Cats have retractable claws. When the cat is relaxed, walking, or playing gently, the sharp claw is retracted into a sheath. When the cat needs a weapon or a tool, she unsheaths her curved claws by extending them forward and down.
Claws, like our finger- or toenails, are constantly growing. Newly grown claws are covered by a protective outer layer that the cat removes by “sharpening” his claws, preferably on his scratching post. You might find bits of this protective layer stuck to Felix's scratching post or on the floor. (I once pulled one out of the nose of a pushy puppy!)
Long, sharp claws can be a problem for a house cat. They can scratch people and other pets, obviously, and even a playful clawing hurts. Long claws can also catch accidentally on carpets, upholstery, and clothing, and in a cat who hasn't been trained to confine his scratching to a post made for that purpose, claws can be destructive. Fortunately, claws can be managed. Let's look at three common means of keeping kitty claws under control.
First is my least favorite method of claw control—declawing. Declawing, technically known as onychectomy, is the surgical removal of the claw and surrounding tissue and sometimes the first joint of the toe as well. With proper training, most cats can be taught to scratch only “legal” items, such as scratching posts, making declawing unnecessary. Declawing is the easy (or lazy) way out of training for owners but is painful for the cat. Many veterinarians refuse to declaw, and the procedure is now illegal in some countries.
Besides the pain, the declawed cat suffers other disadvantages. He's much less able to defend himself, so should never be outdoors unsupervised. Some cats resort to biting or growling when they find themselves clawless.
If you have a kitten you intend to show, do not have him declawed. Show cats must have their claws.
Many declawed cats will still display scratching behavior as they scent-mark territory with scent pads on the pads of their paws, although they can no longer shred things. The only cat I would declaw would be the absolutely incorrigible ripper-upper—and then only after trying a serious training program (see Preventing Unwanted Behaviors in Your Cat).
One alternative to declawing is weekly claw trimming. If you have a kitten, start right away to teach her to accept having her paws handled and claws trimmed. But even if your cat is older, she can learn that a pedicure is no big deal.
Begin by getting your cat used to having her paws handled. At first, don't try to trim her claws, just handle her paws whenever she's sitting quietly on your lap. Gently hold and massage each paw. With your index finger on the pad and your thumb on top of her paw, press gently to “pop” the claws out of the sheaths.
If you're uncertain about how to clip your cat's claws, ask your veterinarian, groomer, or breeder to show you.
When Kitty is comfortable having her paws handled, it's time to trim. Use a nail clipper made for cats, and be sure the blades are sharp for a clean cut—dull blades crush the nail. Nail clippers come in two styles, guillotine and scissor. Some people prefer one style over the other, but they both work just fine. If your cat isn't willing to be very still during the process, try wrapping her snuggly in a towel, freeing just one paw at a time.
The portion of the claw that is trimmed is dead, like our nails, so trimming correctly doesn't hurt. But inside each claw is the quick, the live center full of blood and nerves. If you cut the claw too short and hit the quick, your cat will bleed and experience pain, which will make him less than eager for the next trimming. Fortunately, most cats' claws lack pigment, so you can see the quick, especially if you hold the paw so there's light behind it. The quick will appear darker than the rest of the nail and sometimes has a pink tinge.
All you really need to remove is the sharp tip of the nail, but in any case, always avoid cutting into the live quick. When in doubt, cut less. If you do accidentally cut too short and draw blood, you can usually stop it quickly by dipping the claw in styptic powder (available from veterinarians, pet supply stores, or the shaving section of many other stores) or cornstarch. In the unlikely event that the bleeding continues for more than 10 minutes or if the blood is spurting, call your vet.
Trim all claws on the front feet, including the dew claws (found on the inside of the front legs above the feet). Rear claws don't need to be trimmed as often, if ever. They aren't as sharp as the front ones, and they grow more slowly.
Another alternative to declawing is to have soft plastic covers applied to your cat's claws about once a month. Your vet or a groomer can apply them, or you can do it yourself.
Claw covers can be useful for preventing destructive scratching while training or retraining appropriate behavior. A set lasts about a month, and if they're properly applied, your cat won't be able to remove them.