What Happens If You Don’t Trim Your Cat’s Nails?


close up of sharp cat nail or claw that needs a trim

Cats aren’t exactly well known for doing things they don’t want to do. That’s not a knock on cats by any means! It’s that independent spirit that I love about cats!

But when it comes to things like trimming your cat’s nails this independent spirit can be a little…frustrating.

So what happens if you don’t trim your cat’s nails? In the worst cases, especially in older cats, untrimmed claws may eventually grow into the pad causing injury and even infection. Younger and more active cats are less likely to have this issue as they wear down their claws on their own but should still have regular trimming. 

Still, there’s a lot of information to cover when it comes to understanding your cat’s nails so let’s look a little closer at what happens if cats don’t get their nails trimmed.

The Worst Case Scenario: Overgrown Cat Nails

Let’s look at the worst-case scenario first- that’s when an untrimmed nail becomes so long that it actually grows into the pad of the cat’s foot. This isn’t to scare you but only to illustrate just how important it is to keep up with nail trimming, especially in older cats. After spending more than a decade working in shelters across the US, I’ve seen way too many cats come in with painful, overgrown nails. In some cases, this led to infection and these cats had to be started on antibiotics!

What’s frustrating is that a few quick clips of their nails would have prevented all that. Can you imagine walking around on this all day?

Source: Cat-World.com

More Common Scenario: Cats Claws Get Stuck On You!

While ingrown cat claws aren’t uncommon, it’s much more likely that if you skip the nail trims you’ll notice lots of small holes in your furniture, clothing…or even yourself! That’s because if cat claws grow too long, you’re cat will have problems actually retracting them. So instead of keeping their sharp claws safely tucked away while they’re walking around the house (or on your chest) they can’t help but have them out.

That leads to gets getting stuck on any kind of cloth or fabric because their nails are too long to fully retract! But all your cat needs is a quick trim to fix this.

Don’t Cats Trim Their Own Nails?

Still, there are many cat owners who have never trimmed their cat’s nails and yet they don’t have issues with ingrown nails or even sharp kitty claws at all.

So what’s going on here? Do most cats trim their own nails? When it comes to young, healthy cats, you can expect them to do a good job of keeping their nails sharp but trim. Especially if they have appropriate areas to scratch, which is an important part of their maintenance process. But as cats age, they can become less active and have more trouble keeping up with still fast-growing nails.

But that doesn’t mean you can ignore nail trims altogether just because your cat is young. They still may need some help keeping up and it’s something you need to at least check every few weeks.

Polydactyly Cats May Need Extra Help

My cat Debbie is a polydactyly cat which means she has lots of extra toes. While these extra toes make her look pretty silly they also require extra upkeep when it comes to nail trimming! That’s because her extra toes don’t always connect to the ground or the scratching post the way a normal cat’s feet would.

Check out this picture of one of the famous Ernest Hemmingway cats which are almost all polydactyly to get an idea of what this looks like:

polydactyl cat with long nails
Source: Wikipedia

Notice how this handsome cat has a few toes off to the side with a nail that turns inward? That’s pretty common among many toed cats and it’s not unusual to see nails that are much more curved than a normal cat claw.

So if you’re lucky enough to adopt a polydactyly cat you’ll need to pay extra attention to their furry toes and the unusual claws that grow from them!

How Do Cats Keep Their Own Nails Short?

You might be thinking, “There are plenty of cats that live outdoors and no one is trimming their nails but they’re also not hobbling around with overgrown nails or getting stuck on everything they touch- so what’s going on here?”

Outdoor cats have an entire world for their scratching post and climbing trees is a regular part of their day-to-day life. They can use any tree (or anything else) they want for a scratching post without having to worry about a crazy human showing up to spray them with water! While cats can keep their claws retracted, walking around on hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt can also keep nails trim.

Regardless of the material, cats scratch to remove old material from their nails which not only trims them but also helps keep them sharp. The folks at International Cat Care explain that “Cats scratch with their front claws by dragging them downward, either on a horizontal or vertical surface – this action referred to as stropping, loosens and removes the outer husk of the claw revealing a sharp new surface underneath.”

The other factor that explains why outdoor cats don’t have this problem is, sadly, the major differences in lifespan between indoor and outdoor cats. The lifespan of an outdoor cat is dramatically shorter than an indoor cat, in fact, some studies suggest that it’s as much as 10 to 12 years shorter.

Overgrown nails are more common in older cats since they’re less active but also as a result of some age-related changes that cause the nails to grow longer. Sadly, most outdoor cats won’t live to old age and so they don’t have this issue.

So Do Cats Need Their Nails Trimmed?

If cats are especially active, they may not actually need their nails trimmed. But you should never take an out of sight, out of mind approach and assume that all is well with your cat’s claws. Even if you have a young, active, and healthy cat that spends plenty of time climbing cat trees and scratching their posts you should still regularly check claws to make sure they not starting curve inward or have especially sharp points.

But trimming cat claws isn’t just about your cat, it’s also great for you! While not every cat is a lap cat, there are plenty of felines that love nothing more than crawling into your lap or on your chest and digging their claws into you! You’d be amazed at the difference that a simple trim can make!

Keeping up with nail trimming can also protect your furniture! Even if your cat isn’t actively trying to scratch the furniture, claws that are too long can get caught on fabrics like your couch or shirt. This can quickly lead to small but unintentional holes in your fabric!

How Often Should You Clip Your Cat’s Nails?

How often you trim your cat’s nails will depend on your cat. Instead of getting into a specific nail trimming schedule, it’s better to get into a routine for when you check your cat’s nails since the length will vary week to week and month to month. I wouldn’t suggest going more than a month between checking your cat’s nails and ideally, you’re taking a look at your cat’s toes every two weeks or so.

You don’t have to make it into an official toe check session- just take a peek at your feline friend’s feet while you’re petting them or while they’re relaxing. The best way to check is to gently hold your cat’s paw and put very light pressure on the back of the toes. This will push the claws forward and allow you to easily see how long they are.

Here’s a video showing you exactly what I’m talking about:

If you see that the nail is starting to curve inward and has a very sharp point then it’s time for a trim. You don’t have to push the limit or try to get it super short as trimming too short can hurt your cat. Instead, just focus on taking off the point and you shouldn’t have any problems.

You’ll also notice that in the video above the person is using human nail trimmers for their cat’s claws. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not something I’d recommend for the novice nail trimmer. There are plenty of options for pet-specific nail trimmers but I’d recommend something super simple (and very budget-friendly) like these on Amazon.

Do I Have To Trim My Cat’s Back Claws Too?

Most folks start with the front claws and by the time you’ve made it to the back feet you’re probably really questioning whether or not cats actually need to have their back nails trimmed.

So do you need to actually trim the back claws too? In most cases, the claws on a cat’s back feet don’t need to be trimmed nearly as often, and in young cats not at all. The back claws are actually a bit thicker and don’t serve the same purpose as the front claws. Instead of being razor sharp like the front claws, the nails on the back feet help stabilize your cat and just don’t grow as fast.

If you’ve got a particularly fussy feline that means it’s okay to focus on the front claws but always make sure you’re still checking the back claws.

Why Nail Trims Are So Important For Older Cats

Senior cats can have a variety of nail related issues. For starters, older cats can actually lose the ability to retract their claws as efficiently or sometimes at all. The ability to retract claws is controlled by ligaments and tendons. Just like anything else, as people and cats get older our bodies just don’t work the way they used to and it’s no different for the tissues that control your cat’s ability to retract their claws.

As a result, claws can start to look longer since they’re “out” more than they were before. You might also find that your senior cat is getting stuck on things more often and so they’ll need more nail trims.

But that’s not the only issue that senior cats face. The folks at Groomer to Groomer explain that ” Sometimes, especially in older cats, the nail sheath is not shed. Instead of growing in length, like embedded claws grow, the nail continues to get thicker and thicker. When the nail is cut, the sheath breaks away and a healthy, slender nail is left in its place.” This can actually make it more difficult for cats to properly trim their own nails as the thicker claws become a bit more resistant to the efforts of the scratching post.

As we’ve already mentioned, older cats are also just not as active and may skip the cat tree climbing of their youth in favor of more naps. This can all add together to create a lot of problems for senior cat nails! If your cat is 8 or older you’re starting to enter senior cat territory and will need to pay extra attention to your cat’s claws.

Tips For Keeping Nails Trimmed

It’s easy enough to say you should keep your cat’s claws trimmed but if you’re like most cat owners you’ve found it’s not always easy to actually do. While I could write an entire article on the art of trimming cat claws, we’ll keep it to just a few tips here.

Less Is Usually More

In the world of veterinary medicine, it’s common to hear “less is more” when you have to hold an animal for a particular procedure. This is especially true when you’re dealing with your own pet that will often be much more tolerant of your handling than a strange veterinarian or technician. When it comes to trimming your cat’s claws, always try to start with the least amount of restraint needed and then work your way up from there.

You might be surprised that you can often trim your cat’s nails while they’re comfortable laying down or partially napping!

Don’t Rush It

If you’re keeping up with your cat’s nails there’s shouldn’t be a huge urgency to getting it done at that exact moment. When it comes to nail trims, you’ve got to be ready to work on your cat’s terms rather than the other way around. If your cat isn’t feeling it that day then it’s probably time to move on rather than push the issue just to get it done.

There’s nothing wrong with trimming just one nail one day and coming back to another a few days later. Instead of turning nail trimming an event, make it part of your regular cat care process and work it in as needed.

Use Treats

If your cat is food motivated, you can incorporate some treats into the process! In many cases, you can actually trim your cat’s nails while they’re eating. Tuna is a surefire option but for many cats just a can of wet food will do the trick. You can also try to reward your cat with some tasty food after mealtime to try and turn the nail trimming into an experience into a more positive one.

How Much Does It Cost to Trim Cat Nails?

With all this in mind, you might be wondering if you can just pay someone to handle the hassle of trimming your cat’s nails! You absolutely can and it’s surprisingly affordable with most groomers charging between $10 -$25 dollars for a nail time. Of course, that’s just a range the exact number will depend on your specific area.

But is it really worth it to pay a groomer?

It really depends on your individual cat. If your cat hates nail trims but handles the car and new places well (an admittedly unlikely combination) then paying a groomer might be a great option. Usually, these are cats that outgoing cats that are just really good at resisting the nail trim. But if your cat is terrified of the car and their carrier it’s probably best to get it done at home.

If you want a more creative solution, consider trying to find a local veterinary technician to stop by your home to handle the nail trimming. It will cost a bit more but it’s not actually that uncommon and I’ve done a few at-home nail trims for friends in the past.

Closing Thoughts

Even though it can sometimes look like our feline friends have the nail trimming and maintenance completely under control it’s still something cat parents need to keep an eye on. Especially when it comes to older cats that aren’t able to keep up with their nails as quickly.

Most of the time skipping nail trims will be more of an annoyance for you and your cat as they get stuck to everything in the house. But it’s not uncommon for this problem to get a completely out of hand and lead to problems with the pad.

Let me know what your experience has been- does your cat tolerate nail trims or are they an expert at evading the trimmers?

Logan M.

Logan has always loved everything about cats! Growing up with a family full of pets and a lifelong passion for animals he pursued work in the veterinary industry. After 10 years, he started BetterWithCats.net to help cat owners learn more about their feline friends.

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