How to Restrain a Cat for Nail Clipping: Vet-Approved Safety Tips

Whether you already know it or not, cats scratching things is an instinctive behavior. While their claws provide defense, they also allow cats to communicate with other felines in the area with visual and olfactory signals. That’s not an issue when it comes to the trees outside, but it’s another matter when it’s your couch that they’re digging their nails into. 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 them to scratch appropriate things, or you can cut it off at the source—literally.

Trimming your cat’s claws is an important part of cat ownership. Like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), we don’t advocate declawing. Instead, we recommend trimming them. We understand if you’re wondering how to trim a cat’s nails that won’t let you. It’s not like they make it easy. However, our guide offers tips on ways to make the experience less dramatic for both of you.

Before You Start

The best way to make this task easier is to get your pet used to the process. That means handling them and their paws frequently so that 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 comfortable doing things they wouldn’t normally do. We suggest getting something special for this task, such as tuna, given the feline preference for it.

Cats are naturally wary of new things in their environment. It’s helpful to get them used to the things you’re going to use to clip their nails before you start. Let them explore the clippers on their own time instead of yours. Also, understand that even the most docile pet may bite. Felines don’t like being restrained and will often fight it. Therefore, you may want to enlist a helper to help hold your cat or to run the clippers while you hold.

man holdint cat nail trimmer
Image Credit: Tatiana Foxy, Shutterstock

The object of many of the items used for trimming a cat’s nails is to minimize injuries to you and your pet. It’s in everyone’s best interest to get the job done as quickly and safely as possible. The materials you may need include the following:

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

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How to Restrain a Cat for Nail Clipping

1. Let Your Cat Sniff the Towel if Using One

We equate curiosity with cats for a good reason. Breeds vary in how outgoing or shy they are. However, familiarity brings a certain comfort. That’s why we suggest letting your cat sniff the towel and clippers you’re going to use for a few days before you try to groom them. Novel objects may put an animal on the defense, so allow your pet to take their time and investigate things at their own pace.

2. Apply Pheromone Spray to the Items

For some cats, pheromone sprays can be calming in stressful situations. Being restrained for nail clipping  can undoubtedly qualify as one of those stressful situations. These products simulate pheromones a cat releases in comforting times, such as snuggling with their mother and littermates. It’s an olfactory all-is-well signal that may make this task more manageable and less stressful. Spray the items, area and your hands about 15 minutes before attempting nail trims.

cat getting nails trimmed
Image Credit: Vydrin, Shutterstock

3. Wrap Your Pet in a Towel

A thick towel will protect you from getting scratched. After all, there’s a good reason you’ve decided to clip your pet’s nails. Fold the towel in half lengthwise and lay it out on the floor or table. Starting at one end, wrap the towel snuggly around your cat’s body burrito-style. The head should be sticking out one end and unobscured so that your cat can breathe easily. This will keep their legs contained and give you control of their head at the same time. While you’re trimming their nails, hold your kitty close to your body. This can comfort a frightened pet and help things get done as quickly and safely as possible.

4. Expose One Paw at a Time and Trim the Tip of the Nails

Bring out one paw at a time. Your cat will likely instinctively extend their claws to grasp for something. Push each nail forward to expose the tip. Make sure to look for the quick (the red line extending about half the length of the claw) beforehand and only trim the tip where there is no quick. Trim small amounts until the nail is as short as you want it. Have the styptic powder ready if you happen to go too short and the nail starts to bleed.

5. Reward Your Cat

Reward your cat with a treat for their cooperation after clipping their first paw. This action builds a foundation for a positive association with this task. Your kitty still may object to being restrained the next time you do it, however, you’ll likely find there’s less drama once your pet realizes what lies at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

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

6. Speak Softly to Your Cat as You Switch Paws

Speak softly to your pet while clipping their nails. Research has shown that cats find their owners’ presence comforting during stressful times. If someone is helping you, ensure you’re the one holding your kitty while the other person does the trimming.

7. Remove the Towel and Finish With a Treat

When you’re done, make sure to end on a positive note with another treat. Your cat likely has an escape on their mind. Something yummy may distract your pet and put the focus back on a good experience. You can leave the materials you used in the room so that your cat can come back and check them out again if they want.

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Final Thoughts

Nail clipping doesn’t have to be an ordeal for you and your cat every time you do it. Letting them get comfortable and used to the gear you’re going to use well before you start may really help you. Nurturing a positive association between nail trimming and treats is essential as it can help spare both you and your cat from injury. Hopefully, they’ll soon get used to the process and it won’t be such a hassle the next time.

Featured Image Credit: Yimmyphotography, Shutterstock

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