Is your cat limping and meowing? Are his paws and nails bloody or swollen? If so, he might have a toenail infection. Your cat's medical prognosis is good -- he probably just needs some claw cleanup and topical antibiotics. Most toenail infections aren't serious, but some indicate serious underlying medical conditions.
Methods of Infection
Torn toenails cause the lion's share of feline toenail infections.
Cats can damage their claws in any number of ways -- including fighting or overzealous scratching -- but only injuries that breach the nail's quick lead to infection. An open, bloody wound on a single paw is where an infection takes root.
Other infection routes include immune disorders and genetic conditions. In these cases, infections usually involve multiple toenails and are secondary symptoms of the underlying condition.
Signs and Symptoms
It's not hard to tell if your cat has an infected toenail. Telltale signs include limping and yowling, redness and inflammation, and single or multiple cracked and splintering nails. Odd-colored growths and crust can indicate a fungal infection.
Schedule a veterinary appointment, and in the meantime, trim and remove damaged toenails.
To expose the claw, gently squeeze the cat's toe between your thumb and forefinger. Clip affected nails at a perpendicular angle about one-tenth of an inch out from the quick. The quick contains blood and nerve endings growing outward from the toe; it's the darker, usually pink spot visible within the claw. Cut using toenail or specialty clippers, but never scissors. Wash the wound, and bandage it, if possible.
Some types of infections are contagious, so isolate your cat from other animals.
After examining your cat's nails, a veterinarian should be able to tell you the cause of the toenail infection.
In most cases -- those caused by trauma, bacteria or fungus -- claw maintenance and antibiotics or antifungals should clear up your cat's infection in a week or two.
If cultures or blood work confirm an underlying disease, your veterinarian might prescribe immunosupressive drugs or, in severe cases, recommend toe amputation.
Regular claw maintenance can help your cat avoid damaging overgrown toenails, but a slip-up could actually cause an infection.
If you cut your cat's toe, or if you breach the quick, or if you just happen to notice your cat's paw is bleeding, treat the wound with silver nitrate or a styptic pad. Use cornstarch and flour in a pinch.
A scratching post encourages your cat to groom his own nails. You still need to check his toenails -- particularly if he's an indoor cat -- as overgrowth can also lead to injury and infection.