Small Talk
A black cat with yellow eyes lies on a wooden floor, looking up at the camera. One of its front paws is slightly raised, showing its white claws.A black cat with yellow eyes lies on a wooden floor, looking up at the camera. One of its front paws is slightly raised, showing its white claws.
by: Dr. Shagufta Mulla

Vetted: How To Trim Your Cat’s Nails

tips, health

As cat people, we consider it an honor when our feline friends decide to make biscuits on our lap, but when it feels like you’re being poked with needles, it’s time for a nail trim. Unlike dogs, cats are able to extend and retract their nails. When their nails get long, the points can protrude beyond the paw, even when the nails are retracted. Long nails might come into contact with the ground, carpet, furniture, clothing, or skin — potentially catching. (Meowch!) Whether you’re new to nail trimming or you’re not, but your current kitty objects to manicures, read on for helpful information and tips.

Do my cat’s nails need to be trimmed?

If your cat is indoors, their nails need to be trimmed about every four to six weeks. For 100% outdoor cats (e.g. barn cats), don’t trim them. Outdoor cats need their nails for defense and climbing, particularly when escaping from predators like stray dogs, coyotes, etc. For cats that are a mix of indoor and outdoor, talk with your veterinarian about your particular cat’s situation.

For strictly indoor cats, it’s necessary to trim their nails because they’re not getting as much use as an outdoor cat. This can mean their long, sharp claws are more likely to cause discomfort to human or pet family members (e.g. during a squabble or during the coveted biscuit-making sesh). For senior cats, long nails can also make their potentially arthritic paws even more uncomfortable. While walking, their claws might touch the ground, which their nails normally don’t do. This can put their toes in an uncomfortable position.

Regardless of a cat’s age, nails should also be trimmed so they don’t become overgrown to the point of curling and puncturing the paw pad, which is quite painful and can set up an infection.

Which nail trimmers are best for cats?

If you have dogs, you might have one or more types of nail trimmers. Though there are several types of trimmers, they’re not all equally ideal for cats.

  • Scissors-style

    This is the preferred nail trimmers for cats. They’re easy to hold and the cutting parts are thin enough that you can easily see where you’re cutting your cat’s nails.

To cut cleanly, trimmers need to be sharp. If after you start trimming your cat’s nails you notice the nail is getting crushed or frayed, don’t continue to use them. Buy a new pair. Your cat will thank you because sharp scissors make for a faster nail trim.

  • Small pliers-style

    This is another style suitable for cats. The cutting portion is a bit wider than scissors, but it’s still easy to use on adult cat nails. However, scissors-style would be better for kittens.

A close-up of a person's hand using plier-style clippers to trim a white cat's claws. The cat's paw is held gently, with the clipper positioned to trim the tip of one claw.

Trimming your cat’s nails

  • 1.

    If you’ve never trimmed a cat’s nails before, have your veterinarian or one of their staff members show you how. You can even find videos online.

  • 2.

    Gather everything you need before you start: trimmers, a bath towel in case you need to swaddle your cat to keep paws and claws contained while you work on one paw, and styptic powder to stop bleeding in case you cut too much. Having some treats or wet food on hand can help serve as a distraction. Consider using Feliway too. Feliway is a pheromone that comes in a room outlet diffuser or a spray and it can help calm kitties. If using the spray and a towel, spray it on the towel ahead of time. Don’t spray it on your cat.

  • 3.

    Select a quiet environment.

  • 4.

    You might need to experiment with what position is best for your cat. You can have someone hold them while you trim (or vice versa), or if that’s not an option, try sitting with your cat on your lap, facing away from you. You can even try trimming a few nails while your cat is napping.

  • 5.

    Before starting (potentially even days to weeks before the first anticipated nail trim to get your kitty used to the process), hold one of your cat’s front paws and gently push on individual toes with your thumb on the top of the toe and the pad of your index finger on your cat’s paw pad to extend the nail. See how your cat responds. Cats may react in different ways, such as simply pulling their paw away (to be expected) or trying to bite. If they don’t seem amenable to you touching their paws, and you don’t have someone who can hold your cat to reduce the chance of you getting bit, consider having your veterinarian’s office do the nail trim for you. You can watch to see how they approach it.

  • 6.

    If your cat is amenable to you touching their paws and extending their nails, try trimming one nail. Most cats’ nails are clear, so you can see the quick (the pink part where the blood is). Place the trimmers about 3 mm away from the quick and cut. But if your cat is restless, or if your cat’s nails are dark, just try to cut off the nail’s sharp point or hook.

  • 7.

    If needed, take breaks. There’s no need to trim all of the nails at once, especially if your cat starts getting agitated, but try to trim nails on the front paws first. These tend to be more sharp than the hind claws. A complete nail trim might take days or even weeks if your cat isn’t used to it. However, if your cat’s nails are in desperate need of a trim, take them to your veterinarian so it can be done all at once. Then work up to getting your cat used to having their paws handled.

  • 8.

    Go from nail to nail, making sure you don’t forget the thumb on the front paw. With the exception of polydactyls (cats who have extra toes), cats have five nails on each front paw and four on each hind paw.

What is polydactyl?A polydactyl cat is born with extra toes on one or more of its paws.

Polydactyl cats

If your cat is polydactyl (lucky!), make sure no nails get missed during trims. Some polydactyl cats can even have nails that grow in between toes, so look there too. If any of your cat’s nails are curled to the point of puncturing their pads, they’ll be painful and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to safely do a nail trim (i.e. trim them without getting bit). In this case, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. This is not a case for the groomer, as your cat may need sedation for the trim and if a pad is punctured, it needs medical attention.

Senior cats

Senior cats can have nails that are brittle and more likely to split during nail trims. Their nails might also be thicker because these kitties may not be scratching their claws and encouraging them to shed. Try trimming just the point of one nail. It’s possible that a superficial layer of the nail might come off but if the nail splits, stop and schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Senior cats can also have arthritis in their paws, which can make pushing on their toes painful.

Sign up for our newsletter for more cat content