Cats & Claws
No matter how gentle or docile your cat is, chances are you’ve got a few battle scars from run-ins with those claws. But with a little patience, practice, and good guidance (which we’re about to give you!) you can master the often-despised task of nail trimming. It is a wonderful skill that all cat guardians should learn because it creates a happier home.
Regular trimming ensures that your cat’s claws won’t overgrow and curl under and into the paw pad. Ingrown nails are extremely painful and can cause nasty infections. Also, your cat will be less likely to get caught on fabric or screens, and it will lessen the level of destruction caused by unwanted scratching on clothing or furniture (or, well, people!).
Many cat parents are intimidated by the idea of trimming, but once you know what to do and where to cut, it’s pretty simple. First, let’s get familiar with the structure of the toe, and why claws are so important.
Anatomy of a Paw
Part of the reason cats are so light-footed is that they walk on their tippy toes; this is called digitigrade movement. Humans, primates, and bears walk fairly flat footed, which is known as plantigrade. Because cats are digitigrade, their claws are crucial for comfortable locomotion and balance. Unlike human fingernails which attach to flesh, cats’ nails grow directly from the bone. When cats are declawed, part of this bone is removed in order to stop it from growing again. Afterwards, they are left to walk on what is left of the amputated digit. Imagine if someone removed part of your foot, how difficult and painful would it be to walk?
When at rest, a cat’s claws are safely sheathed and tucked away. When he or she wants to utilize them -either for defense, play, or climbing- they protract the nails outward using ligaments and tendons. Cats have four regular claws on each paw, plus a dewclaw that is set back on the inner side of each front paw, sort of like a thumb. The dewclaw is awkward: it hangs loosely, doesn’t touch the ground, and is considered a vestigial limb, one that has lost most or all function that their ancestors once used it for. You should trim this claw anyway because it still grows; you don’t want it become ingrown and infected.
Making them comfortable
A cat who has never had her nails trimmed before will be pretty startled if you just hold her down, grab her paws, and start clipping away. For this reason, it is important that your cat is familiar with the sensation of having her paws touched and handled, so begin doing this as soon as possible. The younger you start, the easier it will be in the long run, so if you adopt a kitten, don’t delay on getting her comfortable with this. But that doesn’t mean an adult can’t get used to it even if you haven’t done it before. Start by stroking her paw, then gently holding it. If she pulls away, allow her to, but keep a loose hold. Eventually, start to put pressure on the toes to extend the nail from the sheath. It is also a good idea to also allow your cat to see and smell the nail clippers ahead of time. These techniques are best done when your cat is already in a relaxed or sleepy mood. Be patient and don’t get frustrated if she needs some time.
Let’s Get Trimming
Once they allow you to handle the paw without fretting, you can start to trim. Make sure you have the proper tool: a trimmer made especially for cats. These are inexpensive and sold at all pet stores. Gently grasp the paw between your thumb and index finger, putting a tiny bit of pressure on the first digit to protract the nail. Follow the diagram, and remember that you only want to trim off the ‘hook’ of the nail, nothing more. If you follow this rule of thumb, you’ll greatly eliminate your chances of cutting the quick. Consider buying a clotting agent, known as styptic powder, to keep on hand in case you cut too close- just apply it to the nail and the bleeding will stop. Corn starch works, too.
Keep in mind, not every cat or their guardian will be able to make it through a complete nail trim in a single session. Consider keeping the trimmers readily available in an area where you frequently find your cat relaxed, so you can snip a few here and there. Even if it takes you a week to get them all done, that’s perfectly fine. If you really feel uncomfortable with this task, ask your vet, groomer, or adoption agency to show you how, or you can usually have it done for a small fee/donation of $7-10. A full set of nail trimming should be done once or twice a month.