How to Trim Your Cat's Nails

The nail-trimming process takes time and patience

Cat getting nails trimmed
MakiEni's photo / Getty Images

Routine nail trimming is an important part of keeping your cat healthy. If nails are not cared for regularly, they can actually curl under and grow into the paw pads, causing swelling and infection.

Although most cats keep this from happening with scratching behavior, it's still important to look at the nails periodically; long, sharp nails can cause a lot of damage to your property and your lap. Ideally, cats should have their nails trimmed every three to six weeks.

While it may seem like a daunting task, with care and patience you and your cat should be able to handle a nail care session without much difficulty.

Before You Begin

Make sure to get your cat accustomed to handling before trimming its nails. This minimizes stress for your cat and can prevent bites and scratches to you.

It usually takes longer for adult cats to get comfortable being handled for something like a nail trim, especially if the cat has had negative experiences in the past. Kittens will take to the experience more readily. In any case, go slowly and be patient.

What You Need

  • Clippers or trimmers
  • Styptic pen

To trim tiny kitten nails, you can simply use human nail clippers. However, you will need cat nail trimmers for older kittens and adult cats. There are a few types of cat nail trimmers available at pet supply stores. Many owners prefer the scissors-style or spring-hinge nail trimmers. Others prefer the type that has a guillotine-like blade. It may take some trial and error to learn which type works best for you and your cat. 

After you purchase cat nail trimmers, practice using them on dry spaghetti so you can get the feel of how they cut. 

Preparing Your Cat

Start with your cat in a relaxed state, maybe after a meal. Invite your cat to sit in your lap and wait until the animal seems relaxed.

Next, gently pick up one of your cat's paws. If it doesn't pull away, offer a small treat. Do this for a few minutes each day, gradually adding in more paws.

The next step will be to pick up one of the cat's paws, doing a little more each day, and keeping sessions to a few minutes at the most. Eventually, try gently squeezing one of its toes to get the nail extended. Remember to reward your cat for calmness. Go back a step if your cat becomes anxious or agitated

You are ready to move on once you get to a point where your cat will let you expose most of its claws, one at a time, without making a fuss.

Begin Using the Nail Trimmers

Now it's time to introduce your cat to the nail trimmers. Do this during one of your calm petting sessions. Let your cat sniff and explore the trimmers without moving them at first. Gradually start to move the trimmers, rewarding for calmness.

After several days of sessions, try gently touching the trimmers to your cat's paws. Then, try picking up a paw and touching the trimmers to the paw again. Remember to keep the rewards coming.

The process of getting your cat ready for a nail trim may take weeks to months. Remember that all cats learn at their own pace. Kittens may even be ready in a few days.

Cut Your Cat's Nails

Once your cat seems comfortable with the handling of its paws and the presence of the nail trimmers, it's time to try trimming a few nails. You may only get one nail cut the first time, and that's OK. Going too fast will not only make your cat feel stressed, but it can also lead to you getting bitten or scratched.

  • Start with a towel or blanket in your lap to catch the cut nails and keep your cat's nails from digging into your lap. Try to have styptic powder or a styptic pen on hand in case you accidentally cut into the cuticle. This is used to stop bleeding and can be purchased at a pet supply store.
  • Choose a time when your cat is relaxed. Pick one paw to start.
  • Most cats have white nails with pink at the base. The pink part contains the cuticle, or "quick," where the nerves and blood vessels are. You do not want to cut this part or it may cause pain and bleeding. Look for the place where the pink ends and the white part begins. 
  • Gently squeeze the paw to expose the nail. Use the nail trimmers to quickly cut into the white part about 1 or 2 millimeters away from the pink part. Try to keep your cat from jumping off your lap.
  • Stop and praise your cat, offering a food reward. If your cat is not anxious or agitated, move on and repeat the process on the next paw.

Preventing Problems With Your Cat During Trimming

If you accidentally cut too close to the pink part of the nail, your cat may experience brief pain and have some bleeding from the nail. Apply the styptic pen or powder to the area until the bleeding stops. If your cat seems upset, the nail trim session should be stopped. You can try again another day.

If your cat is too wiggly to handle for nail trims, you may need to get help from someone else. It may be easier to have one person hold your cat on a table while you focus on the nails. If you hear growling or hissing, it's best to stop so no one gets hurt.

If you continue to have trouble getting your cat to be still for nail trims, or if you are still uncomfortable with the process, get some help from a professional. Consider bringing your cat to the vet or a groomer for regular nail trims.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.