Trimming Dog’s Nails

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How to Safely Trim Your Dog’s Nails 

Why do you need to do it?

Nails left untrimmed can split, break and bleed, causing soreness in the dog’s feet and toes and possible infection. In addition, they can get caught on things and tear or grow so long that they can curl backwards, penetrating the dog’s pads.

Many people are reluctant to trim their dog’s nails themselves, as they are worried about causing pain or making the nails bleed. There is indeed a blood vessel and bundle of nerves that runs through the centre of each dog’s nail. However, if you are careful, prepare your dog correctly and learn the technique, you can become confident quickly.

Conditioning your dog to accept nail trimming?

Early conditioning to allow your dog to be comfortable with nail trimming is essential in making the procedure quick and easy. Many dogs tend not to like having their feet touched, and the pressure and sound of the clippers on the nail can be somewhat disturbing for them. However, positive reinforcement training can desensitize dogs to having their nails trimmed so that the procedure need not be traumatic. Get your dog used to touching its feet, putting your fingers between its toes, gently squeezing its foot, rewarding them with a pat, a verbal “good dog”, and a treat.

Can you do it yourself?

Many people prefer to have the vet trim their dog’s nails, but if regular trimming of your dog’s nails is required, it is best to learn how to safely do the procedure yourself to avoid getting too long between vet visits. The longer the nails are left to grow without trimming, the harder it is to bring them back to a reasonable length as the ‘quick’ (the blood vessel that feeds the growing nail) grows long in proportion to the toenail and will bleed if cut. Trimming long nails every week will help bring them back under control as the ‘quick’ will retreat into the toenail, allowing each trim to shorten the nail until they reach the correct length again.

Before you try trimming your dog’s nails for the first time, you may want to get your vet or an experienced dog groomer to provide a demonstration. They will use either a guillotine-style of clipper or one with a simple scissor action. If you are using the guillotine style, make sure the cutting blade is on the side closest to the tip of the nail, so you can see exactly where you need to cut. It doesn’t matter which style you use, as long as they are sharp and good quality. Blunt cutting edges may leave the nail jagged and frayed and tend to squash and compress the toenail, perhaps causing discomfort for your dog. Alternatively, small electric or battery-operated trimming units are available, which have a spinning sand-paper wheel to grind the nail shorter. These can also be good, as long as you take it slowly and remember that these can easily make the nail bleed if you take too much.

Dog health: using a Dremel tool to file dog's nails.

Small electric or battery-operated trimming units are available, which have a spinning sand-paper wheel to grind the nail shorter.

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Methods of restraint for trimming your dog’s nails.

It is often easier for medium to large dogs to have the dog relaxed and lying on their side, preferably up on a bench, with their legs facing away from me. In this position, it’s pretty easy to lean across a fidgety dog and hold it firmly in place. However, getting a big dog up onto a bench can also be difficult, so you can try them standing or sitting while holding them between your legs and picking up one foot at a time. You can easily trim smaller dogs on a bench, but they can also be restrained if necessary in a semi-cuddle on the lap while clipping their nails. Ensure you have plenty of good light wherever you do it to see exactly where you need to cut.

If your dog has light coloured nails, you should be able to see through to the pinkness of the quick running down the centre of the nail, making it easier to decide how close to cut without causing the nail to bleed. Once you are confident with the clipping process, you should be able to clip these nails with only one cut. However, for dogs with darker nails, you won’t be able to see the quick, and so will need to make multiple minor cuts to avoid taking too much at once and risk bleeding. At each small trim, look at the cut surface. As you approach the quick tip, the nail will darken in the centre, indicating that you have cut enough off. In white nails, a deeper pink shade will appear.

Hold each toe in turn with the thumb and first finger with your free hand. Apply a little pressure so the nail is pushed outwards a little, hold the clippers at about a 45 degree angle to the line of your dog’s pads, and cut. If the nail splinters, the rough edges should be filed smooth by filing gently from the back to the front. Give lots of praise during the procedure, and take frequent rests if the dog finds the process stressful.

Don’t forget to trim the dewclaws, found a short way up from the foot inside your dog’s leg. As they don’t touch the ground, they will not get worn down and need regular trimming.

It is a good idea to have something on hand to stop the bleeding if you accidentally cut the ‘quick’. Products such as ferric chloride or potassium permanganate (bought over the counter from a human pharmacy) are helpful. Applying the solution or crystals to the bleeding nail with cotton wool will cause the blood to clot quickly. Many human first aid kits also contain a styptic (a blood-clotting material) that looks a little like orange cotton wool. You can also apply this to the bleeding nail.

Dog health, dogs with compact'cat feet' require less trimming of their nails.

Compact feet with well-arched toes that angle the toenails downwards towards the ground are often referred to as ‘cat feet’.

Learning to trim nails is important for dog health.

Hold the clippers at about a 45 degree angle to the line of your dog’s pads.

How often is this necessary?

The requirement for nail trimming can vary depending on the breed of your dog, age, level of exercise, and environment in which the dog lives. Working and herding breeds are active and generally have compact feet with well-arched toes that angle the toenails downwards towards the ground (often referred to as ‘cat feet’). If these dogs are active on hard surfaces such as gravel, rock and concrete, their nails may not need trimming until they exercise less with age. However, you will still need to attend to their dew claws regularly. Other breeds may have what are known as ‘hare’ feet which means that the nails grow more forward than downward, and therefore no matter how much exercise they get on rough ground, it is unlikely they will wear down naturally. Some dogs may benefit from having the tips of their nails taken off once every week or two, however for most, it will be longer than this, and you will have to decide what is suitable for your dog by inspecting its nails regularly. However, if you notice a change in the sound of your dog’s nails on hard floors, this is a pretty good indication that it is time for a trim. 

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