Claw Care

Your cat may need your help to keep her claws trimmed, and to learn where and how to scratch.


Enlarge Image Keeping your cat's nails trimmedis best for both of you.

Nature provided cats with ample places to keep their claws sharpened and filed down, on surfaces such as tree bark and stone. But indoors, where many cats spend their lives today, there are few claw-trimming opportunities. That's where you come in -- by keeping your cat's claws a safe and comfortable length, and setting up a regular scratching spot. When her nails are kept clipped, their naturally pointed tips will be replaced by straight edges that cause far less damage to furnishings.

How frequently do you need to clip your cat's claws? It depends on how quickly they grow, and how much time, if any, your cat spends outdoors. Keep an eye on her claws by making a "claw inspection" part of your regular grooming sessions. If left untrimmed for too long, the claws can grow into the cat's paw pads, causing pain and possible infection. If this happens, she will need veterinary attention -- but you can easily prevent this situation by monitoring her claws and tending to them regularly.

Clipping Tips

Before you attempt to clip your cat's claws yourself, get a lesson from a pro. Watch closely as your veterinarian trims the claws and talks you through the process step by step. Perhaps the vet can demonstrate, then let you take a turn while he or she supervises.

Once you know the ropes, follow these guidelines at home:

  • Start with a sturdy nail clipper or a clipper specially made for claw trimming. Most pet supply stores will carry them.
  • Hold your cat firmly in your lap. If your cat is squirmy, you might want to enlist someone else to help hold her while you trim.
  • Take a paw in hand and gently press the paw pad; this will make the claws come forward.
  • Before clipping, take a moment to examine the claw -- note where the pinkish part (the quick) ends and the white part (the tip) begins. You want to trim only the white tip, which is made up of dead cells. Cutting this part of the claw won't harm the cat. Keep a safe distance from the pink quick, which contains nerve endings; if there's any doubt about how far you can go, err on the side of safety and stay very close to the tip.
  • Snip off the white tip quickly and cleanly.
Scratching Post Options

Cats need to scratch! It's an urge that's programmed into them and doesn't change, no matter how many years they live in a cozy home far from the wild. Providing your pet with a scratching post will let her express this natural urge while sparing your furniture from damage. It will also give your pet some extra exercise, especially for the upper body, and promote the natural shedding of the outer sheath of the claws.

Scratching posts come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, and may be made of or covered in several different materials, including:

  • Wood
  • Corrugated cardboard
  • Sisal
  • Carpeting

If your cat shows little interest in one type of post, try another that stands a different way (perhaps vertical instead of horizontal) or is made of other material. You might want to provide several posts, each stationed in a different room of your home. Whatever kind of post you choose, make sure it's sturdy enough to stand up to your pet's eager scratching.

For a standing post, be sure the base is broad enough to keep the post from tipping over when your cat leans her weight against it while scratching. You might want to stabilize the post further by anchoring one corner of the base underneath a heavy piece of furniture, such as a couch.

A corrugated-cardboard post, which is naturally lightweight, can be set inside a wooden frame to weigh it down and keep it from moving around the floor.

Some posts, or their frames, can be securely mounted to a wall. Mount the post at a comfortable height for your cat to reach with her front paws while standing on her hind legs.

Creating "Scratch Appeal"

Even the best-designed post is useless if your cat rejects it in favor of the furniture. Your pet may actually enjoy the feeling of the post once she experiences it -- but how to lure her over to try it? Consider these techniques:

  • Scratch the post yourself. The sound may spark your cat's interest in this new object and give a hint about how to use it.
  • Rub catnip over the post, working it into the scratching surface a bit. Many cats find the aroma of catnip irresistible and will follow it anywhere.
  • Attract your cat's attention by holding a favorite toy and running it over the post. If the cat comes over and bats at the toy, her claws may end up grazing the post's surface -- and with any luck, she'll like the feeling and want more. If it's a standing post with a ball finial on top, you can tie the toy to it, using a sturdy piece of sewing elastic.
Declawing

Declawing is a highly controversial procedure, and understandably so. It entails not only removing the claws themselves, but also cutting off the terminal bone of the toe. This is an extreme measure and should not be done lightly. A cat's claws provide her main means of defending herself, and should be preserved if at all possible. If scratching is a problem, you should explore every other available solution before deciding on declawing. In most cases, simply keeping the cat's claw tips trimmed will go a long way toward limiting the amount of damage she can do to the furniture.

Gentler Alternatives

There are other options for owners reluctant to have their cat declawed. Discuss these options with your vet to find the ones that might work for you and your pet.

  • Extensor tenotomy is a surgical alternative to declawing that is growing in popularity. In this procedure, the extensor tendons of the claws are cut, preventing the claws from being unsheathed. The operation is less mutilating and less traumatic than declawing, and the claws heal within a few days.
  • Nail caps are a nonsurgical solution used by many cat owners. These are covers that fit over the cat's claws, covering their sharp points and preventing them from doing any serious damage.
  • Other possible solutions to curb clawing include more-frequent claw trims and behavior-modification techniques.
Declawing Guidelines

When the alternatives to declawing are giving up the animal to a pound or sentencing her to life outdoors, declawing can provide a way to keep the cat in the home and part of the family. In these cases, observe the following guidelines:

  • Never declaw a cat that will spend any time outdoors. Without front claws, an outdoor cat is mostly defenseless against dangers she may encounter. You must keep a declawed cat inside, in a safe environment, for the rest of her life.
  • The declawing operation should be performed under general anesthesia, with pain medication given during and after the procedure. This is necessary even if the cat shows no outward signs of pain; cats can be suffering considerably before they will show any evidence of discomfort.
  • Declawing should be limited to the front paws only. The claws on the rear paws generally do little damage, and are important to maintain as the cat's only remaining protection.
  • If the procedure must be done, it is best performed before the cat is a year old. Doing it at the same time as the cat is neutered or spayed will minimize the animal's exposure to anesthesia and cut down on recovery time, as well as possibly costing less than two separate operations.

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