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Breed & Health Resources

Cat Grooming: How to Trim Cat Nails

By Dr. Jacqueline Brister

cat getting nails trimmed

Anatomy of Cat Claws

Most cats have five claws on each front foot – four on each toe and one dewclaw on the inside of the foot. They also usually have four claws on each back foot.

Cat claws are usually retracted and not readily visible until they need to be used. If you have ever seen your cat perform a big, full body stretch, you have seen what it looks like to have those claws fully extended.

Each claw has its own blood supply, called the quick, which is the pink tissue inside the nail (similar to the tissue attached to the underside of our fingernails. If you cut the quick, it will be painful for your cat and the nail will bleed.

Do cats shed their claws?

Sort of! The outer layer, or shell, of the claws often fall off or are chewed off by cats to keep claws healthy and at an appropriate length. If this doesn’t happen, it puts your cat’s nail at risk of growing into the paw pad.

How Often to Trim Cat Nails

Frequency of nail trims depends on a few factors:

  • Age
  • How short the nails were previously trimmed
  • Amount of scratching done at home

In general, cats can have their nails trimmed once every 4-6 weeks.

How to Cut Cat Nails

Clipping cat nails takes a good bit of practice to master, so don’t get frustrated if things don’t go well the first few times. You will need:

  • Cat nail clippers
  • Treats
  • A helper (for the first few times at least)

Try to trim your cat’s nails when they are calm and sleepy. You can put them in your lap, on a table with a slick surface (to prevent them from darting away), or even in a cat grooming bag.

  1. Hold them close to your body and work with one paw at a time. Another option is to have someone else hold your cat while you trim their nails so you can concentrate on the task.
  2. Hold the paw between your thumb and forefinger and gently squeeze toward the toe to extend the claw.
  3. With claws extended, get a good view of the full length of the nail and the quick’s location. Avoid cutting the quick when trimming the nails by cutting halfway between the end of the nail and the tip of the quick.
  4. Take it one nail at a time while working as quickly as you can to prevent your cat losing their patience. Do as many nails as you safely can and give your cat lots of treats. You can always try again later in the day or the following day if you couldn’t trim all the nails at once.

Pro Tip: Some expert nail trimmers recommend letting your cat eat a treat while trimming their nails to keep them distracted. Treats include chews, small bits of canned food, or tuna juice placed on the table where you are doing the nail trim.

How to Handle Injuries to the Quick

If you accidentally cut the quick, don’t panic. Several powders are available to stop the bleeding from a quicked nail, but if you don’t have any, baking flour can be used if necessary. Keep in mind that the bleeding will stop in a few moments regardless, and there will not be any lasting harm to your cat.

Why do cats scratch?

Kitty owners should keep in mind that scratching behaviors in cats are important for their emotional and physical well being. Scratching is an instinct, which not only helps keep their claws in good shape, but also allows them to send chemical and physical messages. Basically, cats express themselves through scratching.

Trimming nails won’t hinder the ability to scratch, but it will minimize the destruction associated with these behaviors. However, if scratching is an issue in your home, consider providing appropriate areas for your kitty to scratch, such as tall scratching posts and elevated or tilted scratching pads. If your cat still prefers your couch legs, consider sprinkling a little catnip on the areas that are okay to scratch.

A Note about Declawing Cats

Declawing cats is not as simple as removing the nail – declaw procedures actually remove the entire last joint of the toe. This can change the way your cat walks, keeps them from expressing themselves through scratching behaviors, and in a few cases, can cause lasting pain.

Scratching can be frustrating, but not all cat owners are aware of the consequences of declaw procedures. Alternatives to declaws are nail caps (e.g. Soft Paws™), which are glued to the nail to prevent damage from scratching. If trimming your cat’s nails is a major burden, call your vet’s office and have them do this for you. Shorter nails and a trip to the vet may be a better option than the long-term consequences associated with declawing. 

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