Trim Your Cat’s Nails the Right Way, and Nobody Gets Hurt

Allegra and I are getting mother daughter pedicures today.  I’ll be going to my local nail salon.  Allegra’s nail technician makes a house call.  Yes, I admit it:  despite trimming countless cats’ nails as a veterinary assistant, and educating clients on how to do it, I can’t trim Allegra’s nails  without having someone help me.

Cats’ nails, especially when they’re kittens, are very sharp, and they don’t just hurt when they’re used on you, they can also damage furniture and carpet.  Having plenty of scratching posts and training your cats to use them will help with that aspect, but keeping cats’ nails trimmed is important for other reasons.  Cats’ nails grow very fast, and if not trimmed, can grow into the pads of the paws, which is a very painful condition that will require veterinary attention.

The time to get your cat used to having her nails trimmed is when she’s a kitten.  Play with her paws, squeeze the paw pads, touch the nails, but stop as soon as the kitten fights you or starts to bite at your hand.  Eventually, as the kitten gets used to having her paws handled, you can start using nail trimmers especially designed for pets.  Do not use scissors, they can split your cat’s nails.  You’ll also want to have some styptic powder on hand in case you cut the nails too short and make the quicks bleed.  If you don’t have styptic powder, a black (caffeinated) tea bag applied with gentle pressure works equally well.  To avoid cutting the quick, clip only the tip of the nail; when in doubt, err on the side of caution and take off  less than you think you can.  You’re better off doing more frequent nail trims than making it a painful experience your cat will dread every time she sees you bringing out the nail clippers.  You may only be able to do one or two nails at a time – always stop when the cat starts resisting or struggling.

If you’ve tried the desensitization approach and your cat still won’t let you trim her nails, there are several options.  You can try wrapping your cat in a towel (the kitty burrito approach), exposing one leg at a time.  You can get someone to help you, so one of you can restrain the cat while the other person trims the nails.  Make sure that your helper knows how to properly and safely restrain a cat.  And of course, you can also take your cat to your veterinary clinic for her pedicure.

An alternative to nail trims are soft nail caps that are glued onto the cat’s claws so they can’t do any damage when the cat scratches.  You can do this yourself, or have it done at your veterinary clinic.  I’m not a fan of these nail caps.  The cat’s paws will still have to be handled to apply the caps, and nails have to be trimmed prior to application, so if you’re able to do that, then why not just trim the cat’s nails, period.  Additionally, once the caps are on, cats won’t be able to retract their claws, and I can’t imagine that feels very good to them.

I tried the desensitization approach described above with Allegra when I adopted her at seven months old – with very little success.  She was a play biter and touching her feet only encouraged her to bite.  I was using multiple behavior modification methods to get her to stop biting, and I realized I was pushing my luck trying to get her used to nail trims until I had addressed her other issues.  So for now, a friend helps me, and nail trims take 30 seconds for all four paws.  There are plenty of treats afterwards (for Allegra, and for my friend, too).

How do your cats feel about having their nails trimmed?

38 Comments on Trim Your Cat’s Nails the Right Way, and Nobody Gets Hurt

  1. Jess
    January 29, 2016 at 11:02 pm (2 years ago)

    Maybe I’m terrible but I just wait for little Mango to fall asleep and swoop in. Everything’s done in under a minute.

    Reply
    • Lori
      February 18, 2016 at 2:46 am (2 years ago)

      I started as a foster parent to a large male whose young owner died unexpectedly just a few months after getting him from a shelter. I fell in love and kept him. He was an in-tact Tom when animal control picked him up when he was about 1 year old. He really hates having his nails trimmed and it was a huge struggle. He does love treats however and is a smart boy. I taught him to give me his paw in exchange for a treat. I started out just handling the paw and pressing out the nails. After he became comfortable with that, I began trimming one nail at a time and using the sound of the nail clipper kind of like a clicker. I adopted a female cat a year after getting the male but her former owner had declawed ALL 4 PAWS! 🙁 She also has to give me a paw to get a treat. If I am trimming the male’s claws during treat time, I take her paw and pretend to trim her nails. It’s been amazing. Sometimes I can get only a couple of claws trimmed and other times I am able to get a full front paw done. The rear claws are a bit more difficult, but not as bad now that he doesn’t run from the clipper.

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        February 18, 2016 at 5:59 am (2 years ago)

        That’s amazing, Lori! Great job using positive reinforcement.

        Reply
  2. june bullied
    January 11, 2016 at 6:04 pm (2 years ago)

    sweet-tart is a terror for vet to trim her nails. i will be taking her in tomorrow for the other vet to trim. his partner cd not trim before. i dont want him to put her under but then again she struggles and bites and i dont know if i am doing worse by not putting her under. i’m afraid shes going to have a heart attack she fights so much. she is very small but my God what a fighter and growls like a lion. he charges $24.00 for nail trim but additonal $75.00 to put her under. thats a lot of money but i only have her done every 6 months. what are your thoughts?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      January 12, 2016 at 5:48 am (2 years ago)

      I’m not sure there’s much benefit to having nails trimmed every six months, June, especially considering the stress it causes sweet-tart. In an ideal world, we’d all trim our cats’ nails on a regular basis, but some cats just won’t let you. I would keep an eye on her nails to make sure they don’t grow long enough to curve toward her pads (best way to do this with cats who hate their paws touched is while they’re sleeping!). Unless that is an issue, you may not need to put her through nail trims unless she’s being sedated for something else.

      Reply
      • june bullied
        January 12, 2016 at 11:26 am (2 years ago)

        ingrid, by 6 months sweet-tarts nails are really long and starting to curl under. they get stuck in carpets, bedspreads, etc. and when i take her in by 6 months shes good to go for another 6 months. she only gets her check up once a year and by then i’m sure she’ll twist her leg or something. i have to sometimes help her to get loose. i wouldnt want her to get stuck trying to jump off bed and she does a sommersault and breaks or sprains her leg. so i just wanted to know if you think its a good idea for her to be put under to have her nails done, less stress, or just let him cut them with her going crazy. they have to be done by 6 months.

        Reply
        • june bullied
          January 12, 2016 at 3:54 pm (2 years ago)

          ingrid, my vet said sweet-tart shd be lightly sedated to trim her nails. i was there. he did her nails and gave her a physical with everything being good. it cost me $75.00 as opposed to $25.00. things went smoothly, no stress involved. i will do this every 6 months.

          Reply
          • Ingrid
            January 12, 2016 at 4:52 pm (2 years ago)

            If that’s the case, then you’re absolutely right, she will need to have her nails trimmed every 6 months.

  3. Vicky Cuevas
    November 25, 2015 at 3:44 pm (2 years ago)

    I’ve been trimming kitty nails for 30 years. I started when all my cats were kittens, so they all got used to it, but not all of them loved it. I always rewarded the process with treats and had one cat that would get off my lap, turn around and tap my arm for his treat. My last cat was the most difficult and I had to do his nails one or two at a time. He wouldn’t let me hold him, so I had to go over him and hold his paw. I always stopped when he started to resist, so I was always able to wait a couple minutes and try again and get it all done in one session. On particularly difficult days, I would do the front claws one day and the back nails the next. He was the best cat despite this difficulty and I miss him every day!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 26, 2015 at 7:01 am (2 years ago)

      Getting cats used to nail trims as kittens is definitely the best way to ensure a lifetime of stress-free nail trims.

      Reply
  4. Barbara Crawford
    November 25, 2015 at 2:43 pm (2 years ago)

    Claw trimming for us is always a challenge. While Fusco literally holds his paws out and purrs, the other three do ok with the burrito technique but make no bones about just how much they DO NOT enjoy it!

    Reply
  5. Anita
    December 25, 2013 at 2:23 am (4 years ago)

    My 13 year old female cat has never minded me trimming her nails. I got both when they were babies. Lola got her first trimming when she was around 6 months. Rico was a bugger even at a young age and would draw blood if we tried to trim his nails. He’s never liked getting his nails cut. Two of us have tried holding him with a towel wrapped around him, but still no go. Even got one of those cat bags and a cat muzzle, but that didn’t help either…impossible to trim his nails (and I ended up falling out of my chair trying it that way)! I’ve tried holding his paw with firm pressure to get him used to it, but in 11 years, it’s never persuaded him to let me clip the nails. The vet can’t even do it without knocking him out and that costs too much money (they charge $15 just to trim them, but with knocking him out, it’s closer to $80). Any suggestions that haven’t already been said?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 25, 2013 at 7:14 am (4 years ago)

      I would try trimming one nail at a time, when your cat is relaxed, Anita. If you can get one nail trimmed without a struggle, reward with a treat. Never reward if he fights you. Very gradually work up to two nails, three, etc. This may be a very long, drawn out process, but it’s worth a try.

      Reply
  6. Marilyn
    March 4, 2013 at 8:57 am (5 years ago)

    I was lucky enough to get my two cats when they were only 8 weeks old. From day one I would lay them on their backs on my lap and rub their tummies. This got them used to that position, and that is how I trim their nails. Without any fuss. It really does help to do it when they are sleepy. I get them when they are napping, and they just seem to take the pedicures in stride.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      March 4, 2013 at 9:10 am (5 years ago)

      That’s wonderful that your two are so good about having their nails trimmed, Marilyn.

      Reply
  7. Lisa M
    May 20, 2012 at 6:08 am (5 years ago)

    Excellent advice. We began trimming Ozzie’s claws as a kitten. Now he is 10 years old. His claws have been kept manicured his whole life. He never gives us any trouble about it at all, and he is not shy about registering his complaint if he disapproves of something. Pet him thhe wrong I way and he will let you know immediately. Other than when clipping his claws he does not approve of his paws beimg handled. But when clipping, he practically hold my his paw out. P.s. He is a big boned, 19 pound snow shoe siamese, so its a good thing he’s cooperative.

    BTW I would no more have my cats declawed than I would have had my childrens fingers removed at birth. I understand/accept that this procedure may be necessary in extreme cases where the safety of the family is at risk etc, but otherwise I find it a distastefully selfish and cruel practice.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 20, 2012 at 6:50 am (5 years ago)

      You are so lucky that Ozzie is so cooperative when it comes to getting his nails trimmed. Your early training definitely paid off. And I completely agree with you on declawing.

      Reply
  8. Nikki Lamothe
    May 17, 2012 at 5:15 pm (5 years ago)

    I take the one or two nails at a time tactic as well, with all of my cats…they seem to mind it a lot less that way…the trick then is keeping track of which ones have been previously trimmed so as not to keep clipping the same ones! 🙂 My purebred Tonk (rescue) is the least likely to fidget when having her nails trimmed. Right now, I am fostering kittens, as well, so I plan to start trimming their nails in about a month (they are still only a couple weeks old now), and will do so monthly, if I can make it happy habit!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 17, 2012 at 5:34 pm (5 years ago)

      Getting them used to it as kittens is definitely the way to go, Nikki.

      Reply
  9. Ana Grupke
    May 17, 2012 at 4:26 pm (5 years ago)

    Purrl, who was a surrender at Animal Control obviously had some negative nail clipping experiences. One of her paws looks like it may have been mishandled. When she even thinks I am THINKING about a trim she freaks… I try to sneak up with a friend when she is sleeping and badda boom badda bing. snip snip…I trim one or two at a time. ha I had no trouble with my feral ‘meezers because the white nails showed up beautifully on the dark brown fur. Purrl is white on white…so it takes a few seconds to even find them! Mister Meow was declawed when I found him, grrr (wandering around lost OUTSIDE! grrr)

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      May 17, 2012 at 4:36 pm (5 years ago)

      Sometimes, one or two nails at a time is the best you can do, Ana. Unless I have my friend to help, that’s how I have to do it with Ruby.

      Reply
  10. obsidian kitten
    December 27, 2010 at 3:03 pm (7 years ago)

    I’ve been trimming my various cats’ nails for about 20 years now and always had good experiences with it (and two of the cats came to me as very wild kittens from feral parents). The desensitization process you describe is key, and I always do the trimming when the cat is relaxed…sleepy, not in a playful mood. I think it’s important to be relaxed yourself when you do it; trying to trim her cat’s nails stressed my mom out and her anxiety made her cat nervous. We did it together a few times until she became more relaxed. If you don’t make a big deal out of it and the cat isn’t in a playful or feisty mood it should go pretty quickly. In two decades I’ve only had one experience where I snipped a bit of paw pad and got some bleeding–it’s easy to avoid the quick and there’s a good photo and very clear diagram of the claw here:
    http://searchwarp.com/swa562836-How-To-Quickly-And-Easily-Trim-Your-Cats-Claws.htm
    As she does, I use regular people fingernail clippers. (However, I don’t “scruff” my cats!) Good luck!

    Reply
  11. Bernie
    December 20, 2010 at 1:17 am (7 years ago)

    Trim Steeler’s nails!! Not in my lifetime, I already look like her scratching post. Kitty salon does this for her. She strong and not co-operative. Stays away from me at home for several hours after a trimming. Tortie with Attitude.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 20, 2010 at 5:00 pm (7 years ago)

      Bernie, there’s probably a disproportionately high number of torties among the cats who don’t cooperate when it comes to nail trims!

      Reply
  12. Michael O'Donoghue
    December 14, 2010 at 10:34 pm (7 years ago)

    Pottasium permanganate is applied using a dampened cotton wool bud, only a very small amount needs to be used and is applied directly to the nail bed. skin irratation or burns are extremely rare. it is also rare to have to use it all for cats nails.

    Reply
  13. Michael O'Donoghue
    December 14, 2010 at 9:01 am (7 years ago)

    I would never trim the nails of an outside cat, they rarely need it, and they would not be able to climb trees to escape dogs, if you have cut their nails. So mostly I find only clip the nailstotally inside or very old cats. Also I mostly use potasium permagnate to stop a nail bleed. but that would be very rare on a cat as they never have pigmented nails like a dog does, so it is easier to see the quik.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 14, 2010 at 10:17 pm (7 years ago)

      I’d be concerned about using potassium permanganate. While it may be effective in stopping any bleeding, it can cause skin irritation and burns, depending on what concentration it’s used in.

      Reply
  14. Amy Nievera
    December 13, 2010 at 2:52 pm (7 years ago)

    Oh goodness! Our kittens just had their nails trimmed on Saturday, when they were knocked out for fixing. It made a huge difference.

    We bought a cat manicure set but I’m not looking forward to it. I’ve been petting and holding their paws in preparation for trimming but I’m pretty sure the girl (Respy) isn’t going to be very cooperative. She’s a squirmer!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 13, 2010 at 9:58 pm (7 years ago)

      Always a good idea to take advantage of anesthesia to get an easy nail trim in! Good luck with getting your kittens used to nail trims, Amy.

      Reply
  15. Layla Morgan Wilde
    December 13, 2010 at 1:51 pm (7 years ago)

    A timely subject. Some cats seem to need more trimming than others. My first Siamese never need a trim in sixteen years. Merlin has rarely need any trimming until he stopped climbing trees outside. Now he allows it with minimal fuss. Odin is due for a trim and I’ve been playing with his toes. I’ll let you know how it goes. Gris Gris may prove challenging since he doesn’t like being held at all. I’m trained as an esthetician and prefer professional clippers. I hate soft nail caps. They’re okay maybe as a last resort in lieu of declawing.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 13, 2010 at 2:09 pm (7 years ago)

      Allegra’s nails seem to grow super fast, but then, she uses her sisal scratching posts a lot, and that also makes them nice and sharp. Amber and Buckley didn’t need frequent trims – which was a good thing, since neither of them was too cooperative.

      It sounds like Gris Gris will be the challenge for you, especially since old cat nails are a lot tougher and harder to trim.

      Reply
  16. Rita Dean
    December 13, 2010 at 10:46 am (7 years ago)

    A timely reminder. My Wilson is now 7 months and I’ve trimmed all fours a couple of times, due for another. LOVES his belly rubbed, so I do that to mellow him out, and start nipping off his nail tips. He really doesn’t mind. Can’t say the same for big sisters Molly and Cate! I love them for their very different personalities, so I guess I can’t complain.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 13, 2010 at 2:06 pm (7 years ago)

      That’s great that Mr. Wilson is so mellow for his nail trims, Rita.

      Reply
  17. Marg
    December 13, 2010 at 9:15 am (7 years ago)

    Can that friend come to my house?? LOL I know I couldn’t trim these cat’s nails. I am lucky to be able to catch them. But that is great information. Thanks

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 13, 2010 at 2:05 pm (7 years ago)

      Might be a bit of a haul for her, Marg…lol!

      Reply
  18. Max the Quilt Cat
    December 13, 2010 at 8:13 am (7 years ago)

    Wonderful article about our sensitive feet. I love that picture of those big paws too.

    pawhugs, Max

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 13, 2010 at 2:04 pm (7 years ago)

      Those are some big paws for sure!

      Reply

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