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Home > Cats > How to Treat Your Cat’s Broken Nail: Steps, Signs, & FAQ (Vet Answer)

How to Treat Your Cat’s Broken Nail: Steps, Signs, & FAQ (Vet Answer)

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Dr. Maria Zayas

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Whether your cat is the spry, parkour variety, or a couch potato model, lameness in our feline friends isn’t as common to see as with dogs. This is because cats will often try to hide or mask pain. A particularly sensitive spot for cats, though, is their feet, and even a seemingly inconsequential crack in their nail can leave them limping, not using a limb, unwilling to use the litter box, hiding, vocalizing, and otherwise looking for help and relief.

While nail breaks in cats are not super common, trying to convince a cat to let you help with one is no small task, so we are here to help give you the information you need to help your cat in their time of need.

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Anatomy of a Cat’s Nail

Cat nails have three basic important components, the cuticle or sheath, the quick, and the claw or nail. Luckily healthy cat claws are always clear, so unlike the nails of some other animals, you can see all the parts of the nail from the outside.

The cuticle or sheath is a hairless, thin layer of skin at the base of the nail that the semi-retractable cat nail is rolling in and out of. The claw is made of hard, keratinized cells that are clear and make up most of what you consider the nail.

Each nail has a blood source (a vein) and a nerve running inside the nail. When you look at the nail from the side, you’ll see a pink center to the nail that comes to a point, but not as far as the point of the actual nail. That’s the quick.

Nail breaks that affect the quick will often bleed and will hurt, which will be the source of the signs that you notice from your cat that let you know something is wrong.

Photo Credit: Alonafoto, Shutterstock

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Signs of a Broken Cat Nail

  • Shorter than others, potentially bleeding nail
  • Nail with a piece jutting sideways or peeling away from the rest of the nail
  • Limping
  • Hiding
  • Urinating or defecating outside the litterbox
  • Crying
  • Eating less
  • Reluctance to jump, climb, or use scratching materials
  • Reaction to being touched, especially to a paw
  • Unexplained areas of blood around the home

Reasons a Cat’s Nail Might Break

Cat nails grow in layers, inside out, rather than growing straight out from the base of the nail. Therefore, the most common type of nail break usually involves improperly shedding an outer layer of a nail. This can be done while using a scratching post, a cat tree, your favorite couch, etc. These kinds of breaks aren’t always painful and snipping the exposed layer of incompletely shed nail will solve your problem.

When left in place, if this layer of exposed nail catches on something, it is possible to break the nail deeper. This is also more likely if your cat has overlong nails, abnormally thick nails, suffers from nutritional deficiencies, or already has a nail bed infection.

Fights, falls, abnormal toe anatomy, nutritional deficiencies, and hyper personalities are all predisposing factors to nail breaks in cats.

cutting cat nails
Photo Credit: Ermolaev Alexander, Shutterstock

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What You Will Need to Treat a Broken Nail in a Cat

Nail clippers:
Depending on the break, I like these clippers for getting close for small breaks, and I like these clippers if I need to cut a thick piece of nail easily, quickly, and cleanly.
Styptic powder:
This is a powder designed to be applied to a bleeding wound to stop bleeding. You can buy Kwik-stop or in a pinch, you can also use corn starch.
Bathroom Towel:
Hydrogen peroxide (optional):
If you would like to clean up any blood on your cat’s paw after treatment, you will need hydrogen peroxide to get it out of their hair.
Gauze (optional):
If you happen to have gauze, this is the best thing to apply to a broken nail immediately after treatment. You can also use paper towels, tissues, toilet paper, a napkin, or the edge of the bathroom towel.
Treats:
You want to have something your cat loves more than anything, bonus points if it allows you to slowly keep giving it like these squeeze packets.

Keeping your cat's nails trimmed can help you avoid many common paw problems. We like Hepper's Cat Nail Clipper Set because it has it all: two sizes of well-designed clippers, a nail file, and a handy carrying pouch. The clippers have built-in safety guards and locking switches, and the blades are made of sturdy, easy-to-clean stainless steel.

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The 6 Steps to Treat a Broken Nail in Cats

Before we begin, the first actual step to treating a broken nail for a cat is taking an honest assessment of your cat’s tolerance for being held, having their paws manipulated, nails cut, and their reaction to pain. Cat bites are very dangerous.

If you do not feel comfortable assessing a painful part of your cat or don’t feel your cat will tolerate it, the best thing to do is keep them calm and as clean as you can and take them to a vet rather than do anything at home. If you do feel like your cat will let you help safely, then please proceed with this list.

1. Gather the appropriate supplies

Gather all your supplies and take them to an enclosed room, I usually recommend a bathroom for treating cats. This gives you an area to work where your cat can’t get too far from you and can’t get under anything you can’t get them back out from. I also recommend having at least one helper with you.


2. Assess Your Cat for a Broken Nail

If you feel comfortable identifying the affected paw and the broken nail, you can bring them to your chosen area, wrap them in a bathroom towel, and leave the affected paw accessible to you.

orange cat in towel
Photo Credit: Dan Wayman, Unsplash

3. Have a Helper

Have a helper distract your cat with treats, then pull the paw you need out to visualize. Check the nail carefully. If there’s too much blood, you can start by applying your styptic powder heavily to the nail to stop the bleeding, then wipe everything up so you can see.


4. Leave It for the Experts

For cat nails, you don’t want to cut into the quick on your own if possible. It’s better to leave this to a veterinary team, as cat bites can happen if you attempt this yourself, and these are very dangerous. Check your cat’s nail for what parts of the nail are affected by the break and look for any dangling or jutting nail pieces that you can trim closer to the nail. Things catching on this nail fragment is what hurts your cat so much. If there’s no piece of nail to cut, apply styptic powder to the nail to stop bleeding as needed, then let your cat relax.


5. Treat and Go to the Vet

While most broken cat nails will grow out and heal well on their own, the safest thing to do after you stop the immediate issue of any bleeding and trim any nail pieces that can be caught on things is to contact your veterinarian for their next available appointment. If you are unable to bring your cat to a vet or they are booked out, there are some things you can do to help prevent infection of the nail at home.

vet examining sick cat
Photo Credit: Hryshchyshen Serhii, Shutterstock

6. Keep It Clean

Clean the paw as thoroughly as your cat will allow, removing dried blood, litter, and dirt as best you can. Make sure their litter box is kept perfectly clean. You can rewash your cat’s paw with warm water and dish soap as needed up to a couple of times a day to keep it clean. Just be sure to also dry it thoroughly afterward.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Should I bandage a cat paw that has a broken nail?

While this is possible, I don’t usually recommend trying this at home. Without special training, it can be tricky to collect all the correct bandaging supplies and apply the bandage from scratch safely. Paws that are bandaged but not perfectly cleaned first also run the risk of trapping bacteria inside the bandage in a warm and moist environment, actually increasing the risk of infection potentially.

Can I soak my cat’s paw in Epsom Salts if they break their nails?

This also is technically possible, but due to some risks, I don’t usually recommend it. Convincing a cat to keep a paw in water for 10–15 minutes can be a large task. That could come from drinking the water or cleaning the paw afterward. I find soap and water is the best way to keep a wound clean, and nothing else is required.

Should I apply Neosporin to my cat’s broken nail?

Nope! Neosporin is toxic to cats. The best way to prevent infection at a nail break is to clean the area with just soap and water and then keep their litter box clean until they can see a veterinarian.

My cat won’t let me touch their foot, but their nail won’t stop bleeding. What should I do?

A cat’s bleeding nail can sure look horrible, but the good news is they won’t bleed out from this area. Option one for a cat that won’t tolerate much touch or restraint is to wait them out, and the bleeding will stop eventually. If they’ll let you hold them, though, and it’s just the painful paw they don’t want to be touched, for option two, I recommend getting a ramekin or bowl of a similar size and filling it with styptic powder. Holding higher up on the limb, you can dig the paw into the powder repeatedly to help work the powder into the nail without touching the painful part.

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Conclusion

Dealing with a cat’s broken nail can be a bit difficult. We understand that if this is the first time tending to a cat’s broken nail, it can seem overwhelming. Hopefully, this article can make the process a bit easier!


Featured Image Credit: Alice Rodnova, Shutterstock

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