Can science find a better way to trim a cat’s nails?

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trimming cats' nails
Photo: milanaumova 123rf

US researchers are working to alleviate a near-universal source of stress for cats and those who care for them: nail trimming. It’s a nerve-racking task for all involved, and the noise and discomfort of a shelter can increase anxiety.

PhD student Jennifer Link, who is in the University of California Davis Animal Welfare Epi Lab, is working to lessen the trauma through a multistep protocol intended to desensitise the felines to handling and then nail clipping. 

In mid-July, Link began visiting the Sacramento Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals each weekday in two-hour shifts to work on socialising rescued and surrendered cats to help ease their reactivity to new people, actions and environments. By the end of September, she had seen more than 70 cats.

“When people hear that I study cats, many ask if I can help them with nail trims,” Link said. “We know that socialisation matters throughout life.”

Dan Marple, the animal welfare manager at the Sacramento SPCA, said the research is of paramount interest to staff, volunteers and donors because it can reduce the stress of this necessary grooming need.

“Any new protocols that increase the comfort and safe handling of the cats in our care will also improve their overall wellbeing and adoptability,” he said.

Link’s research incorporates cooperative care, which lets the animals decide their level of interaction during the training process. The cats go through one of three scenarios with Link: a handling and nail trim training protocol, a handling-only training protocol, or a control with no training and only a nail trim. Each interaction is recorded for later analysis.

The protocol groups involve habituation to get the cats comfortable. On those days, they are removed from their cages and placed in a quiet shelter room where Link is sitting, with a mat laid out before her. If a cat puts their front two paws on the mat, they are given pets and a treat. The cat is meant to learn that Link interacts with them only when they place their paws on the mat. Once this is learned, Link moves forward with the training protocols.

In steps, Link touches the cat’s legs, then the paws and then those paws get a gentle squeeze. If they don’t resist, one nail is trimmed. The procedure builds on past steps and works up. Once the cat has gone through all the steps, they get a nail trim. If a cat doesn’t interact or rejects any step, Link stops the handling. 

“I think with the cooperative care, it does seem to almost improve their trust in me,” Link said. “They are more comfortable if we let them decide.”

The goal is to improve the welfare of cats during the routine procedure of handling and nail trims.

Next, researchers will analyse the video sessions and finalise the protocol. If the protocol is found to be helpful, they may share it with cat managers at other shelters for additional data and input.

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