Pet Safety

How to Trim a Dog’s Nails

Trimming your dog’s nails can be a stressful time, but proper conditioning and attention while cutting can save you a headache and your dog a painful memory

I suppose I am a little bit of a snob when it comes to dog nails. I can’t stand the clackety-clack on hardwood floors or the unkempt look of nails with a long curl. Nail health goes beyond the aesthetic, though—properly-trimmed nails will reduce the risk of splitting or tearing a nail if it should get snagged somewhere.

Well-maintained nails also promote proper support of the dog’s foot and leg when standing and moving, whereas chronically long nails can cause the anatomy to shift into an awkward position and risk skeletal injury.

The chore of trimming your dog’s nails has a stigma attached; many dog owners are accustomed to the process being a fight that could end up with blood spilled and feelings hurt by the end of the ordeal. It doesn’t have to be that way. With some early conditioning and some tips for making the process successful, nail trimming can be an easy task instead of a major ordeal.

Condition your dog to allow for nail trimming

The key to regularly maintaining your dog’s nails without unnecessary stress for you or your dog is to correctly condition your dog to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the procedure. Ideally, this starts at a very young age so that the puppy can become accustomed to having her paws handled and nails manipulated. 

Make sure that the conditioning process is entirely positive from start to finish. In fact, for the first few sessions, don’t even bring out the clippers. Roll your pup onto her side or back and touch each pad and nail. Give the pad a gentle squeeze and “clip” the tips of the nails with your fingertips. Praise the pup throughout and keep your attitude positive. Be sure that you don’t end the session when your pup is squirming, or else you teach the pup that enough squirming will eventually get you to stop the trimming process. Instead, wait for the pup to relax before letting her up.

Once you’ve completed a few sessions of acclimating your pup to having her nails handled, start to introduce the clippers. At this point, don’t overdo it—maybe just do one paw at a time, and only clip off the tiniest point of the nail. You want to keep this positive and have the pup view it as a bonding experience, not torture. Don’t be afraid to do this every day; it’s a nice evening activity while sitting on the couch or otherwise relaxing at home.

Supplies to have on hand

Nail trimmers come in two styles: a scissor-type trimmer and a guillotine-type trimmer. Each of these operates just like the name suggests—the former uses a hinged scissor-like action while the latter has two cutting surfaces that move perpendicular to each other. Which style you choose really comes down to personal preference. I prefer the scissor style, but have previously used the guillotine style and have no strong objections to either.

You can also choose to use a powered, rotary tool such as a Dremel with a nail-trimming attachment. As long as your dog isn’t too upset by the noise (see conditioning section above), these can be very effective. I personally use a Dremel whenever possible because there is very little risk of cutting too short. Because they are only removing a small amount of material at a time, they are not particularly effective for a major trim. It’s important to note that with a rotary tool, you have to watch the heat generated in the nail. Manufacturers typically recommend no more than 2-3 seconds of grinding per nail at a time, or else it may get too hot and become uncomfortable for the dog.

A rotary tool can also be used in conjunction with a traditional trimmer to round off sharp corners after cutting. If your dogs are allowed on the furniture and especially if it’s leather, you may find this tip to be particularly valuable.

You should also have styptic gel or powder on hand and within reach in the event that you cut a nail too short and it starts to bleed. Nails can produce a surprising amount of blood and an upset dog will likely run around, causing blood to go everywhere. Have the styptic gel or powder within an arm’s reach so that you can immediately treat a wound and stop the bleeding before making a mess.

Trimming the dog’s nails

To understand how to trim a dog’s nails, you must first understand the anatomy of a nail. Similar to our fingernails, the outer shell of the nail is hard and has no feeling. However, inside the nail is the “quick,” which contains the blood supply as well as a nerve ending. Your goal is to avoid the quick at all costs. 

Start by getting the dog into a comfortable position. You probably have a good idea of what works best for your dog based on your prior conditioning. I have one dog that prefers to lie on her back and present her feet in the air, while the other prefers to sit and hand me her paws one at a time. Do whatever works best for you and your dog.

Beginning with the first paw, gently press on one pad to cause the nail to extend. Inspect the underside of the nail to judge where to make the cut. If you are lucky enough to have a dog with white nails, you should be able to see the pink flesh of the quick inside of the white nail. If your dog has black nails, however, you’re left to guess about how far out the quick might extend.

If you’re using trimmers, make a single cut at a 45-degree angle (from the floor to the dog’s nose) as viewed from the side. This angle will provide good clearance as the dog’s foot rotates forward during a walk or run. After making one cut, assess the dog’s state of mind. If she’s looking stressed, move on to the next nail and keep moving quickly. If she’s looking relaxed, you can take some time to trim any sharp edges or try a second clip to get it slightly shorter. You should not be removing more than a couple millimeters of nail at a time.

Dogs have extraordinary memories especially when it comes to pain, so any nick of the quick will set back your nail conditioning by months, if not indefinitely. If in doubt, err on the side of a shorter trim. The quick will recede fairly rapidly after the nail is trimmed, so you can always come back in two or three days to safely trim again. If you are working to restore very long nails, this process could take several iterations to safely get them back to a healthy length.

If you’re using a rotary tool, there’s less risk of trimming too short, but increased risk of stressing out the dog due to the noise, the heat generated, the vibrating sensation, and the smell of burning toenail. Keep a watchful eye on your dog and don’t be afraid to cut the session short in order to end on a positive note.

As with the conditioning, don’t give up and let your dog get away if she’s struggling with you. Even if you cease the nail trimming to give you and her a break, keep her in the same position until she eventually relaxes before you let her get up. The goal is to teach the dog that this is a positive experience and that you are in charge. Be generous with treats and praise and recognize when to stop before the situation becomes too unpleasant.

Before long, you and your dog should be looking forward to regular nail trimming sessions as part of your grooming routine. 

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