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Nailing Pet Claws: How to Trim A Pet’s Nails

by | Sep 16, 2021 | Cat Behavior & Care, Dog Training & Care | 2 comments

Do you know how to trim a pet’s nails? Pet nail trims can cause angst for pets and people alike. Magic and Bravo both had jumbo-size nail claws and paws. Shadow’s nails are much smaller but used just as effectively to hold down toys, scratch himself, pounce on grasshoppers, and paw-pat (or paw-pound!) everything of interest. Karma-Kat’s claws and paws, even smaller, work just as well for his size. Whether big and blunt, or small and sharp, pet claws need nail trimming to stay healthy.

how to trim pet's nails

Cat claws need trims, too.

Why Trim A Pet’s Nails

Most active dogs allowed to run outside naturally wear down the nails to a manageable length. Outside dogs may not need frequent nail trimming. However, dogs that spend most of their time inside–like Shadow–often require monthly or more frequent claw trimming attention. Even cats who hone nails on scratch objects benefit from regular claw clipping sessions. In my experience, the smaller the pet, the more quickly claws grow. Learn why declaw surgery isn’t a good idea, and all about cat scratch training here. By relieving cat stress you also can reduce illegal clawing.

Over-grown dog nails and cat claws can become caught in bedding and carpets and may split or tear. My old lady Seren-Kitty had that happen! She hung her dew-claw on bedding (thank goodness I work at home and immediately found her). She split the nail to the quick! Outside dogs also can split nails. Magical-Dawg tore his dewclaw from rough-housing and chasing in the field.

Dog claws

Neatly trimmed dog claws keep paws healthy.

When Do Nails Need Trimming?

Keeping the toenails trimmed keeps them healthier. It also helps reduce inappropriate digging some dogs are prone to indulge. Dewclaws on the inside of the lower leg need particular attention since they never contact the ground and can grow longer, or even into a circle and grow INTO the flesh.

Dog nails at their longest should just clear the ground when the dog is standing. If you hear him “clicking” over the linoleum like a tap-dancer, he needs a trim. Overgrown nails cause the foot to spread or splay and can even curl and grow back into the dog’s flesh.

Most cat claws won’t “click” when very long. Healthy cat claws at rest will retract into the toes leaving soft-looking paws. But old cats and some kitties suffering metabolic disorders like hyperthyroidism develop thickened claws that don’t easily retract. When Seren-Kitty grew very old into her late teens and early twenties, she couldn’t care for her claws through clawing and nibbling. Her old cat claws became so thick, she couldn’t retract them, and also “clicked” when walking on hard surfaces.

Your groomer or veterinarian can trim a pet’s nails at routine visits. We did this with Bravo, so he got used to visiting our vet staff and enjoyed interacting with his medical team.


how to trim cat's nails

how to trim a dog's nails

How to trim a dog’s nails.

Pet Nail Trimmers, Files, and Pet Persuasion

But it’s easy enough to clip claws yourself. I’ve trimmed Shadow’s claws from the beginning, as well as Karma-Kat’s claws regularly. Choose a convenient and SHARP clipper for the best results.

A variety of commercial nail trimmers are available with scissor-action or guillotine-style to cut the dog’s toenails and cat’s claws at the proper angle without splitting or crushing the nail. For small claws (like cats), human nail clippers also work well to snip off the sharp hook end. Choose the tool that you feel most comfortable with.

I’m a big fan of the Zen Clipper, sized for tiny to jumbo claws. The design helps prevent cutting too close or catching fur during trims. The scissor design makes it easy to handle. Cat version handles little claws, while a larger adjustable Zen Clipper works on small to large dog claws.

Cats smooth off rough edges after trims on scratching posts. But dog nails may need to be filed after trimming. Use an emery board, or a nail file available from a pet supply store to smooth the edges and keep them from getting caught in the carpet.

You can also explore using a nail filing/grinding tool that many professional groomers use. That also requires teaching pets to tolerate the noise and sensation, as well as paw handling required for all pet nail care.

Much easier to trim a Rottweiler’s nails when the dog willingly offers a paw.

Preparing for Clipping Claws

Many pets dislike having their paws handled. So I recommend gently handling paws as soon as a new pet arrives. Partner paw handling with favorite treats to associate toe touches as a positive experience.

With youngsters, trim just the tip of the nails every week. If they don’t need it, simply touch the claw trimmer, and make the clipping noise, so he knows it’s not painful or scary. Create a routine from the beginning as part of grooming care. What he learns to accept as a puppy or kitten predicts tolerance as an adult. This is particularly helpful with large-breed dogs like my Magical-Dawg German Shepherd or Mastiff breeds like Bravo who handle more easily while puppy-size.

Choose a location where you can easily handle your pet. I sit on the floor to trip Shadow’s dog claws. For Karma-Kat, we trim nails on the bathroom vanity, where he gets treats–already a positive association.

All the nails don’t have to be done in the same session. If you’re having difficulty getting the job done, finish the other toes later. Aim for one or two nails at a time, once a week, and you’ll have all four paws finished within a couple of weeks.

trim cat claws

Gently press the cat’s paw to express the claw, then snip the end.

How to Trim a Pet’s Claws

It’s helpful to have two pairs of hands during nail trimming, one to steady the paw while you handle the clippers. A wiggling pet makes it more likely you’ll catch the hair in the trimmer (painful!) or “quick” the nails, cut into the living vessels that feed the nail bed, and cause them to bleed. If you do happen to quick a nail, use a styptic pencil or corn starch and direct pressure to stop the bleeding, or rake the claw through a bar of soap.

When the nails are white or clear, the pink quick is visible and makes it easy to avoid the danger zone. However, dog toenails are often dark or opaque and hide the quick. So clip off only the hook-like tip portion that turns down. This is especially important if the nail has overgrown because the quick will grow further down, too. The same goes for cats—simply snip off the needle tip. Tipping the nails will prompt the quick to draw back up, so you can trim a little each week until reaching the proper length.

nail trim

LickiMats can be smeared with a soft treat to keep pet’s focussed. The red dial on the adjustable Zen Clipper lets you size the clipper opening to your pet’s nail. And the smaller size Zen Clipper (in my hand) works great for cats.

Bribes Are Legal!

I’m a big fan of “LickiMats.” There are several kinds available, and work to distract and reward the dog or cat for tolerating grooming or other hands-on attention. Smear something the pet loves on the licky-mat. Peanut butter works great for Shadow-Pup, and Karma-Kat loves cream cheese or smelly canned food. While the pet licks, you can clip one or two nails, wait a day or two, and repeat.

Practice patience. Don’t hurry. Nails stay in good shape ass long as all the nails get trimmed every two or three weeks.

Always reward your dog or cat for enduring a nail trim. Reserve a special treat he gets only after a successful nail trim, and soon you’ll have your pet begging for a pedicure. So, do you trim your pet’s claws? Do tell!

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  1. Crystal

    My cat has long tails and she even chews them. I’m afraid to cut the nails because I don’t want to cut the nails to far. Is there a special trimmer that might show me where to cut?

    • Amy Shojai

      Hi Crystal. Yes, most cats chew their nails, and it almost looks like they’re “picking” their teeth! I just updated the post with a couple more illustrations/diagrams to help with your question. Also, the trimmer that I mention, Zen Clipper for cats, has only a small opening. So you slip the tip of the claw in that opening, and only snip off the end of the claw. It gives you a pretty good guide on how much to trim. You also should be able to see the “pink” in the nail and avoid that.



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