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How to trim a cat’s nails — yes, we're talking to you

The key is to do so very carefully.

If anything could possibly sound less appealing than bathing a cat, trimming a cat’s nails is certainly a contender. For one thing, a cat’s “nails” aren’t really nails — they’re claws — and there’s no debating that your cat knows how to use them. But beyond your personal safety concerns, there are the actual details (like the fact that cats’ claws retract) that make trimming a cat’s nails … tricky.

That said, trimming your cat’s nails is an important part of keeping it healthy, and if you want to try the feat at home (and earn the corresponding bragging rights), here’s how to do it right. 

Do you really need to trim a cat’s nails? 

If pulling out a pair of nail clippers and taking a gander at your cat’s claws has never crossed your mind, you’re certainly not alone. That said, if your cat is primarily an indoor cat and doesn’t spend much time climbing up trees (which can help wear down nails naturally), he may need a trim.

“Most cats never need their nails trimmed. If you give your cat a scratching post, they'll sharpen and trim their nails themselves by scratching on this post. Older cats or cats with health issues may not use the post, so they will need their nails trimmed,” Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, a veterinarian at Whitehouse Veterinary Hospital in Whitehouse, TX, explains. 

Of course, cat owners themselves don’t have to do the trim — a vet or groomer can — but it’s a skill that can be mastered at home without too many issues. 

Get the right tools to trim your cat’s nails

Before you get started, you’ll need a nail trimmer. “Many times, I use a human nail trimmer to trim the tips of my cat’s nails at home,” Dr. Ochoa admits. That said, tools designed specifically for cutting your cat’s nails can help make the process easier. These can easily be found at pet supply stores. Additionally, you may want to keep styptic powder on hand in case you cut your cat’s nails too short — this powder can help stop any bleeding that might occur.

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Choose the right spot to clip your cat’s claws

Aside from the nail clipper and styptic powder, you’ll need a measure of your own strength. While your cat will certainly appreciate his freshly-clipped nails, he most likely won’t love the act of having his nails cut. You’ll need to be prepared to lightly restrain your cat using your forearms as you clip his nails, which means you should locate a well-lit, comfortable spot where you can sit and hold your cat in a secure position with your forearms on your lap or a table. Remember, you’ll need both hands to clip your cat’s claws (one hand to hold the clipper and the other to hold the cat’s paw), so you won’t be able to use your hands to restrain your cat. 

To this effect, Dr. Ochoa suggests having someone hold your cat while you trim the nails. I also recommend putting the cat up on a counter or other surface to make it harder for them to run away.” 

Help your cat adjust to the idea of having its nails clipped

Any new or unusual activity is likely to put your cat on edge. And the last thing you want is an excitable kitty as you’re attempting to cut their nails carefully. Also, given that your cat’s claws are retractable, you’ll have to actively press on your cat’s paw pad to extend the nail. Unless your cat is used to you playing with its paws, even this simple action could put your cat into “fight or flight” mode (neither of which will help you reach your goal). So before you ever actually clip your cat’s nails, it’s a good idea to familiarize them with the whole set-up. Spend some time in the days before you cut your cat’s nails playing with his paws, pressing on the pads and extending the claws. Also, let your cat see and play with the clipper you plan on using. 

While it’s not always possible, it’s helpful if you can start this play while your cat is young, so they become more accustomed to the entire nail-clipping process. 

Clip your cat’s nails carefully

When you practice extending your cat’s nails by pressing on the paw pads, you’ll note that the nail (typically light in color) meets the “quick,” which is a pink or reddish color. As much as possible, leave a little space between the claw and the quick when cutting the nail. If you happen to nick the quick, your cat’s nail bed will bleed … and you might as well call it quits for the day.

When the clippers are lined up where you want them (leaving that space between the white and red), clip quickly and with force, so you completely cut through the nail — the last thing you want is a poorly-clipped nail that you have to keep trying to cut off. 

Once you’ve clipped one nail successfully, you may want to give your cat a treat to reward his good behavior and to help associate nail-clipping with a positive experience. In fact, after this first clip, you might want to celebrate your success and stop for the day. “When first starting to trim your cat’s nails, it is best to just do one or two nails at a time until they get used to sitting still for nail trims,” Dr. Ochoa says.

For that matter, you may want to give yourself a treat, too, to reward your bravery. Trimming your cat’s nails isn’t an activity for the faint of heart. So remember that it’s okay to decide it’s not for you. Just don’t ditch the practice altogether — contact your vet or a groomer to enlist a professional to do the deed. 

The Dig, Fetch by The Dodo’s expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too. Fetch provides the most comprehensive pet insurance and is the only provider recommended by the #1 animal brand in the world, The Dodo.

Photo by Humberto Arellano on Unsplash

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