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How to Trim Cat Nails: Vets Reveal the Secrets to Make It Stress-Free for Everyone

Forget paying a groomer — these calming tricks make it easy to do at home!

For us humans, trimming our nails is a regular part of self-care and can also be pretty therapeutic and spa-like. So why can’t our beloved cats feel the same way about nail trims? Many kitties detest this part of grooming — and will let you know loud and clear just how much they hate it! In fact, the whole process can be super-stressful for everyone involved. That’s why we asked veterinarians for their best nail-trimming tricks so you can end up scratch-free and your cat can feel and look her best. Keep reading to learn how to trim cat nails in the easiest way possible. 

The importance of trimming cat nails

Many people think that because cats scratch recreationally, they don’t need to have their nails trimmed. While the frequency with which a cat scratches can affect how often they need trims, they still need regular nail care for their own health and safety. 

Related: How to Stop a Cat From Scratching — Cat Behaviorist Jackson Galaxy’s Best Advice

“Not trimming your cat’s nails increases the chance that they will get their nails stuck in things, like your clothing, blankets or furniture,” says Dr. Mikel Maria Delgado, cat behavior expert with Rover. Getting a nail caught can be a painful experience for your cat since it can cause breakage — and it’s not great for your clothing, blankets or furniture either. (Click through to learn more about your cat’s paws, aka “toe beans.”)

Also, like your own nails, cat nails don’t stop growing. “Your cat’s nails continue growing in a spiral shape and can grow into their paw pads,” says Dr. Delgado. “This is incredibly painful for them.” An overgrown nail can cause bleeding and eventually infection, adds Dr. Paola Cuevas, MVZ, veterinarian, behaviorist and consultant at pet site Hepper. 

Related: Cat With Extra Toes: What Causes Them and Whether to Be Concerned, According to a Vet

How often to trim cat nails

The best grooming schedule varies from cat to cat. “The frequency at which a particular cat will need their nails trimmed will largely depend on their activity level, the texture of surfaces they use to climb and scratch, and their scratching behavior,” says Dr. Cuevas. She notes that for most cats, a nail trim every two to four weeks is good for maintenance, but indoor cats may need trims more often than outdoor cats since the textures and surfaces they scratch are less varied. 

Related: Do You Really Need to Use a Cat Toothbrush on Your Kitty? Here’s What a Vet Says

What to do before a trim

Before you start trimming your kitty’s nails, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to ensure the best possible outcome for you and your cat.  

1. Get the right tools

Cat nails are different from ours, so it’s important to use cat-specific nail clippers. There are multiple styles of cat nail clippers — electric grinders, pliers, scissors and guillotine styles. If you’re new trimming, many vets recommend scissor- or plier-style clippers as they’re both quick and easy to use. The main difference is in design of the handle, so opt for whichever style you find most comfortable to grip. If your cat is already used to nail trims, a grinder might be best for gently and slowly filing down the nail. But ultimately, the best tool for trimming your cat’s nails is whichever one you are the most confident using.

2. Prep your space

If your cat is afraid, she might scratch you. For this reason, Dr. Cuevas recommends putting a towel over your arm for protection. It’s also helpful to enlist another person who can gently hold the cat still while you clip her nails. If you don’t have another person, Dr. Cuevas recommends putting your cat in your lap with her back against your stomach. That makes it easier for you to hold her in position.

3. Stay calm

“Cats are intuitive creatures and can sense any anxiety, which might make them more apprehensive,”says Dr. Sabrina Kong, veterinary contributor at We Love Doodles. If you’re nervous about this nail trimming session, your cat will sense it and feel nervous too. Approach your cat when you’re both in a relaxed state so she knows that there’s nothing to fear. 

4. Get them acclimated

It might be tempting to rush through trimming just to get it over with as soon as possible, but vets say going slowly is key — and you don’t even need to cut their nails at first! “Get them used to having their paws touched gently and pair the experience with lots of treats,” says Dr. Delgado.

Once kitty is comfortable with you simply touching her paw, move on to the next step: “Trim your cat’s nails when your cat is tired and relaxed and just trim one or two nails at a time (don’t forget the treats),” Dr. Delgado says. Trying to go too quickly and fight through any discomfort will just cause more distress for your cat and more work for you. “If you pin your cat down and force the issue, it will backfire and make it harder next time! It’s much better to train your cat that this is a respectful, cooperative process.”

You don’t have to have all nails trimmed in the same day, either. “You can stop after the first nail, give your cat some yummy treats and continue with the next one later the in the day. This way, you’ll do a full trim over a couple of days,” says Dr. Cuevas. “Investing the time now will ensure your cat develops a positive history with nail trims, and you will eventually be able to do an entire paw in one session.”

How to trim cat nails

Hand holding cat paw with claws exposed. Other hand has cat nail trimmer, ready to trim cat nails.
Daria Kulkova/Getty Images

Now that you’re prepared, here’s a quick how-to from Dr. Cuevas for trimming your cat’s nails. 

  1. Take a paw and gently squeeze one of your cat’s digits to expose her claw.
  2. Once her claw is exposed, you should be able to see the pink part (or if your cat has dark nails, the darker part) in the middle. This is called the “quick,” and it’s where her blood vessels and nerve endings are. Be careful not to cut this, as it will cause pain. 
  3. Gently hold her digit between your thumb and index finger, supporting the rest of her paw with your other fingers. Don’t squeeze too hard; this will startle your cat. 
  4. With your other hand, swiftly cut a few millimeters off the tip of her nail, being mindful of her quick. Nervous about how much to cut? Better to err on the side of too little rather than too much.
  5. Repeat the same procedure with each nail. 

What to do if you trim cat nails too short

Cats’ nails are tiny, and they’re even harder to get a hold of when your kitty is wiggling around. If you cut her quick or her nail breaks, don’t panic. Clean the area with warm water and pet-safe antiseptic, recommends Dr. Kong. If she’s bleeding, you may need to apply styptic powder, adds Dr. Delgado, and if the bleeding won’t stop, take her to the veterinarian. “The veterinarian can clean up the area and trim any loose part of the nail, which will also prevent infection,” says Dr. Delgado. “They may also recommend pain medication for a few days while your cat heals.”

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