How To Trim A Cat’s Nails That Won’t Let You: Easy Tips For Success

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Some cats seem bent on violence when you get a nail clipper anywhere near them. If your attempts to trim your cat’s nails have resulted in bloodshed and/or antibiotics (cat scratches and bites can become seriously infected), I have some tips on how to trim a cat’s nails that won’t let you without causing stress to you or your cat. Yes, it is possible with some patience and work! Let’s learn how.

Prepare Ahead Of Time

Trimming a cat’s nails starts even before you actually attempt to snip their claws. While it may seem like a lot of work, you’ll end up saving yourself time (and violence) by putting in the effort early. The first, and in my opinion most important, step in how to trim a cat’s nails that won’t let you begins with getting your cat used to having their paws handled. You want to do this slowly and keep the whole process very positive so your cat doesn’t become fearful.

I suggest using something called a touch gradient where you begin touching your cat someplace that less of a reaction than their paws such as their shoulder blade. You then gently move your hand down their leg a little bit at a time, keeping contact with the cat’s body at all times. You want to do this briefly and stop before your cat has a strong reaction. You may also want to pair this with a Churu or other tasty treat to keep them distracted. A great tool is a lick mat smeared with meat baby food so your cat will be occupied for longer than using a treat alone.

Once you get to their paws, slowly add more time where you are touching their paw for longer and longer without scaring your cat. As they get used to this, you can begin gently holding their paw and eventually work your way toward lifting it slightly. Listen to your cat and go at their pace. You’ll also want to make sure they get a reward at the end of the session, too!

Don’t Forget The Toe Beans

Prozac, a flame point siamese cat, sleeps on a cat tower. The photo is a close up of his cute face with his back paw facing the camera. He has perfect pink toe beans.
Prozac, Class Act Cats’s Chief Whisker Officer, shows off his perfect toe beans.

Once your cat is fine with you holding their paw, you’ll need to get them used to having their cute little toe beans squeezed. This will help get the nail out so you can easily clip it. Apply gentle pressure at first so you see a claw come out. Release and reward your cat.

As your cat gets used to this, you’ll want to do the same thing with each claw on each of their paws. The process is basically the same for every paw, though for the back paws you’ll want to do it while they are lying down or sitting in your lap. Depending on your cat, one position may be easier than the other.

You may also want to get your cat used to having their paws touched with the clippers. I’m not even suggesting you actually clip their nails yet; touch the clipper to their paws and give them a reward after. This makes the clipping a non-event.

Get The Right Tools

In addition to getting your cat used to having their paws handled, you’ll want to make sure you have the right clippers. There are many styles out there, but most cats are going to prefer scissors or clippers over grinders due to the noise. If you have an old pair of clippers, you’ll want to chuck ’em and replace them with a fresh, sharp pair so cut is nice and clean.

If your cat has darker nails or you’re really nervous, you may want to look for clippers with a built in light to help you identify the quick (more on what that is in a moment) in your cat’s nails. The light can make it easier to see where to clip and make sure you don’t end up with a cat that is more combative when you go to trim their nails.

Clip In The Right Place

Once your cat is fine with being held and having their paws touched, you can go live with the nail trim. Because this is a guide on how to trim a cat’s nails that won’t let you, you want to be very cautious to not accidentally trim part of their nail called the quick. The quick is where the cat’s nail gets blood and is filled with nerves. Clipping it is painful and your cat will not appreciate it if you clip the quick!

The quick is a pink triangle at the base of the cat’s nail. You want to clip closer to the tip and not the pink part. If needed, you can trim a bit off and clip a bit more later to avoid hitting the quick.

Below is a very poorly drawn diagram of how to find the quick. I am a cat behaviorist, not a graphic designer for a reason. Despite the artistic challenges, it should give you an idea of what to look for and where to clip.

A diagram of where the quick is in a cat's claws. There is a black cartoon drawing of cat claws with pink triangles near the base of the claws. The word "quick" has two arrows pointing to the pink triangles. A white line in the claws closer to the tip indicates where to clip. There is a graphic of clippers and Class Act Cats' logo. It is important when figuring out how to trim a cat's nails that won't let you to clip in the right place!
I’m good with cats, not so much with art.

Don’t Be Shy

Speaking of clipping, as nervous as you may be to actually clip your cat’s nails, you want to be confident when you do the actual clip. If you go too slowly, it could end up resulting in your cat pulling away. You may accidentally end up nicking the quick or not fully getting the nail trimmed. Instead, you want to make a swift cut without hesitating. If you are nervous, practice the motion a few times.

Trim A Cat’s Nails Gradually

One thing I hear from clients all the time is that they can do one or two nails at once, but their cat won’t let them do all their nails in one go. While I understand that it would be great if their cat would cooperate with doing all their nails in one fell swoop, I see nothing wrong with this scenario. Taking this approach is a good idea.

Ultimately, you still get your cat’s nails trimmed. When it comes to how to trim a cat’s nails that won’t let you, getting all their nails trimmed eventually is better than not trimming them at all. If you can do one paw per day and it takes you four days, you still trimmed your cat’s nails. Plus, you’re spending less time each day doing the trimming so it isn’t actually much, if any, extra time.

Make It Fun And Predictable

One of the best ways to reduce stress in cats is to make things predictable. One of the best ways to reduce stress specifically while trimming a cat’s nails is to make the process predictable. Follow the same routine each time and do things in the same order.

As mentioned earlier, giving your cat a treat and distracting them with a puzzle feeder can help make the experience more pleasant for all involved. You can also follow up with a treat to end the trim on a good note, but don’t be afraid to follow it with something else your cat loves. If your cat likes to play, trim their nails get out their favorite cat toy. If they like being brushed, give them a good brushing session. The most important thing is your cat likes the reward so it’s something to look forward to.

How To Trim A Cat’s Nails That Won’t Let You

Hopefully you’ve picked up a few techniques on how to trim a cat’s nails that won’t let you that will make your life and your cat’s life easier. While adding in some extra steps may seem like a lot, once you get your cat used to nail trims, you’ll quickly see how worthwhile it is. You’ll save yourself time and you will be less likely to be a victim of a cat bite!

Of course, some cats are going to need a bit more help to successfully get their nails trimmed. If you’ve tried my suggestions and still aren’t having any luck, I’m happy to go over the advanced version of how to trim a cat’s nails that won’t let you during a consultation. Set up a session and we’ll come up with a customized plan for your cat!

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Joey Lusvardi

Joey Lusvardi CCBC is an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and professional cat trainer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He runs a behavior consultation and cat training service, Class Act Cats, where he helps cat parents address a variety of unwanted behaviors. Joey is available for in home sessions locally or virtual sessions wherever you are located!