Nailing it: using cat nail caps

The second part in our series explained how to take the stress out of nail trimming. For most cats, a simple nail trim is enough to blunt their claws and prevent damage to loved ones and property. Clipping alone may not be enough to stop especially enthusiastic scratchers or protect particularly vulnerable individuals. Cat nail caps provide an additional layer of protection, putting a flexible barrier between claws and their targets.

Nail caps address urgent needs.

Dr. Toby Wexler, a veterinarian exploring creative solutions for claw complaints, filed his patent for Animal Toe Nail Covers in 1989. In his patent application, he described his invention as “A pliable sheath for animal toe nails, providing protection for humans, furniture, clothes, and other animals. A sheath of this nature reduces self inflicted trauma and provides an alternative to declawing.” 

Claw caps are an excellent management tool that reduces risk without invasive means. This tool does not address the root cause of the unwanted scratching behavior, but it allows us to take a deep breath and look at the situation without as much pressure. We can then match sustainable scratching solutions to the individual, whether that means training from scratch or simply offering the right alternatives.

Why not just use nail caps forever?

When we suppress natural behaviors without addressing the underlying motivation, even less desirable behaviors tend to bubble up. The cat who can no longer defensively scratch may decide that they need to bite instead. The cat who can no longer territorially scratch may territorially house soil. Caps are a great compromise during times of transition and troubleshooting, but even when they are perfectly applied they can impact the satisfaction of a good stretch and increase frustration. We do not recommend longterm use of nail caps unless a comprehensive behavior consultation has been performed to ensure that all training options have been exhausted or a medical necessity requires their ongoing use. 

Full coverage is not necessary for full function.

Claw caps prevent damage without changing the anatomy underneath. To get this benefit, the business end of the nail is what needs to be covered. The sidewall only needs enough coverage for the glue to create a strong bond. The more surface area covered, the tighter that bond.

Tiny kitten claws are so small that it is actually best not to trim the nail before claw cap application. By not trimming first, we give ourselves and the glue more room to work with. This enables a better bond without going too close to the sensitive cuticle. A cap that touches the cuticle may rub or even damage delicate tissue. Not sure where your cat’s cuticle is? Visit the first part of our Nailing It series to brush up on your cat nail anatomy knowledge.

A diagram of a cat nail showing a nail cap covering the sharp half of the nail, without interfering with normal nail retraction.
Animal Toe Nail Covers Fig. 8 (Patent #4,962,731)

For larger kittens and adult cats, a quick trim before application allows caps to last longer between manicures. Resist the urge to trim too aggressively, even big kids need enough surface area for the glue to bond well. The overall success of a set of cat nail caps depends on both the fit and quality of application. Your kitty’s comfort during and after application will tell you if you have succeeded.

Before going any further, make sure that your cat is comfortable with handling. Application involves extensive paw manipulation and strong adhesive. 

Anxiety related to handing can be addressed with careful desensitization and counter conditioning.

Find the right fit for your kitty.

From itty bitty kitties to massive Maine Coons, claws come in a wide range of sizes. Most companies that produce cat nail caps offer four sizes: kitten or extra small, small, medium, and large. Adding to the fit challenge, you may encounter some variation in sizing between different brands. To reduce the difficulty of finding the right match, we offer guidance below as well as a Claw Cap Size Sampler for purchase. All of the nail caps used in our shop and sizing photos are produced by Zetpo. We are not affiliated with Zetpo and do not endorse one brand of claw cap over another.

Measure the claw, not the cat.

A cat who weighs 25 pounds (11.4 kg) but whose ideal body weight is half that, is likely to need the same size claw cap as its skinnier sibling. Increased body fat does not cause increased claw size, but it does make finding the right fit all the more important. Overweight cats have increased pressure on each of their toes, which makes for more discomfort if claws are being squeezed too snugly or have excess material getting in the way of normal anatomy.

Give yourself enough room to work with.

The goal of a well-fitted claw cap is to cover the pointed tip of the nail and have enough contact with the sidewall for the adhesive to get a good grip. If you do not have actual caps on hand, extend your cat’s claw and hold our printable size guide up to it. Choose the size that allows comfortable coverage of the claw tip. A narrow gap within the cap and around the claw is fine, this space will be filled with glue. Without any gap, glue is more likely to overflow when the cap is put on. This may lead to sticky fingers or uncomfortable kitty cuticles if filling is not done carefully.

If you are stuck between sizes, either too small with no room for glue or too large with excess cap length, round up to the larger size. Excess length can be carefully trimmed from the open end before application, preventing cuticle contact. You may find that your cat requires a blend of sizes or custom cap trimming to comfortably cover all of their front claws.

Once you have caps on hand, confirm a functional fit with a non-stick trial fitting. Extend the nail as you would for a trim and slip the empty cap over the claw. If the edge of the cap hits the cuticle, the cap will need to be shortened before gluing.

Now allow the claw to retract. If it does not easily retract with the cover in place, the cap may be too large. Caps that are too long can be cut to size, caps that are too thick or wide should be swapped out for a smaller size. The natural resting position of cat claws is retracted, tucked away for safe keeping. A cap that is too large to allow for natural retraction may strain delicate ligaments, shift weight in unintended ways, or just be annoying. 

Compare the fit.

Looking at our kitty model with his claws extended, the size small cap (S) has a comfortable gap between it and the cuticle. The size medium cap (M) touches the cuticle. The size large cap (L) actually covers the entire cuticle in addition to adding excess length to the nail. 

After allowing the claws to retract to their natural resting position, the small nail cap just peeks out. You can see that as the caps get larger, they stick out farther. This kitty needs to stick with size small, even though he is a hefty 12 pounds!

Practice handling caps and adhesive.

Getting used to juggling caps and glue takes time and patience. Claw covers can feel small and fiddly in human hands while glue can seem to stop and start with a mind of its own. The ability to dexterously handle caps and control the amount of glue that you apply are important skills to master. Most nail cap packages include a few extra caps; use these bonus caps to get a feel for how to best hold them during the filling process and experiment with how much glue to use.

Manufacturers recommend adding glue until the cap is about one third of the way full, making sure not to fill beyond the halfway point. The amount that you can safely add will depend on how much of a glue gap your fit allows for around your own cat’s claw. There are two ways to help achieve full glue coverage without overflow during application. One option is to give the cap a light squeeze after filling in order to coat the entire inside surface, then wipe away any excess from the top. If you have steady hands, you can also use the glue applicator to fill the cap to the brim and then suction the level back down to the right level. Err on the side of under-filling rather than over-filling, as overflow can be messy and uncomfortable. Once you are confident with your nail cover handling skills, it is time to cap those claws. 

Set up your nail salon with a friend.

Teamwork makes nail cap application easier and safer for all involved. Arrange your supplies so that they are within your reach but far enough from your kitty to prevent any glue mishaps. Make sure that you have the vinyl nail caps, adhesive, scissors to adjust fit, and a robust supply of rewards for your cat. One person should focus on application while the other keeps your cat comfortable and cooperative with a combination of physical support and the reward of their choice. Some cats like a snack while they have their nails done, while others may prefer brushing or petting.

For cats who need a nail trim first, consider splitting trimming and capping into two separate sessions in order to reduce the risk of running out of “kitty minutes.” Not all cats have the patience to sit through both at once, even with treats involved. Since nail trimming is covered extensively in the previous section of our series, we will jump right into cap application.

5 steps to capped claws

Using our simple five step process, apply claw caps one at a time. Pre-filling the entire set with glue before you are actually ready to put the caps on can result in crunchy caps that have dried too quickly to use. Do not try to race against the clock! Taking your time enables you to custom fit each cap to each claw for a better application. As with low stress nail trims, it is important to keep an eye on your cat’s comfort level. The support person should let the applier know right away if a treat refill or play break is needed. Your cat won’t be too embarrassed if their manicure isn’t finished in one sitting. 

Wiggly kitty making you nervous to get the glue?

Desensitize and counter condition your cat to nail cap handling with glueless practice sessions. Walk through each step of application, but without using any adhesive. Start simple. Do only as much as your cat will happily tolerate, being sure to stop before your kitty loses their patience. Slide on just a few caps, give a treat, then slide them back off. This teaches them that caps mean great things!

It may take multiple tries before you and your cat are both comfortable and confident enough to tackle a real application. Be patient and remember that trying new things can be scary for both of you.

Reassess fit every step of the way.

Just like our own clothing, a size that seems like a great match at the start may feel different at the end of the day. Watch for warning signs that your kitty’s caps are the wrong size or that the adhesive is causing issues. Each week, check for comfort and fit with a close inspection. This is a good time to count the caps and see how quickly they are being shed. Nail caps typically last for 4 to 6 weeks, falling off as the claw sheath they are attached to naturally sheds. 

Look out for signs of a bad fit

Do not commit to uncomfortable caps.

You may need to encourage bad fitting caps to fall off faster. First, trim off the tip of the nail cap. Be extremely cautious to cut the cap itself without removing too much of the nail underneath. Use a cross-section of a spare cap as a guide to how far you can cut without damaging the quick. If the nail is trimmed too short, it can cause discomfort or even bleeding. This makes cap removal more difficult to accomplish at home and may leave your cat with a very bad impression of claw caps or handling in general. Removing the tip of the cap helps to break the glue seal that keeps the vinyl claw cap on the nail. If the fit is annoying but not an urgent issue, this single step may be enough to relieve pressure. 

Removal requires time and patience.

It is important to be extremely gentle during the entire process and take breaks as needed. Cats who are already uncomfortable have much less patience to work with and may be very sensitive to touch. Once the offending cap has been clipped, let your cat spend some time “walking it off.” The pressure of walking will help to further loosen the grip of the glue. Next, encourage vigorous scratching on their favorite posts using toys and catnip. Repeat trimming can be done as caps grow out, but be patient. Rushed removal can do more harm than good and caps should never be pried or torn off.

Immediate removal may be necessary in some cases.

If the nail cap is causing skin irritation or significantly impacting the way that your cat plays or walks around, a more aggressive approach may be best. We strongly recommend consulting with your veterinarian before trying to remove caps that are causing irritation. Removal may need to be performed by a professional and irritated skin may require veterinary attention. It may be tempting to try the same methods used to remove artificial human nails at home, but cat feet are not compatible with the chemical soaks that people can use. Acetone should not be used on kitty skin. Nail polish remover is not just harsh on sensitive cat cuticles, the fumes irritate eyes and airways. 

Do not be afraid to ask for help from a professional. If your cat is not comfortable, a situational anti-anxiety medication, pain reliever, or even sedation may be necessary to give them relief. This is especially important if glue has stuck sensitive tissues together that might be torn in a struggle. Many veterinarians have access to tools that can make complete nail cap removal a simple and quick procedure under sedation. Depending on the condition of your kitty’s claws, this may also be a great opportunity for a more expert claw cap application. A professional pawdicure gives you top quality claw coverage while you work on any needed handling skills and training plans. 

Remember that caps compromise function.

When we cover our cat’s claws, we make them less effective as tools and weapons. While that can be extremely helpful for managing unwanted scratching, it puts the burden on our kitties to sacrifice scratch satisfaction and full function of their normal anatomy for our benefit. By prioritizing comfort during and between applications, thoughtfully addressing feline behavioral needs, and finding sustainable solutions that allow us to transition away from the use of cat nail caps longterm, we can significantly lessen that burden. That is not to say that we cannot enjoy the colorful world of plastic pedicures, but that we should do so with the care and consideration that our feline friends deserve.

Feeling overwhelmed?

Do not be afraid to ask for help. There are many feline professionals who are more than happy to help you get started with cat nail caps. Fear Free Certified Groomers and Veterinary Professionals are excellent resources for low stress cat nail care. Consider scheduling a grooming appointment or behavior consultation to get your cat’s claws capped. 

Background photo Toe Tufts by melissawarhol via Flickr.