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Trimming Your Cat's Nails



by Arnold Plotnick MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP

How to trim your cat’s nails---and live to tell the story! 

In the old days, cats wore their nails down naturally as they ran and clawed their way through the great outdoors. Today, although some cats will keep their nails trimmed down nicely walking around the house or by using a scratching post, for many cats, lounging around the house all day sleeping, getting up for an occasional snack and then retiring with the human family in bed for the last of their 20 hours of sleep per day isn’t going to do the trick.  

All cats have very sharp toenails.  But if you find yourself with a fur-queen turned Freddy Kruger, whose laser-sharp talons are destroying your plants, shredding the furniture, getting hooked in the carpeting or your skin; or to prevent a claw from getting torn or ripped, the veterinarian or pet parent may need to trim their nails for them.   

As a peticurist, you must be diligent in checking your cat’s nails regularly and keeping them the proper length. Usually you just need to take off the sharp tips.

Because most cats don’t like their nails trimmed, it is often neglected by the owner OR they just let the groomer or veterinarian do it.  I recommend getting a cat used to having its feet handled and/or nails trimmed from an early age and make it a positive socialization experience by using positive reinforcement. 

Here are a few proven tips:

  • You can use your regular fingernail clippers or a pair made especially for cats---I prefer the scissor style over the guillotine style.  Just make sure that they are sharp.  Dull trimmers tend to crush the nail and cause pain even if you aren’t in the quick.  You also need to have a small jar of blood-stopping powder on hand for the inevitable time when you cut a nail too short and it bleeds. 

  • Unlike a dog’s nails, a cat’s are slightly recessed.  To get them out for trimming, gently squeeze the toe from top to bottom.  This forces the nail out so that you can blunt the tip.

  • The key is to trim off a little, just the sharp tips, often (say every 2-4 weeks), instead of trying to trim off the whole nine yards whenever you happen to notice they’re the length of swords.

  • The problem is that each nail has a blood vessel inside.  Along side the blood vessel runs a nerve.  The trick is to trim to just beyond the blood vessel and nerve because if you nick them the cat will hiss, may bite, and will definitely bleed.  NOTE: Everyone hits this vein occasionally, even experienced veterinarians.  So having a blood-stopping powder on hand is important.

  • If your cat has light-colored nails, the blood vessel is the pink area.  Black nails are harder to gauge but you can often see the blood vessel by shining a flashlight behind the nail. The key is too only trim tiny bits at a time.  When your cat starts getting sensitive…STOP TRIMMING…you’re getting close to the blood vessel!  If your cat has some clear and some black nails, use the average clear nail as a guide for cutting the black ones.

  • NOTE: No matter what the color of the nail, if there is any doubt, just cut back a little bit at a time.

  • If you draw blood, pinch a little powder against the nail for a few seconds or   dip a cotton swab in the powder and apply pressure to the end of the nail until it quits bleeding.

Cat’s nails will regrow and become sharp again in a few days.  Therefore, to protect your “stuff”, it may be necessary to “nip the tips” as often as twice per week. 

Make restraining your cat and trimming its nails a pleasant experience by starting handling your cat and doing the procedures, with verbal and treat rewards, from the time they’re kittens.   

For older cats who haven’t been trained for nail trimming as kittens, a pedicure can be a bit more of a challenge.  Choose a time when your cat is calm. Initially, only do one toe at a sitting. It may take several days before all claws get trimmed, but it’s better to go slowly rather than cause anxiety about the procedure. 

If there is any doubt as to your ability to do any of the above, safely and correctly, rely on your veterinarian.  Ultimately, they are the only ones who have the experience, training, and compassion to optimize your cat’s health, happiness and longevity. And when it comes to trimming cat’s nails, they have the scars up and down their arms to prove their experience.  


Updated 2/9/06