How to Restrain a Cat to Clip Its Nails: Vet-Approved Safety Tips

Whether you already know it or not, cats scratching things is an instinctive behavior. While their claws ensure their defense, they also allow cats to communicate with other felines in the area using visual and olfactory signals. This isn’t a problem when it comes to the trees outside, but it’s another matter when it’s your couch where they dig their nails. You have three plans of attack: you can put up barriers to keep your pet from destroying your stuff, you can try positive reinforcement training to get him to scratch the appropriate items, or you can cut him off at the source, literally .

Trimming your cat’s nails is an important part of owning a cat. As the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), we do not advocate declawing. We recommend pruning them instead. We understand if you’re wondering how to cut a cat’s nails that won’t let you. It’s not like they make it easy. However, our guide offers advice on ways to make the experience less dramatic for both of you.

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Before you start

The best way to make this task easier is to get your pet used to the process. This means handling them and their paws frequently so they get used to it, preferably from a young age. You can also use every pet owner’s secret weapon: treats. Food has a remarkable way of making animals feel comfortable doing things they wouldn’t normally do. We suggest getting something special for this task, like tuna, given the feline preference for this product.

Cats are naturally wary of new things in their environment. It helps to get them used to the things you are going to use to cut their nails before you start. Let them explore the mowers at their own pace rather than yours. Also be aware that even the most docile animal can bite. Felines don’t like to be held and often object to it. Therefore, you may want to hire an assistant to help you hold your cat or to operate the clippers while you hold them.

man holding cat nail clippers
Image credit: Tatiana Foxy, Shutterstock

The goal of many items used to trim a cat’s nails is to minimize injury to you and your pet. It is in everyone’s interest to get the job done as quickly and safely as possible. The materials you may need are:

  • Large towel
  • Pheromone spray (optional)
  • Nail clipper
  • Styptic powder
  • Treats

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How to restrain a cat to cut its nails

1. Let your cat sniff the towel if she uses one

We equate curiosity with cats for good reason. Breeds vary in how open or shy they are. However, familiarity brings some comfort. This is why we suggest letting your cat sniff the towel and clippers you are going to use for a few days before trying to groom him. New items can put a pet on the defensive, so let your pet take his time and investigate at his own pace.


2. Apply pheromone spray to items

For some cats, pheromone sprays can be calming in stressful situations. Being immobilized for cutting your nails can definitely be considered one of those stressful situations. These products simulate the pheromones that a cat releases in comforting moments, such as when snuggling with its mother and littermates. This is an olfactory cue that can make this task more manageable and less stressful. Spray the objects, the area and your hands about 15 minutes before attempting to cut the nails.

cat gets its nails cut
Image credit: Vydrin, Shutterstock

3. Wrap your pet in a towel

A thick towel will protect you from scratches. After all, there’s a good reason why you decided to trim your pet’s nails. Fold the napkin in half lengthwise and spread it on the floor or table. Starting at one end, wrap the towel around your cat’s body burrito style. The head should stick out from one end and be clear so your cat can breathe easily. This will keep their legs contained and give you control of their head at the same time. While clipping her nails, hold your cat close to your body. This can comfort a frightened animal and help things get done as quickly and safely as possible.


4. Expose one paw at a time and trim the tips of the nails

Take out one paw at a time. Your cat will probably instinctively extend its claws to grab something. Push each nail forward to expose the tip. Be sure to look for the quick beforehand (the red line extending about half the length of the claw) and only cut the tip where there is no quick. Cut small amounts until the nail is as short as you like. Prepare styptic powder if you are too short and the nail starts to bleed.


5. Reward your cat

Reward your cat with a treat for their cooperation after cutting off their first leg. This action lays the foundation for a positive association with this task. Your cat may still object to being held the next time you do it, however, you’ll likely find that there’s less drama once your pet understands what’s at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

woman positively training a cat with treats
Image credit: Andriy Blokhin, Shutterstock

6. Speak gently to your cat when you change paws

Speak gently to your pet while cutting your nails. Research has shown that cats find the presence of their owners comforting during times of stress. If someone helps you, make sure you are the one holding your cat while the other person takes care of the trimming.


7. Remove the towel and finish with a treat

When you’re done, be sure to end on a positive note with another treat. Your cat probably has an escape in mind. Something delicious can distract your pet and refocus them on a good experience. You can leave the materials you used in the room so your cat can come back and check them if he wants.

cat paw divider

Final Thoughts

Nail clipping doesn’t have to be an ordeal for you and your cat every time you do it. Letting them get used to the equipment you’re going to use well before you start can really help. Maintaining a positive association between nail trimming and treats is essential, as it can save you and your cat from injury. Hopefully they will get used to the process soon and it won’t be so complicated next time.


Featured image credit: Yimmyphotography, Shutterstock


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