Trimming your cat’s claws is common practise. But is it a good idea? Does it stop your cat from scratching? Or is it painful, cruel, and unethical?
Should you trim a cat’s claws? It’s not as cruel as declawing a cat, but it’s not very effective either. A cat with trimmed claws can still scratch both you and furniture. Furthermore, it’s easy to over-trim a cat’s claws and cause it significant pain. It’s also highly stressful both for cat and owner, unless the cat was trained from a very young age to accept clipping. We recommend providing your cat with a scratching post, and teaching it how to use it, instead. Declawing your cat is a cruel and unacceptable alternative and should not be considered.
The guide below first explains the difference between trimming a cat’s claws and removing them completely, and what might happen if you leave them to grow overlong. It will also detail exactly how cat nail clipping should be performed, the arguments for and against trimming/declawing, and what you can do if trimming/declawing makes you or your cat uncomfortable.
Is It Necessary to Trim a Cat’s Claws?
It’s only infrequently necessary to trim a cat’s claws. With proper care and exercise/toys, your cat’s claws shouldn’t become overgrown, removing the need for them to be trimmed. What certainly isn’t necessary is to declaw a cat completely.
There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation as to what trimming and declawing involve. Put simply, trimming a cat’s claws is like trimming your nails. If done correctly, it’s not painful for your cat. However, your cat won’t enjoy the experience, and it’s much easier to hurt a cat by trimming its nails than to hurt yourself when trimming your own nails. It also won’t stop your cat from clawing either your furniture or you.
Declawing is where the claws are removed completely through a surgical process known as an onychectomy. To remove the claws and stop them from growing again, the bone that they grow from has to be damaged and/or removed. This is painful for your cat, but it does stop it from clawing you or your furniture. While many people consider it necessary and/or ethical, we do not, and it is banned in many countries.
What Happens If You Don’t Trim Your Cat’s Nails?
Cat’s claws grow continually, just like our nails. They are made of dead cells, but at their bases, new cells continually grow and form new sections of nail. As these new cells are made, they push the nail outwards, effectively making it longer.
This is an adaptation. It means that if a cat ever loses a claw, it won’t be hampered forever: the claw will grow back. Since claws are important for fighting, hunting and climbing, this is essential. It’s for the same reason that other big predators have claws that continually grow, and some even have teeth that grow back.
In the wild, a cat’s claws are kept short by walking on rough surfaces like rocks. This is like a gradual filing-down, like when we use nail files. This stops them from getting too long. But indoor cats don’t have this opportunity, so their nails get longer and longer.
They can eventually become ingrown. This isn’t a major risk for your cat’s health, just as an ingrown nail isn’t a major risk for your health. What it is, though, is incredibly painful. Ingrown claws make it very difficult for your cat to work without sharp shooting pains, and so can cause limping.
Is It Necessary to REMOVE a Cat’s Claws?
Trimming a cat’s claws isn’t to be confused with removing them entirely (declawing). Declawing is a barbaric practise that’s immensely painful for a cat to experience. Critics compare it to removing the topmost part of your finger or toe from the joint upwards. What most people don’t appreciate is just how true that is: declawing isn’t a simple process. It involves cutting into the bones that the claws grow from, either with a scalpel or a laser. Picture having the tips of your toes amputated, and then having to walk around all day—it would be very painful, and so it is for your cat. And that’s not just somebody’s opinion: it’s currently recommended to give a cat opioids after declawing because of the seriousness of their post-operative pain.
In some very rare cases, this is medically necessary, such as if the nail bed is badly infected or if it contains a tumor. But the vast, vast majority of times declawing is performed it is because the owner doesn’t want the cat to scratch either their belongings or the owner themselves. It is beyond unnecessary to declaw a cat, and the state of New York was right to become the first U.S. state to ban the practise. It’s described as ‘unthinkable‘ in other western nations to declaw a cat, and has long been banned in other countries.
Do I Need to Trim My Cat’s Back Nails?
It’s only common to trim a cat’s front claws. That’s because cats don’t scratch with their rear claws. Their rear claws can still become overgrown and/or ingrown, though.
Another issue with trimming a cat’s rear claws is that this is even more stressful for it than trimming its front claws. That’s probably because your cat can at least see what you’re doing to its rear claws, and could bite you if you did something it didn’t like; but if you hurt its rear paws, it couldn’t stop you as easily.
How Do You Trim a Cat’s Claws?
The actual process of trimming a cat’s claws is simple. It’s wrangling your cat beforehand, and making sure you do it safely, that’s difficult. Here’s how it’s done:
- Start by holding your pet against your body. If you feel it’s necessary, wrap your cat in a towel to do so. This will stop it from wriggling and squirming as much.
- Take your cat’s paw between your thumb and index finger and hold it. It’s likely that your cat won’t want you to do this, so you may have to try a few times.
- Press your thumb and index finger together with the paw in between. This should splay the claws out to make them accessible for trimming.
- Trim the transparent part of the claw, leaving a small amount of transparent claw-edge. Otherwise, you will trim too close to the quick.
The sooner in your cat’s life that you start trimming its claws, the easier this process is. That’s because your cat will be used to it. Trying to trim an adult cat’s claws if that cat has never had its claws trimmed before is virtually impossible without sedation.
Nail Clippers for Cats
You don’t use regular nail clippers to clip a cat’s claws. You use special clippers that you buy from a vet, which are specially made for use on cats. They look almost like tiny pairs of pliers, with very short blades. They’re made in such a way that they can only trim a small amount of claw at a time, effectively stopping you from trimming into the quick of your cat’s nails.
It is theroetically possible to use normal clippers, but it’s very likely that you will accidentally hurt your cat’s paws. That’s because your cat will wriggle and squirm as you trim its claws, so you can’t clip with the accuracy you clip your own nails with.
Arguments For And Against Trimming a Cat’s Claws
If you’re not sure whether you agree with trimming/removing your cat’s claws or not, consider the following points.
Against: What Are a Cat’s Claws For?
Claws aren’t pointless (pun intended). They are one of your cat’s essential tools. Their uses include:
- Hunting. Claws help the cat catch hold of prey, and stop it from escaping. That’s why they’re shaped like tiny hooks. Even if your cat isn’t allowed out to hunt, it will still want to express this natural hunting behavior during play, which it will struggle to do without claws.
- Fighting. Cats lash out with their claws as one of their primary defense mechanisms. This applies whether your cat is fighting another cat, fighting another of your pets, or fighting you. While this is an undesirable behavior, your cat will feel defenseless without its claws, which may have an effect on its temperament and behavior.
- Climbing. As a cat’s claws are good at catching hold of prey, so too do they help your cat climb and avoid falling.
It is possible for your cat to live its life without ever strictly needing to express these behaviors. But pets enjoy expressing them nevertheless, and it’s our job as pet owners to provide our pets with lives that mirror what they find in the wild.
For: Overgrown Cat Claws
Overgrown claws are a very real risk for cats, especially cats that live their whole lives indoors. That’s because they can become ingrown.
Ingrown nails form when the nail continues growing, but in the wrong direction. People can get ingrown toenails, for example, where the tip of the nail curves downwards and pushes into the skin. This is a very awkward problem to solve, because the nail is at an awkward angle, and any attempt to fix it is incredibly painful. That’s why ingrown nails are typically removed surgically.
Cats are especially susceptible to ingrown claws because of the shape of their nails. A cat’s claws are curved already, unlike ours, which are flat. As they grow, the nail tip curves around further and further. Picture a clock face: the bed of the nail is at 12, while the point is at 9. As the nail grows longer, the point of the claw moves from 9 to 8, 7, 6 and so on until it curves backwards and up towards the paw pad. This is a vicious cycle of a problem, as at this point, the nail tip can no longer be filed down easily through scratching or walking on rough surfaces.
Trimming an indoor cat’s claws prevents this from happening. You quite literally take matters into your own hands, and trim away just the tip of the claw. The idea is akin to trimming your own nails: not removing them fully, just the part at the end that would otherwise get uncomfortable.
Against: Accidents When Cutting a Cat’s Claws
A cat’s claws are like our nails. If you cut them too short, it really hurts. To understand why, you have to understand the specific anatomy of a nail.
Both our nails and a cat’s claws have several distinct sections/layers. There’s the nail bed/nail matrix, which is the part underneath the nail, which connects to the finger/toe. Then there’s the body of the nail, which is the central section of it that attaches to the bed. At the tip of the nail is the free edge, which if you look at your own nails, is the white or lighter part at the outside edge.
The most important part of the nail in this context is the hyponychium, better known in plain English as the ‘quick’. The quick is the part of the nail where the free edge of the nail meets the nail bed. You can trim away the edge, and it’s not painful at all; but if you trim too far, i.e. into the quick, it’s very painful indeed. Your cat has a ‘quick’ just like you do, and it’s much easier to cut into it than you might think.
If you look at your own nails, you can very easily identify the precise point where the quick begins, and which you shouldn’t cut into. It’s the exact line between the baby pink of your nail, and the lighter, translucent white/off-white of the nail’s edge. To cut into it, you have to really push and wiggle the nail clippers underneath it. But because a cat’s claws are shaped differently to our nails, there is no clear boundary. The quick is a large triangular section that forms the base and main body of the nail, while the part you can trim is the thin part that comes away from it. It’s similarly opaque while the free edge is more translucent, but it’s overall much harder to see.
This is important because if you cut into your cat’s quick, it will be very, very painful for your pet. Painful to the point where it limps! Given how easy it is, we would never recommend trimming your cat’s claws as a beginner.
For: Declawing Stops Scratching: But Is It Ethical?
The main reason why people have their cats declawed is so that they don’t scratch things anymore. This fact becomes obvious in surveys and polls, like this one reported by NBC. One respondent, for example, said:
“My little daughter had scratches all over her. Everyone in the family had scratches. They destroyed our wallpaper. It was the only solution we could come up with.”
This much is true: getting rid of your cat’s claws will, obviously, stop it from scratching anything. The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s owner-centric rather than pet-centric, and since it’s painful, there’s little justification from your cat’s point of view to declaw it. That’s especially so considering that there are alternatives like scratching posts available.
As for trimming your cat’s claws, though, this won’t stop it from scratching. It may still scratch you or your furniture.
Against: Cats Hate Having Their Claws Trimmed
It’s rare for a cat to be well-behaved when it’s having its claws trimmed. That’s not because cats are disobedient; it’s because they don’t understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. That applies whether your cat has an issue with its nails that you’re trying to fix, or whether you’re taking preventative measures.
It’s always helpful to think from your cat’s perspective. Consider the following:
- If you have trimmed your cat’s claws before, it will to some degree remember the last time you did so. If it was nervous last time, it will be nervous this time. That’s especially the case if you hurt your cat by accident.
- If you have never trimmed your cat’s claws before, it will be an entirely new sensation. Your cat will have no idea what’s happening, and may think you’re trying to hurt it.
- When your cat senses something bad—like a vet’s visit or a nail trim session—it will try to avoid you. You’ll have to chase it and grab it to pick it up. This will mean that your cat is nervous and angry before you even start.
- Almost all owners find that they have to hold their cat down to trim its nails, e.g. by wrapping it in a towel and pinning it (gently but firmly enough) in place. Cats don’t enjoy being restricted like this.
- Almost all cats dislike having their paws and claws touched in any context.
What makes this problem even worse is if your cat has claw problems that are causing it pain. Trimming an ingrown claw is very painful for your pet, and it will do everything it can to try and get away from the clippers. As your cat squirms to try and get away, it could hurt you, or make it so that you accidentally hurt it more by trimming into the quick.
Against: Does Trimming Cats’ Claws Work?
Trimming your cat’s claws isn’t a sure-fire way to stop it scratching things anyway.
You aren’t supposed to trim your cat’s claws all the way down to the paw pad. That’s like cutting your nails all the way down to the cuticle, which would be very painful. You can only safely trim the tips of the claws. The problem is that you still leave your cat with lots and lots of claw to scratch things with, so it may carry on scratching the furniture. Your cat can also still scratch you
The only way to fully prevent your cat from scratching is to remove its claws completely. That’s not something you can do with nail clippers; it requires surgery, and is cruel and unnecessary, as described above.
Why Do People Cut Cats’ Claws If It’s Wrong?
The point is to make cat scratches less painful, and furniture scratching less of a problem. It’s not necessarily wrong to cut a cat’s claws. It’s just not the best idea. That’s because:
- It causes immense stress to your cat, unless you trained it from a very young age to be used to claw clipping
- It causes stress to you, as when your cat wriggles and squirms, you know that you could trim its claws incorrectly
- It doesn’t work like declawing, as your cat will still be able to scratch you and your furniture
- It’s ethically questionable to put your cat through something stressful or painful just for the sake of your convenience
Ultimately, it’s up to you what you do, but we don’t recommend it.
Alternatives to Trimming a Cat’s Claws
If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of trimming your cat’s claws, you don’t have to. There are a few alternatives you can consider. Some of these deal with the cat, and some of them deal with your reaction to what your cat does.
Let Your Cat Outside
If at all possible, letting your cat out will help stop its claws from getting overgrown. Your cat will walk over hard surfaces like rocks, brick walls, tree branches and the like to keep its claws filed down just like it would if it lived permanently in the wild. Of course, this may not be an option for you or your cat; but if it is, it’s worth considering.
Don’t Expect The Impossible
If you have a house stuffed with expensive furniture and priceless heirlooms, then it’s probably best not to get a cat, whether you trim its claws or not.
Consider, for example, the example of parents who have five young kids. If they were to balance a one-of-a-kind Ming vase on a side table in their hallway, and it got knocked over, you’d probably think “Well, that was always going to happen!” In the same way, if you have gorgeous antique furniture that you absolutely don’t want to get dirty, or to have claw marks on it—which isn’t an unreasonable thing to expect—then that’s not really compatible with owning a cat. Even if you trim your cat’s claws, it may still scratch the furniture; even if you remove its claws completely, it may have an ‘accident’ one day that stains your couch forever; and even if your cat is fully litter trained, its fur will still get everywhere.
It’s up to you to balance your desire to own a cat with your desire to have nice things.
Get Your Cat a Scratching Post
A scratching post is a great compromise. Having one means that your cat won’t mess up your furniture as badly as it might, because it has something tailor-made for it to ruin.
Scratching posts aren’t just generic toys. They were invented to stop cats from scratching everything in a home, and to keep their claws from getting too long. They mirror your cat’s natural behavior: wild cats scratch and claw at tree bark in the exact same way that your cat would scratch at a scratching post (with an arched back and everything!) Scratching posts often also have toys dangling from them, or sections that the cat can climb, both of which help capture your cat’s attention and keep it scratching the post rather than anything else.
Most scratching posts are large columns around two feet high covered in rough fabric or rough wood. Other scratching posts aren’t really posts at all, but are supposed to be mounted to the wall. It doesn’t matter which kind you have, so long as your cat likes it! You may have to train your cat to use it, however, which can be difficult.