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Operant Conditioning With Hard Cases/Steps You Can Try for Stress-Free Claw Clipping

There are some things that every cat parent hates to do because it involves a struggle with themselves and their cat. I used to put off claw clipping for as long as possible, partly because it was a two-man job and partly because it caused so much stress on my cats every time I tried to pick them up to restrain them.

Recently we brought two feral cats in to be fostered until they are ready to be adopted. One of them would not come out of the cave I provided for her when any human was in the room except when food was involved. I would put the food down for her and go sit on the bed. At first, she didn’t like to eat in front of me. Eating is a vulnerable time for cats. It took her a while to realize that I wasn’t going to do anything to her. I just sat quietly, sometimes reading sometimes just waiting for her to be done. It took another few weeks for her to come and sit on the end of the bed where I couldn't reach her as she watched me give treats and pets to Nelly the other cat she shares a room with. Now I have her willingly handing me her paw and letting me clip her claws without restraining her. Here is how I did it.

Step 1: Build Trust

The first step is to build trust. Spot watched Nelly get treats and really wanted some too, but she was not ready to get that close. Trust is earned with a cat. This may take longer for some cats than others, depending on their personality and history. The key is to respect your cat's boundaries and let them set the pace. Don't force your cat to interact with you if they are not comfortable. Instead, offer them treats, toys, and gentle words from a distance. Gradually move closer as your cat allows you to, and reward them for any positive signs of interest or curiosity. With Spot, since we were on the bed I showed her the treat and without moving my whole body I simply reached out as far as I could to offer the treat. As she started to take the treat, I sat up a little straighter until I didn't have to reach out anymore. This took about a week. She really liked the treat.

Step 2: Get Them Used to Touch

The next step is to get your cat used to being touched on their paws and legs. This can be done during playtime or cuddle time when your cat is relaxed and happy. In Spot’s case, I had to start with regular pets while I offered her a squeeze-up. It took about a week for me to be able to lift her paw and hold it while she was getting her treat. Then I moved on to gently stroking and squeezing her pad to get her claws to come all the way out. If she pulls away I withdraw the treat. If she shows signs of discomfort or has just had enough then I stop and try again later, or the next day. It is important to read your cat’s cues and not push your cat too far too fast. The goal is to make them associate paw touching with positive feelings and experiences, but it is just as important to withdraw the treat if they pull away. They need to learn that they have to give to get, only with treats and training.

Step 3: Introduce the Clippers

The third step is to introduce the clippers to your cat. A couple of days before I knew I wanted to try to clip claws, I took the clippers out and showed them to Spot along with her treat. I let her rub on them and even put her mouth on them. I rubbed her paws with them and set them where she could see them while she ate her squeeze-up. You can use any type of clippers that are designed for cats, such as scissors or guillotine style. Show your cat the clippers and let them sniff them. I praised her at each step as she became more comfortable with me and the idea of being touched, all the while she was enjoying her squeeze-up.

Step 4: Clip One Nail at a Time

The final step is to clip one nail at a time. The method I am describing still takes three hands to get all of the front claws done. I can do one or two without help but it is awkward and not as safe as doing it with someone else. So, I enlisted my husband to hold the treat and slowly squeeze it out while I held Spot’s paw with one hand and clipped her claws with the other. It is best to do this activity in the same place every time so that it becomes part of the routine. It is also helpful to offer this type of treat at the same time of day as often as every day. Of course, you are not going to clip claws every day, but you should demand a paw even when you are just offering the treat so that your cat will always know that giving the paw is what gets them the treat.

If you have never clipped claws before don’t try to take the whole claw. If you look closely you will see a red line of blood that goes about halfway up your cat’s claw. This is the Quick. It is painful for your cat to have the Quick cut. My general rule is, cut where the claw begins to curve. You may have to clip claws more often, as in once a week instead of every other week but you will ensure that you do not hurt your cat in the process.

Photo Credit- Jan Kopřiva

You don't have to clip all of your cat's nails at once. You can do one or two nails per session, depending on how cooperative your cat is. Always end on a positive note, with praise, and make sure you have some treat left in the tube.

By following these steps, you can make claw clipping a stress-free experience for both you and your cat. Your cat will have healthy nails that won't scratch you, and you will have a stronger bond with your fur kid. The best part about this type of training is that you can use it for many different behaviors. Look in our Quick Clips section for videos on clicker training.

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