black persian cat paw on top of a woman's hand over a laptop

How to Groom Cats: Paw and Claw Care

Everyone loves cat paws right? It doesn’t take much hanging around online to see pictures of little cat paws with all their little “jelly bean” paw pads and floofy paws. But not everyone is so excited about the little needles inside! Your kitty will need regular paw and claw care to make sure her feet are healthy and happy.  Keeping her nails trimmed will save you pain when she jumps up in your lap, keep your belongs from damage, and most importantly keep Kitty from injuring herself.

Paw Pad Anatomy:

Those cute little jellybean footpads are a fat pad full of nerves and blood vessels covered with an outer layer of keratin.  The nerve receptors allow cats to feel texture, pressure and vibration which makes them the excellent jumpers and hunters they are.

They also contain Kitty’s sweat glands.  If you think about how small their little jellybeans are, you’ll understand how easy it is for Kitty to become overheated.

The most common issues that affect Kitty’s paws are injuries, cracks, bites, burns and infections.  Hot and cold surfaces can affect cats that go outside, adventuring, or even in a catio. But burns can also happen if Kitty jumps up on the stove or touching a heater.

Chemicals and environmental irritants are the other things that can affect your baby’s paw pads.  Excessively scented litter is one common irritant.

It’s important to keep Kitty’s paws clean and free of all the dirt and irritants.  There are some products you should never use on her feet though: cortisone cream, tea tree products, and most essential oil products. Just a diluted shampoo wash, chlorhexidine wash, or a pet wipe are good options for keeping paws clean.

If Kitty contracts an infection or fungus, get a wash from the vet.

freckled cat paw pads on red and white cat paw

Pillow Paw:

Officially, feline plasma cell pododermatitis, pillow paw is an inflammatory disease that affects the footpads of cats. It can affect any or all of a cat’s paws, on any of the pads. But typically it affects the center pads on all four paws. It is an autoimmune disease. Pillow Paw can occur on any gender, age, or breed of cat.

The 4 stages of Pillow Paw are:

  • The paw pad is slightly puffy and tender.
  • Pads become purple and appear bruised.
  • The pads become increasingly mushy and your cat will begin to “favor” the affected paws. Often, more than one paw is inflamed.
  • Sores develop and in severe cases may split open.
brown tabby cat reeaching out with claws

Doxycycline and steroids are the typical treatments but there is no cure. Immune support and a good diet can help keep Kitty as healthy as possible. Stress management is important for any kitty with an autoimmune condition.

There is a rare foot cancer called digital squamous cell carcinoma that is a slow growing but often reoccurring cancer. If you see a lump or bump on your baby’s paw, get the vet to check her out.

There are other conditions with bumps and growths that aren’t malignant, so it is important to know what you are dealing with.

Hyperkeratosis:

Hyperkeratosis is a skin condition that can develop on a cat’s paw (or nose.) The skin thickens and becomes hard and dried out. In humans it leads to things like psoriasis, calluses, corns and warts. In cats, the biggest concern is that the paw pads often crack as they dry out. This can lead to infection and pain.

Cutaneous Horns:

“Horned paws” are another phenomenon where the keratin in the paw pads goes a little crazy and forms what looks like horns on the paw pads.  These aren’t anything to worry about but you need to keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t grow around and puncture pads.

They have no nerves or blood vessels so you can just trim them when you trim Kitty’s nails.  You’d want to have a vet confirm they are horns and not tumors before you go clipping them.

I was nervous the first time I saw a cat with horned paws as a grooming client but Kitty really didn’t notice me clipping them anymore than her claws. She probably appreciated the relief from the clicking when she walked.

Claw Care:

Cat claws are a source of stress for a lot of cat guardians.  Not just because we want to keep our furniture safe, but because we’re not always thrilled about getting unplanned acupuncture sessions when Kitty curls up in our laps and kneads away.  It’s important that we keep Kitty’s claws maintained for her sake to prevent injuries and infections.

white cat paw with claws extended for paw and claw care

Scratching Needs:

Cats have to scratch. Declawed cats will still “scratch”.  Even tigers scratch. It is not just about the claws; though it helps the cat keep up good claw health.

Provide Kitty with a variety of places to scratch to keep the claws in order. Some cats prefer a vertical surface, and others would like a horizontal scratcher.  Sisal, seagrass, and cardboard are popular.

Most large cat trees are carpet covered.  Think twice about this if your cat is scratching your rugs.

Claw Anatomy and Polydactylism:

Cats normally have 5 claws on their front paws and 4 on the back.  Polydactyl cats may have more. Typically, 6 or 7 front and 5 back, but sometimes even more.  Polydactyl cats are also called  “double-pawed”.  You may hear them called Hemingway Cats.

The only two breed standards that accept polydactyl cats in championship classes in the show world are the Maine Coon and the Pixie-Bob.

Cat claws connect to the bones in their paws just like our fingernails. Cats have ligaments and tendons that let them extend and retract their claws, similar to the way we can flex our ankles to point our toes or manipulate our fingers.

The claw does not retract all the way into the paw,  though it may appear that way. If you feel your Kitty’s paw, or pet back the fur you’ll see the tips of those claws even when retracted.

Just like our fingernails, cat claws grow continuously throughout their life.  The claws grow in layers that will eventually shed. You’ve probably found shed claws around the house.

Kitty isn’t “sharpening” her claws when she’s scratching on her post, she’s scratching to remove old claw sheaths.

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Health Problems for Kitty’s Claws:

The biggest problems that your Kitty might develop with her claws are like things we deal with in our finger and toe nails.  Older cats can have thicker nails that are harder for her to shed off. They also may be more likely to splinter when you clip them.

Overgrown claws are the most common problem cats will experience with their claws. If we do not keep her claws trimmed, they will continue to grow around and grow back into the paw pads. The wounds can become infected. This is a more common problem for indoor cats that don’t walk around rough surfaces.

Other problems that can develop include fractured nails, bacterial infections, and fungal infections. These need vet care.  Common treatments are antibiotics or antifungals, frequent nail trimmings to remove infected nail growth. These are more likely to occur in cats with underlying immune conditions.

seal pointed cat paw with claws extended for paw and claw care

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How to Trim Your Cat’s Claws:

The best way to keep your cat’s claws maintained is regular trimming.  Typically, most cats are fine on a 2-4 week schedule. It is easy to clip most cat’s claws, but if you can’t do it yourself your vet’s office or a groomer can help you.

Click here for tips on how to clip a wiggly cat’s claws by yourself.

If you can clip dog claws then relax, it is much easier to clip a cat’s claws than a dog’s nails.  Cat claws are more translucent, it is much easier to see the quick even on a cat with dark claws.

If you happen to trim Kitty’s claw too short and it bleeds don’t panic!  I keep a little can of styptic powder on hand but you can use cornstarch, flour or a bar of soap rubbed on the claw.  You can use any of those to help stop the bleeding.

Types of Cat Claw Trimmers

There are three basic options for clippers:  guillotine style, scissor style, and basic human nail clippers.  One style isn’t better than the other, use the one that makes you most comfortable.  Personally, I use the scissor style. I carry a small cat clipper in my show bag, but I use a small spring-loaded dog set most of the time.

What Part of the Claw to Clip

If you think of your finger as your cat’s claw, form a “C” with your  thumb and forefinger. Your forefinger is your imaginary claw. The part you’d be clipping off is just past the first knuckle, the top part of the “C”. The “quick” or live part would run between your hand and the center knuckle. If you look at your cat’s claw the quick is the pinkish part.

Training Your Cat to Tolerate Claw Care

Train your kitten to tolerate nail trimming young (because kitten claws are so sharp and they don’t get the retract your claws thing!) But if you adopted an adult cat, you can still learn to trim your cat’s claws alone.  But having a second person to help you will make the process much easier.

Some cats are visually overstimulated by claw clipping.  If you cover her head with a towel or the corner of your sweater, she may relax enough for you to clip her nails alone.

Best Way to Clip Your Cat’s Claw

  • Get her used to having her paws handled and massaged. Just play with them while she’s hanging out with you.
  • A gentle press on her paw pad and the top of the paw will extend her claws.
  • Let her explore the clippers so she doesn’t see them as threatening.  Clip a piece of spaghetti or a straw so she gets used to the noise of the clipper.
  • Start when she’s relaxed and sleepy.  Go slow. If you get one or two claws at a time, it’s perfectly fine.
  • Your long haired furbaby is going to have a lot of extra hair on the bottom of her feet.  If this gets super dirty, builds up snowballs outside, or just annoys her (she’ll keep biting at it), you can buzz it off with a clipper. I don’t because furry paws are part of the breed standards and I try to keep them as close as possible.
  • Give her a treat.

Claw Caps: Pros and Cons

Claw caps are soft plastic nail covers that glue to the nails.  The claws still grow and in 4-6 weeks they will need a new set of caps.  Using claw caps is controversial. Nail caps are thicker and blunter than your cat’s natural nail.

Click here for a discussion of claw caps.

On the positive side, claw caps prevent damage to furniture and keep a cat with skin conditions from ripping up his neck.

The con side: People who don’t like nail cats argue that they trap the sweat that cats get in their nails and keep the cat from being able to stretch and retract their claws completely and make it hard for the cat to walk. Claw caps annoy some cats. They will try to chew them off. If they ingest them they are harmless and will pass through.

Personally, I have never used them. I don’t know whether they are uncomfortable for the cat to wear, but I don’t believe that they prevent them from retracting their claws. The caps only cover the sharp portion of the claw is that remains accessible even when the claws are retracted. You should check them every day or two just to make sure everything is ok.

I recommend that you use claw caps only as a last resort. You could offer claw caps as an alternative if your landlord wants you to declaw your cat.

Declawing:

Just don’t do it. Declawing is not just an advanced form of nail trimming.  It is the surgical amputation of the nail and top portion of the paw. Declawing is horribly painful for Kitty. Cats walk on their toes, so removing the toes forces them to change their whole gait and posture.

Over time, declawing can lead to arthritis, behavior problems, biting and inappropriate litter box behavior. No piece of furniture or security deposit is worth putting your kitty through that.  Just don’t do it.

red tabby cat sleeping showing paw pads, paw and claw care

Summary:

Paw and claw care is an important part of your cat’s at-home grooming routine. 

You might not need to trim your cat’s claws if she goes outside or has access to a lot of scratchers. Even so, you want her to be able to tolerate having her paws handled and her claws trimmed.  You want to make sure her paws are staying clean and healthy, and her claws are not broken or ingrown.

If you have any questions about paw and claw care or other parts of grooming your cat please drop a comment here or on my Facebook page and I will try and help you out.

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Sources:

Easier Nail Trimming
Clipping your Cat’s Claws
Footpad Injuries
Pillow Paw
Cutaneous Horns

11 thoughts on “How to Groom Cats: Paw and Claw Care”

  1. I had absolutely no idea that when a kitty scratches, it has to do with ridding of old claw sheaths! I just assumed it was ‘what cats do’ – but to learn the reason why, it makes all of the sense in the world. Great post – beautifully done!

  2. Hindy Pearson

    The only time I’ve ever seen a puffy paw on any of my cats was when one of them stepped on a bee!! I’m afraid my cats were never easy going enough to cut their claws on my own, actually I did do one cat, the rest had to have them done at the vet. Personally I don’t like the sound of claw caps, I would prefer finding a way to protect the furniture, and of course provide scratching posts.

  3. Ruby, Rosie and Teddy

    I had no idea there were so many potential health issues with claws and paws. We are fortunate not to have experienced any of these.

    Our cat Rosie is especially challenging when it comes to nails. She hates having them trimmed – I do one or two at a time and try to catch her when she is sleeping.

    As you suggest, we are trying to get our new guy used to nail trimming. He’s not a kitten but still young and so far so good!

  4. Yo always have the best tips on cat grooming. Really appreciate the detailed explanation on how to achieve success. I trained my cats since they were kitties on the nail trimming is the only thing I have been able to succeed in terms of grooming lol

  5. I hear you – Plush and Caramel have crazy furry paws. I might trim Plush’s after our regional award show this summer because he’ll have a couple months for it to grow back for a show again. I think we’ll be doing a lot of exciting outdoor adventures this summer and his crazy furry paws might get annoyingly dirty.

    I hadn’t thought about including paw wax in the post. Yeah, very definitely!

  6. So much to know just about one body part. My older dog especially has high maintenance paws. The bottoms of his feet get SO furry, I have to trim the fur in between his toes so he doesn’t slip slide away on slippery surfaces. I also wax his paws to keep them nice and soft, and he just has to wear his boots if it’s rainy or icy outside. He absolutely hates getting his paws wet!

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