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How to Trim Your Cat’s Nails (and Whether You Really Need To)
By: Brianna Gunter
Your kitty’s claws are a trademark of his existence, but they can be tough to tolerate when your furniture or skin is taking a toll. Sooner or later, you may be wondering how to cut a cat’s claws safely at home and save the relationship between you and your furry friend.
Keep in mind that it’s always a good idea to consult with your pet’s veterinarian before taking pet clippers to kitty’s paws—especially if you have never trimmed cat nails before. It’s also important to know that trimming a cat’s claws isn’t necessarily the best choice in every scenario. Here’s what all cat owners should be aware of when it comes to at-home feline claw trimming and how to do so safely.
Do you really need to trim a cat’s claws?
Just like human and dog nails, cat nails or “claws” grow slowly but surely. If not trimmed or filed down, these nails can keep growing to a point where they are uncomfortable for the cat or may even curl back into their toe or paw pad. In some cases, long nails may get torn out and cause bleeding or other problems for the cat.
Consequently, a lot of cats benefit from regular nail trimming for health reasons. This is especially true for those that are indoor-only and may not naturally wear down their nails daily by scratching on trees.
Will claw trimming prevent scratching?
Obviously, you may just want to trim your cat’s claws if she is scratching up your furniture or worse, you and your family members. Like nails on other animals, cat claws can harbor bacteria and may cause an infection if you are scratched. Whether or not you do decide to trim kitty’s nails, it’s important to talk with your veterinarian about curbing destructive behavior.
That said, scratching is a natural urge for cats that will not go away just because their claws are trimmed. Instead of punishing your cat for scratching (which you should never do), make sure she has plenty of safe scratching options available. If you have a cat scratching post in your home, for example, regular use of it will help file down kitty’s nails and fulfill her scratching instinct. Be sure to replace scratchers as they become worn down to ensure they stay effective. Many cats also like to scratch on different surfaces, so it’s a good idea to have both cardboard and rope post options at kitty’s disposal.
Some felines do not actually need their nails trimmed (at least not regularly) because they wear them down naturally through routine play and scratching. For most, however, a combination of natural scratching and regular claw trimming is ideal.
How fast do cat claws grow?
Cat nails grow continuously. While the exact amount of time between trimmings can vary greatly depending on the cat’s activity, most pet owners who do cat nail clipping at home find they need to do so every few weeks. Your kitty’s age may also play a role.
“I’ve found young kittens may need [nail trimming] every one to two weeks, whereas older cats may be able to go closer to a month between trimmings,” says Trupanion veterinarian Dr. Sarah Nold.
Step-by-step tips for trimming your cat’s nails
Trimming cat nails at home is both an art and a science. Follow these tips to ensure you’re doing it safely.
1. Make sure you have the proper tools
Invest in a good pair of small pet nail clippers intended for use with felines. Sometimes these are included as part of cat grooming kits, if you’re feeling like giving your furry friend a full refresh while you’re at it.
For the actual nail trimming session though, you’ll also need a paper towel or small container to set trimmed nails in, or that you’re in a place where you can easily sweep or vacuum afterwards. Make sure you’re in a well-lit setting as well, to get a clear look at kitty’s paws and prevent injury.
2. Acclimate your cat
If you’re taking the clippers out of the package for the first time and reaching straight for kitty, you’re doing it wrong. Instead, you’ll want to acclimate your cat slowly (a process that may take days or even weeks).
Practice holding your cat on your lap for several minutes at a time in the area you plan to trim his nails in. When he seems comfortable, start slowly touching and holding his paws, talking to him gently to help keep him calm. Once he’s relaxed with you doing that, introduce the pet nail clippers and let him smell them. Clip them in the air by him, allowing him to get used to the movement and noise. You may also want to get some dry, uncooked spaghetti and clip that near him as well, as the sound will be comparable to trimming cat nails.
To help make things even easier, Nold advises keeping positive reinforcement in mind when acclimating your cat: “Follow it up with something your cat enjoys, which may be a treat or play time or a good brushing.”
3. Practice a few times
Safe cat nail trimming at home isn’t just about keeping your cat calm—you need to make sure you’re comfortable as well. Get yourself used to handling the clippers, and practice by trimming more pieces of uncooked spaghetti. Practice in the same place you’ll be trimming your cat’s nails in, as you’ll want to be comfortable seated there for a while as well. If your local veterinary hospital allows it, another option is to ask for an in-person demonstration and practice session.
4. Set up the claw trimming space
Always set up your trimming area beforehand and test the lighting if needed. Ensure your clippers are clean and ready to go, and that you have a comfortable, sturdy place to sit.
5. Wait for when your cat is relaxed
Grabbing your cat in the middle of playtime or when he’s hunting birds through your living room window is not ideal for ensuring he’s relaxed during claw trimming time. Wait for right after he’s eaten or is sleepy and content. Always pick him up gently and pet him quietly for a bit before touching his paws. Treat the situation like any other cuddle session.
Now, the right cat nail trimming position will depend on the cat and their owner, but you may want to start by putting him in your lap facing outward (away from you). For cats that like belly rubs, being on their backs may be best for trimming.
6. Extend the nail and look for the quick
Start with the front paws. Massage your kitty’s paw pads and gently press to expose the claws and extend the nails. Never press down aggressively or too hard, as this can cause pain and make your cat resistant to trimmings. Look at the lower part of the claw and identify the part that appears almost clear. This area will not have any blood vessels or nerves running through it—the area that does appears pink and is called a “quick.” Take great care to avoid clipping the quick, as doing so can result in immediate pain and bleeding for your cat.
7. Trim the claws and repeat
Trim the clear, quick-less portion and repeat on each claw until you’re done. Don’t forget the dewclaw while you’re at it. This is the claw on the inside of each front leg, furthest back from the pad. Follow-up with the other paws, petting your cat in between and talking soothingly to her.
PetMD recommends keeping styptic powder on hand to stop bleeding if you do go too far and hit the quick. However, you’ll still want to give your veterinarian a call in that scenario as a precaution.
“Definitely best to have Kwik-Stop (styptic powder) on hand and not need it,” says Nold. “Also, you can use corn starch if you are in a pinch.”
8. Reward your cat
You may want to give your cat a treat right after nail trimming to help keep the experience as positive as possible. If she only associates getting her claws clipped with discomfort and awkwardness, she’s not going to be willing to sit through it again. After giving her a treat or introducing a toy, give her some pets, then allow her space to do her own thing.
9. Be patient
Above all, it’s important to be patient with your kitty and never punish her for not behaving. Keep in mind that proper acclimation to nail trimming may take days or weeks, depending on the cat. If your cat keeps wriggling away, try getting her used to being wrapped him in a towel or a cat grooming bag. Even if your pet seems fully comfortable with claw clipping, don’t rush the process. Go slow and steady to make sure you’re being accurate and keeping your pet safe.
It’s also important to note that some cats will never accept having their nails trimmed and may need to be brought to a veterinarian for it (scroll down to read more).
When to take your cat to a veterinarian
Kitty just won’t let you touch his paws? Sometimes you have to know when to throw in the towel and seek outside help. There are many cat grooming services that offer nail trimming, but having it done by a professional in a veterinary setting will ensure safety. Most veterinary hospitals provide cat nail trimming onsite, which you may want to utilize if your cat keeps squirming away or you simply don’t feel comfortable with the pet nail clippers.
You’ll also want to bring your cat in for professional evaluation if you notice any potential signs of medical trouble, from claws growing into paw pads to persistent bleeding. Any swelling or paw sensitivity is also reason enough to call your local veterinary office, as is redness, limping, or excessive paw licking.
Keep in mind that your cat’s veterinarian may advise against trimming their nails if they feel the claws are short enough already or that doing so would cause harm. In other cases, a mild sedative may be administered to keep your cat calm. Always seek medical attention for your pet if you notice any abnormal changes with their paws or nails or have other concerns.
Interested in learning more about your cat’s paws? Trupanion has the answers to why cats knead and other cat owner questions.
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