How to Restrain a Cat to Clip Nails?
Author: Carol Young
Carol has worked in specialty, emergency, mixed animal and general veterinary practices, and enjoys all aspects of veterinary medicine. Her special areas of interest include anesthesia, critical care, emergency, dentistry, internal medicine and small animal nutrition.View all 5 articles Learn about our editorial process and veterinary review board.
Updated on: 03/01/2021
For cat owners, restraining your pet to clip nails is something few look forward to, but it doesn’t have to be a knock-down-drag-out fight where you get scratched like crazy, and your cat hides under the bed, hissing and spitting. In addition to giving medications, clipping your pet’s nails can be an exhausting and stressful ordeal for both you and your kitty, but there are several ways in which you can minimize the drama and safely and gently trim your pet’s nails without anyone getting wounded. The key to a successful nail trim is using proper restraint methods.
READ MORE: Best Cat Nail Clippers
Veterinarians and veterinary nurses are trained and experienced in restraining pets for nail clipping, and practices using Fear Free  techniques (introduced by veterinarian Marty Becker, DVM) have been very successful in veterinary practices.
Also, Dr. Sophia Yin, a world-renowned veterinary behaviorist and the author of “Low Stress: Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modifications of Dogs and Cats”, pioneered low-stress handling in pets. Dr. Yin found that it is normal for felines to react with fear and stress when restrained for a nail clipping due to their history as a prey animal. Both veterinary professionals and Dr. Yin recommend a towel technique known as the scarf wrap, or the “kitty burrito”, to help your kitty feel calm, prevent escape, and protect yourself from flying claws. Toweling can also comfort kitties who tend to be anxious, fearful, or aggressive when handled.
How do I use a towel to Restrain my Cat to Clip Nails?
The best tool for restraining is a large bath towel, and the thicker, the better. Wrapping pet in a towel is a great way to protect yourself from sharp claws, and the snug, bundling feeling can help kitty feel safer and more secure during a nail trim. Sort of like us wrapping ourselves up in a big, fluffy blanket on a cold winter night. Follow the steps outlined below in the section “scarf wrap your cat” to learn how to safely restrain your pet for a nail clipping with a towel.
Steps to Wrap a Cat in a Towel
Several toweling techniques can help in restraint for clipping nails, but one of the most effective techniques is making a “kitty burrito,” also known as the “scarf wrap” for your pet. This way, toweling gives you access to your pet’s rear end, front legs, and head, all while keeping your cat snug and calm. Follow the steps below in toweling your pet for a nail trim. If you have any questions, you can always make an appointment with your veterinarian to show you how.
- Make sure that you and your cat are in a quiet area, away from barking dogs, or loud noises. A comfortable, familiar place like a couch, or the part of your bed that your pet likes to sleep on are good choices.
- Take your time, and don’t rush. Ambushing your pet with a towel is not the best approach and may cause your pet to panic and react aggressively. Furthermore, your pet will associate towels with danger in the future. The owner needs to be calm and not feel rushed or frustrated because cats can read those emotions.
- Bribe your pet. If you are sitting on a bed, place the towel flat on the bed. Place some treats or kibbles on the towel, so your furry friend has to lie or sit on the towel while enjoying a snack. You can talk gently to your cat and pet her while she enjoys her treats.
- Slowly wrap the end of the towel over your cat’s back while she is enjoying her snack. Continue to pet her and let her walk away if she wants to the first couple of times. Do this occasionally without attempting to restrain your pet, so she learns that being on the towel can be a positive experience. You can also motivate your feline friend to sit on the towel by dangling a feather wand for her to swat at while on the towel. The goal is to form a positive association with the towel.
- If your cat has moved off of the towel, bribe her back onto the towel again, or place her on the towel if she will let you, and wrap the back end of the towel over her back again. Then wrap the right side of the towel on top of the towel’s left side (like wrapping a burrito). Wrap it snugly, but not too tightly around neck and upper body, so that her entire body is covered, except for her face.
- Pull the front edge of the towel forward a little bit under your pet, and wrap it under your cat’s neck like a scarf.
- Now that your pet is secured in the towel, with her head peeking out, you can clip her nails by working on one leg at a time. Before starting, use your arm to gently hold the kitty close, right next to your body, where you and your pet are both facing in the same direction. You don’t want to place your face directly in front of your pet, because that puts you at risk of getting bitten. Also, make sure to keep your hands away from your cat’s mouth. Then you can gently and calmly reach for a front paw, and start to trim the nails.
- If you want to trim the back claws as well, gently reach between the layers of the towel and reach for the back paws. It’s important to hold your cat firmly, but not too tightly while doing this so that she continues to feel comfortable and secure.
It may take several tries to get your pet used to a claw trim. You may have to start slow, with one nail per session, gradually increasing the number of nails trimmed during each session. The key is to try to keep it calm, slow, and low-stress for both you and your feline friend.
READ MORE: 8 Signs Your Cat Loves You
Two-person method for restraining a Cat for a nail clipping
If you have a helper, it will make restraining your cat for a nail clipping easier. If you have a helper, your helper can sit behind your pet, gently restraining her in the towel while you slowly and gently reach for each paw to trim the nails. Your helper can also cuddle your pet, scratch her head while you clip the nails, or distract her with treats.
Play with your Cat’s Paws more often
Getting your pet used to being restrained for a nail clipping and having her paws handled is a good idea to get her desensitized for both restraint and nail trims. You can occasionally touch and handle your cat’s paws, placing gentle pressure on the top of the paws to expose the nails to get her used to it. However, it is important to do this safely, and not risk getting bit or scratched by your kitty.
READ MORE: Cat Sleeping Positions
When it’s not the best time to Clip Cat Nails: Important notes
As mentioned above, it’s best to trim your pet’s nails in a calm, familiar place. However, below are listed some situations or times when it’s best not to try a nail trim for your kitty:
- If there is a lot of noise around the house, and your pet is agitated or stressed.
- When there are visitors or strangers in the house; this may stress your pet.
- If your kitty is not feeling well.
- When your kitty is eating.
- When your cat is using the litter box.
While trimming your pet’s nails, it’s best to do it when it is calm and quiet, in a familiar place, and by using the low-stress restraint techniques listed above.
READ MORE: How Often Should You Take a Cat to the Vet?
If you are concerned about clipping nails and your pet is aggressive, you may want to schedule a cat nail trim with a groomer or a veterinary professional. You can also consult your veterinarian regarding possible anti-anxiety medications or calming pheromones such as Feliway  for your cat if you prefer to do a nail trim at home. And if you do want to try clipping your cat’s nails at home, be sure to follow the steps below for scarf-wrapping your cat. One thing to remember with aggressive cats is that attempting a nail trim may make matters worse, it may make your cat more stressed, aggressive and you may end up getting injured. In these cases, it’s recommended to have a professional do the nail trim.
If you use the towel technique correctly, the chances of hurting your cat during a nail clipping are minimal. Of course, it is essential not to cut off your cat’s airway and make sure that the towel is not swaddled too tight around your pet.
It may be possible to restrain and trim your cat’s nails while she is sleeping, but it is not recommended simply because if your pet wakes up, and you have ahold of one of her paws, she could bite or scratch you. But, if your cat will let you, you can certainly try this method.
- “Fear Free Pets — Taking the ‘Pet’ Out of ‘Petrified’ for All Animals.” Fear Free Pets, fearfreepets.com/.“
- Low-Stress Handling Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats: Techniques for Developing Patients Who Love Their Visits.” Sophia Yin. amazon.com
- “Feliway for Cats.” Feliway, feliway.com/us.
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