Nailing it: nail care without the stress

The first part in our series tackled feline foot anatomy, next learn how to succeed at cat nail care without having to tackle your cat. Thankfully, cats do most of the work for us. Their normal, healthy scratching behavior conditions their nails on a daily basis. This removes dead layers to reveal strong sharp nails. Those sharp claws require trimming every few weeks in order to prevent unintended scratches or snags. Nail trimming intimidates many cat owners; no one wants a weekly wrestling match or to unintentionally cause pain to their pet. With proper preparation and patience, cat nail care can be a comfortable routine and even a bonding experience. 

Find the right tool for the job.

Nail trimmers come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, each with pros and cons. You may find that one type is more comfortable in your hand, or that another gives you more confidence in knowing where you are cutting. Try a few options and find the right fit for you and your kitty. If you are already comfortable with your choice of trimmers, skip ahead to our top tips or low stress steps

Human nail trimmers are a popular pick and there is a good chance that you already have a pair at home. This makes them convenient, but it is important to remember that they are designed for human nails. Kitty nails are uniquely hook shaped with a rounded shaft. Flat human trimmers can be uncomfortable because of the pressure that they put on the nail, which can cause splintering. The long blade can injure sensitive paw pads if we are not very careful when we are using them. You can reduce the risk of hurting the pad by holding the trimmer upright, cutting the nail like you would your own with the blade parallel to the floor. 

Scissor-style cat nail trimmers are a great option. They are appropriately sized and shaped to cut cat claws well. The curved blade hugs the shaft of the claw for even pressure during trimming. It is also easy to see where and what you are cutting, lowering the risk of a painful pedicure. Some dog nail trimmers are similar in design. Their larger size may be more comfortable for large hands, or awkward for smaller ones. Ultimately, cat nail care is not “one size fits all” and trial and error is necessary to find what works for you. 

Two kinds of nail trimmers used for cat nail care are shown, large human nail trimmers and scissor style cat nail trimmers
The blades of human nail trimmers and cat nail care trimmers are compared to show that the human trimmers have a flat blade while the cat trimmers have a curved blade, this difference is highlighted.

Achieve success with these top tips

Go slow and be patient

While it can be very tempting to just “get it done” by force, turning nail trims into a wrestling match sets your future self up for failure. Cat nail care is not a one and done event; nail trims are an ongoing part of cat care that lasts a lifetime. Kitties are more likely to struggle if nail trims are established as a stressful event instead of a positive experience.

Ask for a helping hand

It can be difficult to juggle trimmers, treats, and toes, especially when you are just getting started. Recruit a friend to be either the holder or the trimmer. The holder should support your kitty in a comfortable position and feed them tasty snacks while the trimmer trims the nails.

Offer the best snacks

Using high value food during nail trims helps to make it an event that your kitty looks forward to. Moist, stinky options tend to be favorites, but your cat’s opinion is what counts. Let them choose from a variety of snacks to find the top winner.

Add nail care to your bedtime routine

Cats tend to be more comfortable with handling when they are sleepy or feeling cozy. Take advantage when they are cuddling close, but be careful not to disturb them. Follow the guidelines for gentle handing and stop if they are too bothered.

Remember each low stress trim is a win

Even if you are not able to clip every claw every time, you are caring for your cat in the best way. By making their comfort count, you strengthen the bond that you share and show them that care can be a cooperative experience.

Take the stress out of cat nail care.

Low stress nail trims are about building trust and making routine care an activity that is easy for both of you. Start slow, do not move on to the next step until your kitty is comfortable. Every cat is different; some will be so distracted by food that you can complete a nail trim in one try, others will require multiple sessions at each step before you succeed. If you get stuck along the way, review the top tips or consider working directly with a professional. The key is to let your cat set the pace and be flexible in finding solutions that work for both of you.

First, get cozy.

Find a comfortable position for you and your kitty that allows easy access to their feet. Some cats are comfortable laying on their back while others would rather be upright at all times. Avoid awkward angles or wrestling matches. Think about whether you can comfortably cut nails in this position, without bending cat legs at unnatural angles or straining your neck to see what you are doing. Once you have chosen a starter position, offer snacks or brushing to set the mood. The best reward is the one that your cat enjoys. Guide them into the position while continuing to reward them, encouraging them to snuggle down. Establishing snuggle time does more than prepare your kitty for low stress nail trims, it also gives you an opportunity to relax with your furry friend. Move on to the next step once your cat is comfortable getting cozy with you.

Second, touch those toes.

Gently handle your cat’s feet. Start high on the body and work slowly towards the toes to make handling a welcome massage. This is less surprising than immediately grabbing feet, which can undo the coziness that we have worked so hard for. To help your kitty associate handling with extra good things, give a special treat just after you start touching them. Work on gradually increasing how long you touch their toes, touch just a little longer each time. To maintain trust and comfort, it is important to let your cat pull away if they need a break. If they know that you will let them go if they ask, they will be more comfortable consenting to contact. If they pull away, resume whatever cozy activities they were enjoying and make sure they are completely comfortable before trying again. 

Third, claws out!

Once your cat is comfortable with hand holding, show off those concealed weapons. Expose the nail by pressing on the pad of the toe while also carefully pulling back on the fluff covering the top of the claw. Be gentle and keep the snacks coming! Practice keeping the claw out a little longer each time and stabilizing the toe so that you can get a good look at the claw. Take a peek at the anatomy and compare it to what you learned in the first part of our Nailing It series. In cats, it is easy to see the pink quick – the part of the nail that hurts if you cut it. Take time to look at how the shape of the nail changes as you get closer to the quick, this will make trimming easier later. This is also an excellent opportunity to make sure that your cat’s claws are in good health. Signs like excessive buildup of dirt or debris, swelling, redness, or discharge could require a trip to the veterinarian.

Then, trim with care.

Keep your cat comfortable as you clip their claws, being mindful of awkward angles. If you find yourself struggling to see what you are trimming or pulling their leg into an uncomfortable position, take a step back and find a better approach. Line up your trimmers so that you can clip the tip, not the quick. Trim the clear shaft of the claw, leaving a buffer between where you are cutting and the tender pink quick. Even if you do not hit the quick directly, cutting very close to it can cause soreness. It is better to take too little and need to clip again than it is to take too much and have an uncomfortable kitty.

That's it, you are nailing it!

By taking things one step at a time and building trust along the way, you can accomplish cat nail care without the stress. Every kitty is different, yours may require unique solutions to accomplish care. If progress is slow, consult our top tips and don’t be afraid to get creative with your solutions. In our Cheater’s Guide to Solo Kitten Nail Trims video, we use a DIY snack-surface for success. It is made from a makeup brush cleaner that has been attached to a ring, then smeared with tasty canned food. Get crafty and make your own snack solutions. Share your low-stress ideas with us on Instagram or Facebook, both for bragging rights as well as to help someone who is coping with similar challenges.

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 nail care. 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 on track. 

Background photo Toe Tufts by melissawarhol via Flickr.