A stealthy or sly-looking cat with his paw out.
A stealthy or sly-looking cat with his paw out. Photography ©gtlv | Thinkstock.

How to Trim Cat Nails, and Why You Should

Cat nail trimming benefits cats, their owners and the houses where cats live. Here's how to trim cat nails safely and efficiently.
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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 about how to trim cat nails, and why you should.

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

An excited cat with his claws out.
Declawing is even banned in places, like Denver. Photography ©EkaterinaZakharova | Thinkstock.

Before we talk how to trim cat cat nails, let’s discuss declawing. 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 when their people know how to trim cat nails properly, too. 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 parents:

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.

The first step in knowing how to trim cat nails is knowing about cat paws. 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 paws, 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

Another important point in how to trim cat nails is learning how to handle your cat’s paws in the first place. 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 parents 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 when it comes to how to trim cat nails. 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

Here’s a great tip when thinking about how to trim cat nails — make the process quick and efficient. 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 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 ©gtlv | Thinkstock.

This piece was originally published in 2016.

Read more about cat health on Catster.com:

46 thoughts on “How to Trim Cat Nails, and Why You Should”

  1. Pingback: Our Top 5 Professional Best Cat Nail Clippers – 2019

  2. Andrea Motgomery

    I have one Heck of a Time trimming my cats nails; I rescued him from an abandoned house. He was still an active male (about a year and a half old) and extremely hostile. It took took us almost 3 month (even after having him fixed) to become a little bit friendlier.
    But still, after almost 6 years I can not trim his nails or brush him; he will get extremely nasty, bites and scratches real hard! He is a real long haired cat and as well very, very big!
    I rely need help!!

    1. I would recommend taking him to a veterinary clinic or pet groomer! I take my cat once a month to my vet office to get her nails trimmed .

  3. I think a lot of people are confused between declawing and trimming. Declawing is disabling *surgery,* which I am very much against. *Trimming* is exactly like trimming your nails. There are very good reasons to do it, especially because the claw can grow right around and into the pad and get infected when they are older. Trust me, when that happens, and it probably will, it will mean a trip to the vet and you will feel so guilty you will want to die. As for how: I keep the clippers near me, one near the TV and one near the couch. I have very cuddly cats. When a claw stabs me, it’s clippin’ time. I let them snuggle in and get relaxed, and then I calmly clip the offending claw and maybe one or two more. If they get upset, it is time to stop. Then I pet them and praise them extravagantly: “good boy for letting Mommy clip your claws!” It works for me, anyway. The thumb claw is the worst. It’s hardest to get to, it’s thick and curvy and sharp as a scimitar, it really hurts when it digs in, and the cat usually struggles, so just good luck on that one.

  4. I have a very large issue with trimming claws – I have 3 very big and tall Maine Coons aka Gentle Giants. Holding anywhere from 28 lbs to 18 lbs still while you
    1) touch and press on these very large paws
    2) tuffs of hair between each toe that is about a half inch long you have to go thru to find the claw
    3) and finally clipping a thicker than average claw.
    All 3 have long bodies and long legs and are incredibly strong. First rule is to pick the up sit them in your lap with their back against your torso. Quickly put your left arm under their front legs and grab that right leg/paw, press and trim as fast as possible, talking sweetly and try to act like you are calm and you both are having fun. At this point all 3 for some unknown reason chose to put that right paw on my face under my eye. The whole time they are talking to you as MC’s are very vocal. Keeping them in the same position, up against you, trim the back which are easier but thicker. You have to have VERY good clippers or you can splinter the claws. Oh yes, MC’s will look you directly in the eyes and want to watch every move you make. Only one acts really dramatic during this process, he opens his mouth, shows me his teeth and since he never hisses, he tries but usually starts to cough and he usually will lay his ears back, if he remembers. Then the fun begins for whoever had his claws cut. He gets a good deep combing, hair thinning to remove first layer of hair closest to skin and remove any small mats before the start to get bigger. This part takes about 20 to 45 minutes depending on the particular cat I am working on. Last but not least, holding on to you not so Gentle Giant by now, some how separate hair on the back of their head/upper neck as best you can with you finger, blow where you are separating it to try and find skin and very, very quickly squeeze small vial of heatworm, flea, worm and ear mite medicine, pull hair back together and let go immediately. On to number 2 & 3. Then you relax and thank God you don’t have to do this again for 30 days!!!
    PS With MC’s you do have to comb and brush them at least 3 times a week but not the demoting type of deep combing. Every day during spring and late fall during big shedding time. I usually take my BIG boy to the groomer and he gets a lion cut for the summer which he loves and the other big guy gets a good thinning of his hair. My female never gets mats, has long hair that is incredibly like silk and sheds the least. Gotta love a Maine Coon or 2 or 3!!!❤️????❤️

    1. I absolutely loved your post! I have a MC and I thought her behavior was unusual until I read this. Thank you so much for the time and thought you put into posting this you’ve helped me very much. I don’t know what to do sometimes she scratches every thing! She practically shredded my brand new bed.

  5. I’m not convinced trimming is of any benefit to the cat. I’m pretty sure cats claws function just fine without human maintenance. Part of being a cat is having sharp claws to scratch and grip. Let cats be cats. Get them something more appealing to scratch than your furniture like a sisal rope scratching tree and some of those cardboard scratching pads and everyone wins.

    1. “Get them something more appealing to scratch than your furniture like a sisal rope scratching tree and some of those cardboard scratching pads and everyone wins.”

      Unless of course, you have a cat like mine who simply will NOT use the cat scratching tree, or any other kind of scratching surface (i’ve tried many!) and much prefers the couch.

      1. I have seen angled pieces covered in sisal that go over the corners of a lounge for cats that insist that the lounge is best. Try googling them.

    2. Except for when they get old and will not scratch enough to hone their nails. My cat’s claw was starting to grow into her pad. It really does depend on the cat.

    3. You can also make a “picture frame” and have the sisal fabric where you can change it out when it gets worn. My guys LOVE theirs. I purchased a roll of sisal (no glues or backing) used for elevators. you can get anything online these days I also have “litterbox cabinets” so there are no exposed litter boxes. Their room looks like a normal room but is exclusively for cats because I do rescue. Very inexpensive to do.

  6. Paulette Gardiner

    These tips will be very helpful. My most loving and friendly cat of the three I have turns into a beast when i trim her nails. I got her from a rescue when she was 10 weeks old and she’s hated nail trims from the get go. She’s now 12 and I will try these suggestions.

  7. Declawing cats is the equivalent of chopping off all your fingers at the first knuckle. I have a rescue cat and I foster cats so I have a menagerie coming in and out for whom I have no context as to their past experience. DO NOT use human nail clippers; cats’ nails are designed very differently from ours and human nail clippers will shatter their nails into multiple layers. Cat nail trimmers operate the same way except that they’re shaped roundly so just buy those. You already know your cat’s personality so either clip each paw and give a treat in between or if they’re more difficult, as a user above mentioned, wrap them in a towel gently and bring one paw out a time and again, give a treat in between. It shouldn’t take more than 1-4 minutes depending on if/how long you need to take breaks for.

    1. Hi Ash, Am thinking of clipping my cats claws, she has problems walking -especially on carpets. What I am worried about, is if I accidentally cut into the quick and don’t notice, could my cat die through blood loss, is it dangerous in other words. Thanks.

      1. You’re only looking to trim the tips of each claw. As the tip is the sharp bit, once that is trimmed, the claw hurts far less if it gets you, and the sofa will appreciate it as well. Perhaps you could watch some videos of vets doing that on Youtube?

      2. I’m not Ash but I will say not to worry when you clip your cats claws…unless the claws are very dark, you can see the quick easily and if you do happen to cut it, you WILL notice. If you are concerned, keep the cornstarch handy, just in case.

      3. She won’t die of blood loss, but you could crunch the quick and it would hurt, and it might get infected. That has accidentally happened to me twice. You can quickly apply pressure, then use cornstarch and a stypic pencil. Wrap the paw up with vet tape, or just wash it and keep an eye on it in case there’s an infection. The real problem is that your cat will be upset and might not let you trim its claws anymore!

  8. Hey, Jim, I rehabilitated 4 pets. The indoor cat I rescued came declawed, 15yrs a go. She had no trouble climbing trees, catching me rabbits, chipmunks, huge mice, birds, etc as “presents”. I think it might depend on the cat. Another barn cat I rescued doesn’t want to go outdoors. I make her as I’m training for indoor behavior til I keep her in full time. (I’m might keep this one :) )
    Thanks for all the tips. I’m sure/hopeful I won’t have a problem with trimming her nails. She’s just so happy to be alive!!

  9. I put a small blanket around her and that helps her calm down. I let her smell the nail trimmer and gently start cutting them. I use a room with a lot of light so I cut only the hook and not injure my kitten and that also helps me cut them faster. After I’m done, I give her a treat. I noticed that the more often I do it, the more she is getting used to it.

  10. We don’t usually have too much trouble with our kitties, but we’ve taken in strays and such in the past and I’ve found if you have a somewhat aggressive or particularly scared cat a towel is your best friend. Wrap your struggling furry friend in a soft fresh bath towel with one paw out and cuddle them close. Be extra careful to only trim a little at a time, do only one paw at a time, and reward them well. After a couple times they should begin to trust you more.

  11. My kitties share a can of wet food (their favorite) every evening when I get home from work and they love it, so on trimming night I give them each an entire can of wet food. The trick is I put it in their bowls as usual and then put it in the microwave , shut the door and say “Time to trim, who’s first?” They are brothers and 13 years old and I have been trimming them since the first as I had them when they were born. One of them is usually ornery about it a little but I get through it with sweet talk, cuddles and the promise of dinner and believe me they know what the word dinner means! Squealy Dan and Smoochie even come running now when they hear me clipping my toenails looking at me as if to say, “I’ll go next for more wet food Mama.” Good luck to all of you trying I wish you the best and just give it time it will get easier.

  12. As the only hooman in the house, I’ve had to be creative. My male tuxedo sits beside me wedged between me and the chair with his feet in the air. My female calico likes pets, so she lays on my lap the usual way. Since she doesn’t care to have her feet touched, I will usually pet her head with the hand that holds the clipper, while the other hand is getting the nail into position. The clipping of each foot is usually followed by more pets and sweet talk.

  13. Priscilla Lippert

    The first time I tried to clip my cat’s nails, it was a terrible experience for the both of us, so after that I took her to a professional groomer once a month to get all of her nails done.

    Since we moved, I’ve tried clipping the nails myself and she is now able to tolerate it.

    I usually do just one paw at a time when she’s fallen asleep. She’ll wake up to see what’s going on but I’m already done with the nails on that one paw. I’ll then do another paw at a later time.

    I use regular human nail clippers and just snip off the pointy part of the nail.

  14. Declawing a cat should never be considered even as a last resort. There are nail caps available (in different colors too, I might add), and these should be considered as a last resort. Just remember to clip the white part of the nails; not the pink part, which is the quick. That will be painful, and will bleed. I live in the USA, and will be so happy when this mutilation becomes a thing of the past. People who insist on declawing cats do not research what really happens to their pets, and the only benefit is to the vet’s wallet. Vets who still perform this mutilation will not talk about alternatives (ie: nail caps, regular trimming)to these lazy people who won’t take 2 minutes to learn to trim their cat’s nails properly.

  15. Geraldine Rondeau

    Declawed cat info: Since adopting my 18yr young orange tabby; ‘Honey’; I’ve read and I’ve also been the recipient of her bites. Very painful when she breaks the skin. ‘Honey’ came to me, sadly already declawed and since adopting her I’ve found out that declawed cats use their teeth since they; she; no longer has front claws. This is my first time adopting a biting cat; and the bites come on unexpectantly and painfully too. Mind you, I have adopted declawed cats before without experiencing any biting. She does NOT enjoy having her front paws touched. We are still learning from each other.
    ‘Honey’ & I visit our Vet to have her back claws trimmed. My ? is, how many times a year should I get her back claws trimmed? Right now, I only have her back nails trimmed once a year.
    Thank you.

  16. Unfortunately, most groomers in our area only do dogs, not cats. :-(
    Since I don’t have anyone to hold the cats, I take them to the vet. Prices are high, $16 and up, though.

    BTW, with our first cats, who were indoor/outdoor cats, we never clipped their nails. They used the trees I guess. I think my mom took our dog to the vet to trim nails.

    In those days, they didn’t have many scratching posts available. My cats love the cardboard or sisal rope ones (I sprinkle a little catnip on them as well.)

  17. Trouble clipping your cat’s nails? If you cannot do it, go to a groomer who has experience and patience with cats (cat friends are a good source of finding a good groomer). Groomers tend to work very quickly and MOST cats will allow this “new” person to trim their nails. Vet techs are also very good at getting cats to cooperate for nail trims. A lot of cats will eventually give in to their owners after having a professional clip those nails a few times.
    I have one cat that I can do anything to–examine his teeth, clean his ears, give him medication, etc. He will tolerate JUST about anything EXCEPT having his nails trimmed. He is the only one that hasn’t changed after having a professional trim his nails.

  18. I really lucked out with Einstein because he let’s me do anything to him. The way he sees it, trimming his nail’s is just more loving attention he is getting from me.
    Funny thing though, I started by using human toe nail clippers and he was perfectly content. A couple years later I bought cat nail clippers and he saw those things coming toward him and he absolutely wasn’t having it. Back to the human clippers and all is fine.

  19. I strictly do not believe in even trimming my 11 cats nails, they must defend themselves against foxes and dogs where I live, urban foxes do pose a small threatt to cats, although in 8 years I have not lost any cats to any foxes, perhaps this is why. yes they have ripped my new carpet to shreds, I am still happy for them, only that my sofa has survived any deliberate scratches, any that are there are because of accidental jumping and climbing, just a few

    1. I trim my cats’ front claws regularly* but the rear claws I do much less often. Say every three or four times trimming the front, I’ll add in the rear paws too. Of the four cats I’ve had or shared in responsibility for so far, all of them generally do or did well with the trimming, varying from “grudging tolerance” to “delightful anticipation of the imminent treats ooh do me next mom do me next!” Some of them aren’t as keen on the back paw trimming (probably because they’re less used to it) though and if they start getting antsy we’ll often settle for partial-trims on the back knowing that we can get the rest next time.

      I don’t know if my cats just aren’t as keen on their scratching devices as most cats (they seem to use them regularly, but maybe not enough?) but for us, trimming is at least as much for the cats’ benefits as for ours, because when their nails get too long they start getting stuck in things like blankets or shirts or carpets. An untrimmed cat-nail runs the risk of disrupting the play-session because the cat can’t get their paw free quickly, or even of sometimes getting caught and breaking. For us it’s much better to trim those pointy ends off and avoid the difficulties! While I do have a co-cat-parent, I do the trimming by myself with regular human nail clippers and don’t have any problems with it, although when they were kittens still getting used to the process I often wrapped them in a towel first to help immobilize the escape attempts!

      *for us the trimming isn’t done on any set schedule; it depends how fast the nails grow (or more likely I suppose on how much they’ve been using their scratching devices at any given time) but whenever I notice their claws are getting extra long and sharp, or starting to get stuck in cloth or skin when they play, I catch them for a trim.

  20. I have indoor / outdoor cats (6) . I’ve clipped their nails a couple of times, but unfortunately, none of them can climb the trees in my back yard when I do.

  21. I trim my cat’s claws every week or so (as a good reminder, when I get a manicure, that’s usually when he gets one) and I can not express enough, YOU set the tone of the experience. I’m calm, I talk in a very sweet, soft voice, I tell him how handsome he’s going to be with his trimmed nails (hey, if blowing a little extra sunshine up my cat’s behind will keep him from shredding my legs, so be it) and boom, half a minute later, he’s good to go. If you yell or get aggressive, they’ll pick up on that and you won’t accomplish jack squat.

  22. I use a thundershirt when I trim my cat’s nails. She’s calm and really doesn’t know anything is happening! The thundershirt is really a great product for handling nervous and anxious pets!

  23. I trim my cat’s claws after a feeding. He is much more at ease. I also do it while he is sleeping in my lap and I am watching TV.

  24. I strongly suggest getting your kitten used to having its paws handled and touched. It made it much easier to trim our cat’s nails later on. I usually do them when my cat is asleep and he is totally ok with it. In fact, he chews his nails if they get too long.

  25. NEVER DECLAW YOUR CAT, in whole Europe it´s absolutely illegal anyway, it´s only legal in the USA, in Canada, in Indonesia and in Oman, as far as I´m informed, here in Germany it´s never ever been legal!!! Here only Gizzy needs to get his nails on the front paws trimmed from time to time although he uses the cat tree, the 2 wooden and sisal scratch boards and the sisal scratch carpet regularly, at Real supermarket I once bought a special claw scissor for only 2 €, but it´s the same one that you can order on Amazon or on homepages for pet equipment, Gizzy lets me do it for som treats afterwards without any problems, fortunately Thori doesn´t need it, probably he wouldn´t let me do it, and Angel Sisi probably also wouldn´t have let me trim her claws either….

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