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Cat nail clipping: When and how to cut cat nails at home

cat nail clipping: When and how to cut cat nails at home
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As a pet parent, you might be wondering whether clipping cat nails is something you need to worry about. After all, our feline friends typically take great care of their grooming routine themselves.

Many cat owners are worried about trimming their cat's nails for the first time, either through fear of approaching the task at hand or not sure what the best cat nail clippers are to use in the first instance. Not to mention the question of how often should you clip your cat's nails and what you should do if your feline is less than enthusiastic to have their claws cut.  

If that sounds like you, then rest assured: the good news is that cat claws are generally very easy to trim, as long as you can get your cat to behave. This article will tell you how to cut a cat’s nails, as well as providing some top tips for those trickier felines!

Is it necessary to trim a cat's claws?

Whether a cat will benefit from a claw clipping depends a lot on the cat. Not all cats need their claws trimmed – a young, fit, and healthy cat with access outdoors will probably keep their claws trimmed naturally by using scratching posts. 

In contrast, elderly cats can struggle to shed their claws and may be suffering from arthritis making them less likely to use scratching posts to keep their nails in tip-top shape. Indoor cats or cats with injuries that restrict their movement are likely to need their claws trimming, but it depends on the individual. 

So how can you tell if your cat’s nails need trimming? If your cat will allow it, turn over their foot – the tips of their nails should be visible, but no more. You can gently apply pressure to the paw to see more of the nails – they should be sharp, and clear, with no loose bits or areas where the nail is shedding. 

They certainly shouldn’t be approaching the pad of the foot or curling around on themselves – these are signs that your cat needs their claws trimmed urgently. If the claws have grown so long the sharp end is contacting the foot, the trim is best left to a professional – the pad beneath is likely to be sore and may need antibiotics.

cat nails

(Image credit: Getty Images)

When should I clip my cat's nails?

If your cat needs his claws clipping, it’s worth determining why. If it’s a one-off because they’ve been on house arrest then that’s one thing, but if they’re senior or an indoor-only cat, then it’s likely they’ll need their claws trimming regularly. 

It can take some trial-and-error to work out how often to clip your cat’s nails, but as a starting point you should check them every two weeks, and clip them if they appear long. You should also clip your cat’s claws if you notice them getting stuck in the carpet when they’re walking, and check them if you notice a limp.

How to cut cat nails (step-by-step)

Cutting your cat’s nails is easiest with an extra pair of hands, so try to enlist a friend to help. Don’t forget that cats can quickly lash out if they feel threatened – watch your cat’s body language carefully and, if in doubt, don’t proceed.

1. Get your cat used to the idea

Cats dislike surprises, so try not to spring a claw-clipping session on them. It’s not painful to have their claws clipped, but many cats will resist because it’s strange, and they don’t like being messed with.

 Try to teach your kitten about nail clipping from a young age. Even with an adult cat, you can spend time slowly building up to a claw clipping by gently picking them up or playing with their feet.

2. Get your equipment together

Before you start, it’s best to get your equipment together. You don’t want to be frantically searching for your clippers whilst your cat is already restrained! You’ll need:

  • Cat claw clippers (sharp!)
  • Some treats
  • A styptic pen or similar, in case the nail bleeds
  • A towel, or method of restraining your cat
  • Gently restrain your cat

Before you trim anything, you’ll need to pick a foot. Starting with the side nearest you, and beginning with the back foot is often the easiest. Whilst back claws often don’t need trimming as much as front ones, they’re further from your cat’s head. This allows you to gauge your cat’s reaction from a safer distance than the front paws. 

Grasp the foot in your hand and gently apply pressure to the top of the foot and the pads – this should cause the claws to extend. You’ll want to continue applying this pressure, and this hand is also useful to control your cat’s foot and prevent it from moving too much when you’re cutting.

cat nail clippers

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Decide where to cut

Look closely at your cat’s nails before you cut. You’ll see a see-through section – the nail – and, closer to the body, a pink center – the ‘quick’. This quick is pink because it’s the living part of the nail, containing blood vessels and nerves – avoid cutting this. Instead, you want to position your clippers to cut 3-4mm past the end of the quick.

4. Make the cut swiftly and surely

Hesitation can make this process uncomfortable for your cat and increase the chance of injury. Once you’re happy that you know where to cut, make the cut as smoothly and surely as you can. 

Check the nail was cut in the right place, that no more needs to come off, and that it isn’t bleeding. If it is, you can apply a styptic pen to the area to stop the bleeding or call your vet for advice.

5. Continue trimming your cat’s nails 

One down, but plenty more to go! Once you’ve finished the first nail, continue with the rest of that foot. Don’t forget to check any dewclaws your cat has – these are your cat’s ‘thumbs’ and are usually a couple of inches up the leg from the foot, meaning they’re easily missed. 

Most cats only have front dewclaws, but some have back dewclaws and some even have two dewclaws on each foot, so check carefully to make sure you aren’t missing nails!

Difficult cats: How to cut a cat’s nails if they’re old, young, or stressed

kitten biting

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Above are the instructions for a well-behaved, easy cat who lets you trim her nails – what about when things get a bit trickier?

How can I calm my cat to cut her nails?  

A gentle approach is all that is needed to trim most cats’ nails. This means taking your time, doing only as much as your cat is comfortable with, and never being rough with your cat.

 However, some cats simply won’t allow it, gentle or not. In this case, it’s best to leave cutting your cat’s nails to a professional – a vet or feline-friendly groomer – at first. They’ll be able to assess your cat and determine if anything can be safely done to calm them for future clips.

Cutting a senior cat’s nails

With senior cats, the process is much the same, but it’s important to be aware that the nail is generally in worse condition. Cats should shed the outside of their claw to keep a thin, sharp point, but this doesn’t always happen in senior cats. The claw can appear thicker, less see-through, and may be harder to cut. 

Take extra care to trim these nails often, avoiding the quick. You can also ask your vet to trim them and show you how to help strip the outer layers off.

How to cut kitten nails

Kittens can be small and wriggly, and their claws are like needles! The most important thing about cutting a kitten’s nails is that you don’t make it stressful. A bad experience now is going to make it hard to cut your cat’s nails for life – so instead you want to make it fun, with a positive reward. 

Even if you only manage one nail and a treat before your kitten gets bored, never force them to have their nails clipped. You may need a smaller pair of nail clippers. An extra pair of hands is especially useful with kittens, as they are generally too wriggly for a towel.

Can my vet clip my cat's nails?  

If you’re struggling, the nails appear painful or infected, or you just don’t want to stress out your cat, your vet can clip your cat’s nails for you. In fact, veterinary nurses are also able to clip your cat’s claws, and they often have more time than the vets, so you’ll get an appointment sooner. 

Another option is to look for a feline-friendly groomer in your area. Some will even come out to your house to save your cat the stress of a carrier!

Final thoughts

Trimming your cat’s claws doesn’t have to be a battle, but it can take some patience and training before your cat is willing to allow it. 

Hopefully, our instructions on how to cut cat nails and our top tips for the trickier cases will mean your cat nail clipping goes smoothly. If you’re struggling, talk to your veterinarian – they know your cat and will be able to recommend an easier option for you.

Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS

Dr Joanna Woodnutt is an experienced vet with an interest in companion animals. She recently left full-time practice to work as a relief vet and write articles about pets.