Quite a few people ask me how to trim a cat’s nails. More importantly, how to do it without stress (and without scruffing).
Trimming a cat’s nails can be a stressful experience for many cats and their guardians. However with the right training and lots of patience, it can be turned into an activity that is stress-free, and even an enjoyable bonding activity.
Now, most cats (especially those that are allowed outdoors) don’t require it. Sometimes guardians do it because that’s what they think is part of normal pet maintenance, but most cats will actually look after their own nails given the right scratching surfaces. In fact, one of the main purposes of scratching (or claw-raking) is nail maintenance.
There are however several circumstances where nail trimming may be required. For example:
Often in these cases, the monthly (or more often) nail trimming sessions are a stressful, but necessary evil. Let’s change this and make it a more positive experience for both cat and guardian!
Like most conditioning programs, changing a stressful experience into a positive one requires desensitisation and counter-conditioning. These techniques are very important to ensure the cat feels no stress or other adverse emotions. In fact, used successfully, the training should actually be the opposite – an exciting and happy process!
Let’s look at what these 2 techniques entail:
Desensitisation is where we change an emotional response to a stimulus by repeated (but low) exposure to it. Don’t get this confused with a process called ‘flooding’ where the exposure is at maximum intensity until an animal (or human) submits. Flooding used to be sometimes used in human and animal psychology a long time ago, but would often have the opposite effect.
An example that will help differentiate, is a cat who has a fear of thunder/storms. Flooding would be exposing the cat to the sound of thunder at normal intensity, with the hope that the cat will eventually realise that it can’t hurt him and becomes ok with it (though often it created more fear. Desensitisation in this case however (when done correctly) would be to play the sound of thunder at a really low volume, being careful that the volume/intensity isn’t creating fear (under the ‘fear threshold’). The cat becomes very quickly used to the low volume, and it can be very gradually increased, all the while ensuring that fear or negative emotions aren’t activated. If the cat shows any signs of these, the process has gone too quickly.
Counter-conditioning is a process where we are actually changing the negative response to a stimuli, into a positive one. Using the above example, if we were to give the cat some treats every time we played the sound of thunder, eventually (and seemingly magically!), the cat would start to enjoy or look forward to it! Effectively we would have completely changed the cat’s emotions from negative to positive when hearing thunder!
Virtually all successful conditioning programs intended to change a negative experience into a positive one use both of these techniques together.
When thinking about how to trim a cat’s nails without stress, I like to break this process down into 3 phases:
Each phases needs to be conditioned separately, and you can’t go to the next phase until the cat is completely happy in the previous. Going too fast will unravel the work done.
Cat’s legs and paws are (usually) body parts that cats don’t like to be touched, especially if they haven’t been handled from a young age. We need to change this so the cat knows that paw handling equals good things (treats)!
The process is extremely simple, but it needs to be gradual – patience and repetition is required. It can take weeks to fully condition almost any training, and this is no exception.
Like clicker training (though we aren’t using a clicker here – not that you can’t, but more because it becomes too hard to juggle too many objects), it will be most successful when the cat is a little bit hungry, like in-between meals. It’s often suggested to do it when the cat is sleepy, and therefore a bit more submissive, but I disagree. I want the cat the be excited about nail trimming, not just simply tolerate it because they are a bit drowsy. Let’s make it a fun activity!
I’ll note here that we need to do this one paw at a time. You can either go through the same complete process for each paw separately, or you can spend more time on each step and do all the paws – either way is fine. Just don’t start training step 1 on his front left and then move on to step 2 on his back right (for example). Each paw/leg needs to go through each step.
The back paws/legs are often the ones that are most difficult. If you can’t go through the process without (even slight) aversive reactions, you will just have to be content with trimming the front paws only.
This is very simple. All you need to do it touch his paw very gently and very briefly, and then give him treat. It’s likely at this stage that the sight and smell of treats in your hand will be of more importance to him than you touching his paw!
Do this over and over again, just as you did the first time. Depending on the cat, this may be the entirety of the first session. Once the cat is showing disinterest in the treats or attention, that’s when you can stop. Cat training sessions are much shorter than dog training sessions, sometimes less than a minute. To make sure it’s always a positive experience, only go for as long as the cat wants.
Some cats are extremely paw shy, and may react negatively to you even approaching his paw with your hand. If this is the case, you can simply start to condition the approach before you condition the touch, using the same principles.
Over time, and only once he is completely fine with a brief touch, you can start to keep your hand/finger on his paw for longer periods. Always give a treat after each touch.
Using the same principles as step 1, start to briefly touch his leg as well. Touch different parts, before starting to hold your hand there for longer periods.
Once he is completely fine with touching his paw and leg (and even looking forward to it because it means treats!), you can start to gently enclose your hand around his leg and work up to lifting it off the ground.
Once he is enjoying the paw/leg touching and you lifting his leg, you can slowly and gently use the same principles to press his claws out, one by one (treat after each). Don’t rush this step – it takes as long as it takes. This needs to always stay a positive experience. Never force anything.
Remember, always treat after the paw press.
If this phase is done correctly, by now, your cat should be fine (and even happy) with any amount of paw/leg touching and handling. Be patient, take it slow, and let the cat determine the timeline.
Also, begin to do these steps in the same position(s) you will use when your cat will be ultimately getting his nails trimmed. This varies depending on the cat – some will prefer being on your lap, others will like to lying on the floor or table etc.
Once you’re at this stage, make it a habit that whenever you’re patting or providing affection, you also touch his paws/legs so that it remains desensitised. Make it part of your usual affection.
By now you should be well versed in the desensitisation and counter conditioning techniques! Let’s apply them to the sight of the nail trimmer.
Many guardians who are reading this may have already (and potentially unsuccessfully) tried to trim their cat’s nails, meaning that the sight of the nail trimmer may already be stressful for the cat.
This step is easy, simply take out the nail trimmer and put it on the floor at a distance that doesn’t cause aversion to the cat. Then treat. Hide them (e.g. behind your back), then do it again.
Gradually move them closer until he is more interested in the treats than the trimmers.
Then you can start to put treats around and on the nail trimmer itself. After several sessions, the cat will realise that the sight of the nail trimmer equals treats! Every time you bring it out, he will get excited, rather than stressed!
Using the same principles, start to briefly touch his paw with the trimmer itself. Touch then treat. Then you can start to hold them to his paw for longer periods (though only a few seconds).
Now that he is used to the sight of the trimmer and it touching him, you’ll need to get him used to the sound.
Simply start by using the trimmer in the air at a small distance (e.g. a metre). Always treat immediately afterwards. The start to gradually move them closer to him. Squeeze the trimmer, then treat. It’s better to do this at a low height (e.g. not above his head, which can activate a stress response).
Then, to complete this step, you can get some raw spaghetti and start to ‘trim’ it, which will make a similar sound to his nails being trimmed. Again, start from a distance, and gradually move towards him, all the while treating after each trim.
Here is where the rubber meets the road! By now your cat should be happy when you touch his paws/legs, press out his nails, and be excited when you take out the trimmers. We are 90% there!
In your normal ‘training’ session, simply press out one nail on his front paw, being careful not to cut through the quick. And then give him a treat. In a cat with clear nails, you’ll be able to see the quick (see diagram halfway down this page).
That’s it for the first session of this phase. Just one nail. Then you can continue to do some other paw handling, trimmer squeezing (using treats) to finish off the session, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal. Remember, he’s now used to (and enjoys!) a session of paw touching, leg holding and trimmer sighting, so stopping after cutting one nail can actually be aversive in itself!
Each day, do one other nail in the same fashion. Over 10 days you’ll have trimmed all the front nails. Depending on how often you intend to trim the nails, you might only have to wait a few more days before trimming again. You can start to do 2 nails, then more. Over time, you’ll be able to trim all the nails in one session!
As far as the rear nails, it’s best to wait until he is completely comfortable with the front nails being trimmed. The rear ones are usually thicker and cats are less comfortable with these being trimmed.
So that’s the process for how to trim a cat’s nails without stress. It’s a long process, but absolutely worth it for those cats who need their nails trimmed. And you won’t need to employ various ‘stealth’ measures like waiting until he is asleep – in fact, the sight of you bringing out the nail trimmers can actually turn into a positive and exciting experience for him!