mother-in-law (where he is much happier, being as he is a very showoffy tom who likes to hunt and get into fights) and we discovered he had been A) taunting and B) eating before we had a chance to see a number of cockroaches who lived in the walls. His hearing was better than ours and he, like them, preferred to conduct his business in the evenings, so there was a whole cat-Godzilla-versus-roach-Tokyo drama being played out while we were asleep. My wife hates roaches (I don’t much care for them either, but she genuinely can’t abide the sight of one and has to clean the whole apartment top to bottom if one ever comes calling) and eventually we had to hire an exterminator to come around every few weeks once our live-in pest control was gone.

    That’s not to suggest that you have roaches. But possibly a squirrel or something. Hopefully not a ‘possum.