If your cat becomes Houdini and magically vanishes whenever you even think about trimming her nails, part of the problem might be that she has learned to associate the procedure with restraint, discomfort, fear or even pain. Even if you do manage to accomplish the nail trimming procedure, if you’ve had to wrap your cat in a towel, enlist the help of family members to hold her down, restrain her by scruffing or have punished her in any way for being a wiggle worm, then all that just compounds the problem. If she dislikes the process now, she’ll absolutely hate it the next time and then go into full panic mode the time after that.
Nail Trimming Shouldn’t be Stressful
Ok, it may not top the list of your cat’s favorite things to do, but it shouldn’t create a wave of panic and should definitely not result in hissing, growling, biting or scratching (by the cat or by you!). When done correctly, it should be a quick, easy, and dare I say, pleasant experience.
If you’re dealing with a kitten, don’t waste time – start getting her comfortable with having her paws touched and her nails trimmed. This is the ideal time because if you get her comfortable with it from the very beginning it will be a heck of a lot easier when she’s an adult.
If you’re dealing with a cat who has never had her nails trimmed or has had a less-than-happy experience with the procedure, you’ll have to take it slow and do some trust-building. For this, you won’t even get out the clippers or attempt to trim even one nail. Your main objective during this phase is to show your cat that having her paws touched is a good thing.
The Velvet Touch
Choose a time to begin the training when your cat is relaxed and maybe even a bit sleepy. Arm yourself with some treats and gently touch your cat’s paw and then offer a treat. If she has never been comfortable with having her paws touched then make sure that when you do touch her, it’s for no more than a couple of seconds – just one gentle stroke on the paw.
Work up to being able to pet each of her paws and then to being able to lift and hold one paw for a few seconds. When you hold her paw don’t grasp it – just let it sit in your hand for the count of three. Reward your cat for her tolerance with a treat whenever she allows her paws to be held.
The next step is to hold a paw and gently press to allow the nail to extend. Be very gentle. Reward your cat. Do this with all of the paws.
Do the above exercises a couple of times a day until you feel your cat is completely comfortable with having her paws held and gently pressed so the nails are exposed. Remember to always reward your cat with a treat for her acceptance of each move you make.
Choose the Right Nail Clipper
Get a nail clipper that is meant for cat nails. Don’t use a dog nail clipper (too big) and don’t use clippers meant for human fingernails (they’re split the nails). The cat’s nails are smaller and thinner so use clipper specifically designed for their size and shape.
Avoid Cutting the Quick
There’s a blood supply running through the nail. If your cat’s nails are light-colored you can see the pink part. That’s called the quick and it contains nerves and the blood supply. If you cut the quick you will cause pain to your cat and it will also result in bleeding. If you cut the quick, in addition to the pain, you will also undo the good behavior work you’ve been spending time on and your cat may develop a fear of the procedure. So only cut the very tip of the nail – don’t go beyond the curve. If your cat’s nails are light-colored, it’s much easier to see the quick, but if they’re dark-colored, you have to be even more careful. Always cut less than you think you should. If you’re at all in doubt about how much to trim, have your veterinarian or one of the clinic’s veterinary technicians show you. Remember though – you only have to cut the very tip.
If you do accidentally cut the quick, stop the bleeding with a styptic pencil or a little cornstarch. Keep a styptic pencil or styptic powder with your grooming supplies just to be on the safe side. Hopefully though, you’ll never need it.
Trimming the Nails
If your cat has had negative experiences with nail trimming, you shouldn’t attempt to do more than one or nails during each trimming session. It’s better to have the whole procedure over and done before your cat even realizes what just happened. If you keep the experience quick and positive, she’ll be more relaxed next time around.
Choose a time for nail trimming when your cat is relaxed. Hold the nail trimmer with one hand and take your cat’s paw in the other hand. Gently press to expose a nail and do a quick, but careful snip. If she reacts, don’t attempt to do any more nails. If she’s calm, do one or more. Always end on a positive note so it’s better to come back and do a couple more nails later, rather than have her struggle and undo all the good behavior modification work you’ve been doing.
It will also help the process if you keep track which paw you’re working on so you’ll know where you left off when it’s time to do a couple more nails. The less you have to hold a paw while you double-check whether you’ve already cut those nails, the better.
How Often Should You Trim Your Cat’s Nails?
Typically, once a month is sufficient but that will depend on how fast your particular cat’s nails grow.
The Scratching Post
Don’t be surprised if your cat races over to her scratching post after you’ve trimmed her nails. It’s actually a good way for her to complete the manicure. It’s a great way for her to displace any apprehension she may have had about the procedure. In our house, it’s standard behavior for my cat to head directly to her post as soon as the last nail has been trimmed.
What About Declawing?
Declawing is not a humane option and shouldn’t be viewed as a way to avoid nail trimming. Being able to scratch is a vital part of being a cat. Declawing is the equivalent of mini amputations. Scratching behavior serves many vital emotional and physical functions for a cat. If your cat is engaging in furniture scratching, then provide an appealing scratching post, place it near the area where she’s scratching and reward her for using the post. If you’re considering declawing your cat because you are unable to trim her nails, your veterinarian will teach you how to do it or you can bring your cat in to have a veterinary staff member do the nail trim.
Need More Information?
For more step-by-step information on how to trim nails, retraining a cat who scratches the furniture, or for more information about the dangers of declawing, refer to Think Like a Cat or Starting from Scratch.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the star of Psycho Kitty airing on Discovery UK. She is author of seven best-selling books on cat behavior including Think Like a Cat: how to raise a well-adjusted cat – not a sour puss. Think Like a Cat has become known as the cat bible. Pam is considered a pioneer in the field of cat behavior consulting. In addition to her television series and public speaking engagements, Pam owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company in Nashville, TN. Cat Behavior Associates offers private cat behavior appointments on a limited basis. Pam Johnson-Bennett is a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant.