How to Trim Cat Nails, and Why You Should


Cats are well-armed creatures who punch way above their weight. They have sharp teeth and fast reflexes. They are limber and agile. And those cat claws or cat nails can wreak havoc on prey animals, perceived predators, carpet, drapes, sofas and people who happen to get in their way. So, how do you keep cats from scratching? Let’s talk how to trim cat nails, and why you should.

First, let’s talk declawing vs. cat nail trimming

Declawing is even banned in places, like Denver. Photography ©EkaterinaZakharova | Thinkstock.

Back in the olden days the solution to the havoc that cats’ nails wrought upon people and property was simple: Declaw them. In the modern era, most vets and cat lovers view declawing as an absolute last resort — and many vets refuse to declaw cats even as a last resort. The potential complications of declawing such as pain, behavior changes and increased likelihood of biting are deemed by most to outweigh the benefits (to the owners — cats accrue no significant benefits) of the procedure. The old vets who still believe in declawing are dying off, so people must adjust to the reality of a world in which declawing does not happen.

This means that most cat claws need to be trimmed. Nail trimming, unlike declawing, carries many benefits not only for people and property, but also for cats.

Why should you trim your cat’s claws?

It goes without saying that sharp cat nails inflict more damage than trimmed ones. Your sofa, carpet and drapes will notice significant benefits. For the record, “sharpening” the claws is a normal expression of feline behavior, and it cannot (and should not) be humanely suppressed. That’s why all cat owners should have scratching posts.

As a person for whom cat scratches are an occupational hazard, I can assure you that trimmed cat nails cause less damage to human skin than their sharper counterparts. Cat scratches aren’t merely painful. Scratches can become infected (remember, the cat digs in the litter box with those same nails). And flea-infested cats may spread Bartonella henselae, also known as cat scratch disease (although in my opinion it should be called flea feces disease, because it’s fleas that spread it — cats merely introduce the bacteria into the bloodstream when they scratch humans with nails that have flea feces on them).

Cats derive direct benefits from having their nails trimmed by people as well. Cats’ nails grow in layers that are like shells. When cats “sharpen” their claws, they are removing the older shells to expose the sharper new ones. However, often cats do not successfully remove the shells. This can lead to ingrown nails that can become extremely painful and can lead to nasty infections. Regular nail trims prevent ingrown nails. Furthermore, a cat with trimmed nails is likely to enjoy a better relationship with her family, since she won’t be ejected from laps merely for making kitty dough.

There is good news: A skilled team of people working with a tolerant cat can get a nail trim done in 20 seconds flat. Unfortunately, there is also bad news: Many cats are not tolerant of nail trims, and many people are not skilled in the process. Below are some pointers for how to trim cat nails that will hopefully help cat owners:

1. Know the anatomy of cat claws

An older-looking gray cat licking his paw with his tongue out.

Know the anatomy of your cat’s claws before you trim. Photography ©sjallenphotography | Thinkstock.

Most cats have 18 nails (five on each front foot and four on each rear foot). However, a condition called polydactyly, in which cats have supernumerary digits, is quite common. Get to know your cat’s feet, and know where the nails are and how many there are. Also, remember that cats’ nails naturally retract while at rest. They can be extended for trimming by applying simultaneous gentle pressure on the top and bottom of each toe. Practice this and get good at it.

Finally, know the quick. The quick contains blood and nerves that feed and provide sensation to the nails. If you trim a nail too aggressively, you will cut into the quick. This causes pain and bleeding. The quick can be identified by its pink or red tinge (caused by the blood flowing through it) at the base of the nail. The quick does not generally extend through the entire nail.

2. Habituate the cat to holding still and having her feet handled

Cats very rarely resent nail trims unless the quick is struck. However, many cats do not like to hold still and have their feet handled. I recommend that cat owners handle their cat’s feet every day. If your cat is used to having her feet handled, the job will be much easier. Kittens are especially amenable to this habituation, but it works for many mature cats as well. You can practice extending the nails while you are handling the feet.

3. Try to make the nail trimming experience pleasant, and don’t fight

Treats, petting and soft voices go a long way. If your cat starts to get angry, abort the procedure. Cats have remarkably good memories, and if you fight with her to trim her nails, I can assure you that the procedure will only get more difficult over time.

4. Work as a team

This is the veterinarian’s ace in the hole. I almost always work with another person when performing a feline nail trim. Holding the cat is the harder job because it requires a great deal of finesse — the goal is to restrain the cat without her knowing that she’s being restrained. It should be done gently and lovingly, but a good restrainer won’t let the cat get up and walk away (unless she starts to get angry).

5. Don’t waste time

Very few cats will tolerate a 10-minute nail trim. Know what you’re doing, respect the anatomy, and don’t bumble around. If you’re good the nail trim will be over before the cat even knows she’s being restrained.

6. Use the right equipment and use good technique

One person should gently restrain and reassure the cat. The other person should quickly extend each nail and use an appropriate nail trimmer (conveniently, human nail trimmers work fine) to remove the tip of each nail. Move smoothly through the nails on each foot. When in doubt, it is better to remove too little nail than too much. The sharpest part of the nail is at the very end, so only a bit needs to be removed anyway. If you accidentally hit a quick, apply corn starch or a commercial powder such as Kwik Stop to control the bleeding.

Remember that with nail trimming, as with so many things in life, practice makes a big difference. If you set your mind to regularly handling and trimming your cat’s nails, you will most likely get good at it.

Tell us: What are your tips on how to trim cat nails?

Thumbnail: Photography by tandemich / Shutterstock.

April is Spring Cleaning month here at Catster! Stay tuned for a few articles every week on all things spring cleaning and cats — whether that’s cat-safe ways to clean your home, spring-cleaning your cat’s grooming routine with advice on brushing and bathing — and much more.

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