Retractable and non-retractable

We all know what claws are. Many animals such as birds and mammals have them. They are a useful appendage on the ends of their toes or fingers and have many uses. If you have cats or dogs at home you may know there are differences.

Cats have retractable claws which means they can be drawn back into the toe in a special sheath. The word retractable however is not quite appropriate as it suggests the natural position of the claw is extended out. Instead the natural position is actually tucked away and the cat has to contract a muscle in their toe to extend them. Non-retractable means they are permanently out so they cannot be withdrawn. A dog’s claws are non-retractable.

Animals use their claws for different things and so it stands to reason that there would be differences between them. The carnivore section boasts both types of claw so we can have a good look at how they aid our animals here at the park and in the wild.

Retractable Claws

Starting off with the retractable claw we have our big cats. Probably the most obvious use the claw has with regards to all of them is for hunting. A prey animal is designed to evade its predators but being able to dig their claws in enables the cats to hold on and so reduce the risk of losing a meal.

In order to get the best grip the claws need to be sharp. You will notice scratch marks round the enclosures as often they will choose a favourite beam or log for this purpose. You may have even seen them at work. Once sharp they can then be tucked away until needed so won’t become blunt as they walk around.

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Semi-retractable claws

Claws also come in useful for climbing which is demonstrated beautifully by our binturong. Theirs are semi- retractable. This means they are only brought back a little.

Binturongs semi-retractable claws at Wingham Wildlife Park, Kent.
Binturongs use their claws to help with climbing

Cheetah also have semi-retractable claws as they are used more for traction when running as they move at such a high speeds. They act like cleats on a shoe so the cheetah doesn’t lose grip and slip as it chases its prey. Their dew claw, sometimes referred to as their thumb claw, is sharper than the rest as it’s higher off the floor. Once they catch up with their prey they trip it up and then hook it with these claws.

Cheetah semi-retractable claws at Wingham Wildlife Park, Kent.
Can you spot our cheetah’s semi-retractable claws?
Cheetah semi-retractable claws at Wingham Wildlife Park, Kent.

Non-retractable claws

Non-retractable claws are also very useful, not only to our wolves but to our bears. The wolves use them for traction like the cheetah does but unlike the cheetah, wolves and bears need them for digging. This may be for burying some of their food or reversely for digging up something tasty. Bears will spend hours raiding ants and termite mounds so use their claws and strength to rip them open.

Being able to dig also means they can dig a den, very useful for a hibernating bear especially if they are going to give birth. When bear cubs eventually emerge from the den it is also useful for them to be able to climb high into a tree to escape danger so we can see that non-retractable claws can help with this task as well.

Bear cub uses claws for climbing at Wingham Wildlife Park, Kent

A range of animals with retractable and non-retractable claws, often use claw marks on trees etc. to mark their territory. If these markers are ignored and they are challenged by a rival or another predator they will then have to defend themselves. Their claws will again be put to good use with this.

It is fair to say that the claw plays a crucial part in the diversity of the animal kingdom. So the next time you come to Wingham, take a closer look at what our carnivores are up to. Maybe they will give you a demonstration.

About Sarah - Head of Carnivores

When our previous head of carnivores moved on to another job, Sarah stepped up from her position as senior keeper in this section to take charge of the section as a whole. Her love for cats doesn't stop at work as she's also a cat owner at home.