Skip to Content

How to Trim Cat Nails – The Ultimate Guide

How to Trim Cat Nails – The Ultimate Guide

This article was reviewed for accuracy by a licensed veterinarian.

One of the top-selling points about cats as pets is that they groom themselves. However, people often leave out the fact that the nails are the cat owner’s responsibility! Many new cat owners have asked our staff vet how to trim cat nails.

In short, you need clippers, a quiet place, trust, and practice. We cover all of these topics in great detail in this post.

In addition to researching this topic extensively to ensure we cover many commonly asked questions, we bring our own experience in trimming cat nails to this article. Our staff vet even uses some of these tips for her pet ferret too!

There is one all-important rule for success with trimming your cat’s nails: Always remember that your cat must cooperate. Once you master the art of calming your cat and you can reliably trim your cat’s nails without injury, you can save hours and dollars by no longer having to take your cat to your vet or your groomer for nail trimming. 

Below is an overview of the various topics we cover in this post. Read on to learn everything you need to know about how to trim cat nails!

When Are a Cat’s Nails Too Long?

A cat extending their nails. How to trim cat nails.
They’re the perfect length to intimidate my owners into giving me whatever I want.

Your cat’s nails are too long when:

  • They get stuck in the carpet or other surfaces
  • They won’t retract all the way back in
  • They are very curvy
  • They are very sharp

Any of these signs are a reliable indication that it is time to trim your cat’s nails.

What Happens if You Don’t Trim Your Cat’s Nails?

Letting your cat’s nails get too long doesn’t seem like it should cause serious problems, but cats that don’t get nail care sometimes develop significant health issues:

  • Long nails can get stuck in your cat’s collar or in the carpet, causing significant discomfort to your cat as they try to dislodge them.
  • Long nails can curl in on themselves and grow into the cat’s foot pad – which can be very painful for your cat.
  • Long nails can affect your cat’s gait. Cats that have hip dysplasia or knee issues will develop problems with walking and going up and down stairs if they have to walk on their nails.
  • Long nails make it more likely your cat will hurt you if they scratch you. Cat scratches often get infected, so have some neosporin in the home!

Cats with long nails are more likely to damage upholstery and cut your furniture. Cats are natural scratchers, and scratch for many reasons: expressing their emotions, marking territory with their pheromones, stretching, and nail maintenance. So, it’s your job to manage what damage they can do with these scratches!

Older cats, and polydactyl cats (cats born with more than the usual number of toes), often have a nail that has grown into the paw. Cats of any age can have nails torn out of the nail bed by injury. Removing this kind of nail is a task best performed by your veterinarian. 

How to Relieve Your Cat’s Anxiety About Getting Their Nails Trimmed

You know those videos you see online about a child’s first haircut, and you laugh because the kid is crying about something so easy and routine? Now imagine what a cat may feel like the first time you trim its nails. You can reason with a toddler easier than a cat, which is saying something!

One of the worst ways to trim your cat’s nails for the first time is to scoop them up from their playtime, hold them tight in your arms, and force their nails into some nail clipper that looks like a guillotine while ignoring their anxiety and protests.

One bad experience with nail clipping can cause your cat to become anxious if you even take out a pair of nail clippers. 

That’s why it’s more important to make sure your cat becomes familiar and comfortable with all the tools you will need for clipping nails than actually clipping their nails when you have never clipped their nails before.

Give your cat one or two dry runs at clipping their nails before you actually start working their nails. Get your cat used to the position that will be necessary for nail clipping before using actual clippers.

  • Find a scratch-resistant cloth, like an ironing board cover, to lay across your lap. This keeps your cat from scratching you.
  • Have some of your cat’s favorite treats within easy reach to reward good behavior.
  • Pick up your cat and place them lengthwise across your lap, on the scratch-proof cloth.

You can show your cat the clippers, but, this first time, don’t use them. Let your cat know that there is nothing to fear in just seeing them. Gently restrain your cat to stay in your lap for about five minutes, and then let them go.

Some cats and their humans will be more comfortable in different positions. 

  • There are cat owners who lie down and place their cats on their chests facing them, and trim their nails from that position. 
  • There are cat owners who hold their cats in the air with one hand and trim nails with the other—although this position invites scratching.

Use the position that you and your cat find most comfortable. Repeat this exercise a time or two over about a week, so your cat learns there is no reason to fear nail trimming time. Then you will be ready for an actual nail trimming. When it’s time to trim your cat’s nails for real, there is an order of things that makes the whole process easier.

#1. Start by Gathering Everything You Need to Trim Your Cat’s Nails

A cat next to a cat nail trimmer. How to trim cat nails.
Get that thing away from me, Stacy. If you don’t, I’ll have to tinker with the couch fabric again.

You will need: 

  • A nail trimmer or grinder.
  • Styptic powder, flour, cornstarch, or sugar to stop bleeding.
  • A bag of cat treats to reward good behavior.

It is also a good idea to have a second person your cat knows on hand to give your cat reassurance during the first nail trimming session. This isn’t vital, but it can be helpful.

Some advice online calls for wrapping your cat in a towel so there is a sense of security during trimming. We advise you to attempt to trim cat nails without a towel the first few times. This is due to the fact that wrapping your cat up may cause anxiety and distress, and may not even be needed!

If you become certain that your cat will try to escape the session and may scratch and claw to do so – then begin to use a towel to assist you in the process. 

What kind of nail trimmer or grinder will you use? Here are some possibilities:

  • Guillotine-style nail clippers: (For example, Resco Cat Nail Clippers) Have a hole you gently push the outer nail through before pressing the blade down to trim it. These clippers stay sharp longer than other kinds of clippers, and when your cat cooperates, they provide an easier and faster trim than other options below. But you need a calm cat to use them, and you need to take care not to cut your cat’s nails to the quick.
  • Nail grinders: (For example, the Booha Cordless Pet Nail Grinder) Keep your cat’s nails trim and smooth with minimal risk of trimming too much of your cat’s nails. However, some cats find the mechanical hum of the grinder stressful.
  • Pliers-style nail clippers: (For example, the H&H Pets Dog and Cat Nail Clipper) Have extra strength for tough nails. They also cause worse injuries when used incorrectly.
  • Scissors-style nail clippers: (For example, the JW Pet Gripsoft Nail Clipper) Pose the least risk of injury to your cat. They are a little harder to use than other methods, but your cat is likely to have a good experience with them. We highly recommend them as a member of our staff uses them!

#2. Find a Quiet Place to Trim Your Cat’s Nails

Trimming your cat’s nails generally goes better if you find a quiet place with no distractions from children or other pets. 

If you find that the event causes distress for your cat, you can try draping a towel gently over their head so they won’t see what you’re doing. Please try trimming their nails without this practice at first, as it may scare your cat even more.

#3. Isolate the Nail You Intend to Cut

A person using their hand to extend their cat's nails. How to trim cat nails.
Using your hand to apply gentle pressure will extend your cat’s nails for an easier cut. (As long as they don’t wrestle them back in!)

You trim your cat’s nails one nail at a time. Once you have found a position that is comfortable for both you and your cat, pick up one of their claws. Avoid bending your cat’s leg or holding the paw back in an awkward way.

Also, don’t pull the arm too far away from your cat. Their usual reaction is to draw their arm back in. You want to come in close, bringing the arm out as little as necessary. 

Choose any nail to trim first. Your cat’s claws are retractable, so you will have to apply gentle pressure to their paw pad so the nail extends outward. Use your non-dominant hand to place your thumb on top of the toe and your forefinger beneath it. Squeeze gently so you see where the quick is (so you won’t cut it).

A cat's claw. How to trim cat nails.
Be cautious when trimming not to cut to the quick. Leave some space between the quick and the front of the nail.

If your cat has long hair on its paws, comb it back so you can see what you are doing.

#4. Trim or Grind the Tip of Your Cat’s Nail

Now it’s time to trim or grind the tip of your cat’s nail. Your cat’s nails are very narrow at the end and wide as they get closer to the paw. You want to trim right where the nail transitions from narrow to wide.

A cat’s nail needs to be trimmed or ground at a 45-degree angle from the side of the nail to the center. Leaving a longer nail in the center lets it rest comfortably on the ground as your cat walks from place to place.

Trim your cat’s nail with confidence. Not applying enough pressure may just crush the nail, without trimming it.

#5. Continue Trimming, Slowly

Once you have trimmed and ground down the very tip of one of your cat’s nails, inspect it to see if there is more nail you can remove. Keep trimming, but stop before you cut into the quick of the nail. 

This could cause your cat bleeding and pain (and get you scratched, plus make future nail trimming sessions much more difficult). Then move on to all your cat’s other nails. If you are new to trimming cat nails and are fearful of hurting your cat, you can elect to only trim the tip of the nails and repeat this weekly.

Some cats will accept a treat after you have trimmed each nail. Other cats will just want to get their trimming over with, and won’t accept treats until you are ready to let them return to whatever they were doing earlier. 

Be aware that your cat will let you know if you are hurting them, or they are afraid of getting their nails trimmed. Be on the lookout for a twitching tail, panting, stiffening body, or growling. If your cat is growling at you, it is usually a good idea to discontinue the trimming session to try again later.

However, if your cat is just lightly fighting you – be firm. This is not a comfortable action for your cat, so it’s natural that they try to push you away. If you give up after light pushback, your cat knows it can win and will continue to push back during future trimmings. 

When Trimming Your Cat’s Nails, Accidents Can Happen

If you trim your cat’s nails often enough, chances are that you will eventually clip too much and cause your cat bleeding and pain. If you stay calm when this happens, your cat may stay calm, too.

Apply first aid with styptic powder, cornstarch, flour, or sugar to stop bleeding. But if your cat allows, finish the trim and make extra sure your cat gets their treat as a reward for cooperating with you.

Don’t forget your cat’s dewclaws, on the sides of their lower legs. These nails can get caught in carpet, upholstery, and cloth if they are not trimmed.

How Often Do Cats Need Their Nails Trimmed?

A person holding their cat. How to trim cat nails.
I like to get a fresh mani/pedi once a week. If I look good, I feel good. And when I feel good, I can exert my dominance on this house.
  • Kittens need their nails trimmed about once a week. 
  • Senior cats need their nails trimmed about once a month. 
  • Cats between the ages of six months and 10 years need trimmings about every other week.

Trimming nails is a great way to bond with your cat and to stay alert to their changing health needs as they get older.

Frequently Asked Questions About Trimming Your Cat’s Nails

  • Q. Do I have to trim all of my cat’s nails at the same time?
    • A. When you are just starting out, you can trim one nail and call it a day. The next day, trim another nail. This way your cat experiences less anxiety and frustration and will be less resistant to future trims.
  • Q. Does a harness or cat grooming hammock assist with trimming cat nails?
    • A. If you are having a difficult time cutting your cat’s nails, you can look into hammocks and harnesses to assist. A hammock like this one can assist in the process by keeping your cat restrained and allowing you to cut without fear of being scratched.
  • Q. Do pheromones help calm cats for nail trimming?
    • A. Pheromones like Feliway can help your cat relax. So does placing a toy or blanket they have marked with their scent (by rubbing their cheeks on it) in your lap with your cat when you are trimming nails.
  • Q. If my cats have a scratching post, do I really need to trim their nails?
    • A. Scratching posts reduce the need for nail trimming, but they do not eliminate the need for nail care. You should inspect your cat’s paws on a regular basis to make sure they do not have broken or missing nails, and to keep your cat nails evenly trimmed.
  • Q. Wouldn’t it just be simpler to have my cats declawed?
    • A. Veterinarians, cat experts, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals all strongly recommend against declawing cats. The Cat Insider is against it as well. Declawed cats can’t climb, and they are defenseless against attacks by larger animals. Your cat’s claws are like the ends of your fingers – keep their fingers intact! 
  • Q. My cat is terrified of the nail grinder. Is there anything I can do to help him feel more comfortable around it?
    • A. You have two options here:
      • Purchase another nail trimmer (we reference various types above in this post). This may be the best option for most.
      • Let your cat “get acquainted” with the nail grinder without using it on your cat’s nails. Leave it out for your cat to paw and sniff. Give your cat an opportunity to learn the grinder is no danger before applying it to a nail.
  • Q. What is the appropriate punishment for my cat for resisting nail trimming?
    • A. Punishing what you consider to be misbehavior never makes the situation with your cat better. It only creates a negative experience that will make future clipping sessions even more difficult. Always reward good behavior. Cats don’t make the connection between their behavior and punishments. They just avoid the punishment in the future.
  • Q. Is there a good YouTube video on how to trim cat nails?
    • A. We recommend this extremely helpful video: 

Final Thoughts on How to Trim Cat Nails

Trimming your cat’s nails is not an easy task at first, but it is important and rewarding. It’s important to be measured in your attempts, and firm when trimming. Similarly to training your cat to walk on a leash, it is very important to reward your cat and try to make this as pleasant an experience as possible. 

By taking these steps, you will succeed in trimming your cat’s nails!