Getting out the pet nail clippers is an event in many households. Dogs and owners alike dread the upcoming scuffle, and you just feel awful for putting your beloved pet through such an ordeal. The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. You can show your pup that you mean no harm, plus he won’t need to fear you or the clippers anymore! If you would like to learn how to cut dogs’ nails (or claws, as they’re technically known. We’ll use both interchangeably, since most people say “nails”) through safe and humane practices, read ahead.
Way back when, before they were our soft fluffy companions, dogs were out roaming pretty much all day long. Their nails would serve them by providing traction and giving information about the environment (like the incline or decline of the current surface), naturally wearing down over time. These days, pet dogs get fewer and fewer opportunities to abrade their claws on rough surfaces and as a result, their nails are allowed to grow. No big real deal right? Well, it kind of is.
When a dog’s nails get too long and touch the ground, the claws start to push back into the nail bed. Think back to a time when you tried on a pair of shoes that were too small for you, and how uncomfortable it felt. The increased pressure in the nail bed leads to pain for the dog. In an attempt to mitigate this pain, dogs with long nails start to change how they stand. As a result, their alignment begins to shift and their joints suffer. Their feet can begin to look flattened and splayed.
Due to this deviation in how the dog is aligned and distributing his weight, injuries become more common. In severe cases, even arthritis can be accelerated.
How short should you cut dogs nails?
The general rule of thumb is to clip the nails to the point where you won’t hear them clicking on hard surfaces when your dog is walking. Those of you with hardwood or laminate floors will know all about this! You may not get that far on your first or second clip, depending on how long it’s been since your dog has had their nails cut, and that’s okay. This is due to the quick.
Dog nails contain a ‘quick’. The quick is comprised of blood vessels and nerves that grow on the inside of the claw – the longer the nails, the longer the quick. If you nick the quick during clipping, this can cause a lot of pain and bleeding. Thankfully, in light coloured nails, the quick is relatively easy to spot and avoid. In dark nails, however, it’s a bit trickier. You have to cut incrementally until you hit the pulp. Once you see this, put on the brakes. Any further, and you’ll hit the quick.
If you’ve reached the quick, and you feel your dog’s nails are still too long, have no fear. The quick recedes over time as the nails get shorter. All you have to do is gradually shorten your dog’s nails over the course of a few weeks, and soon you will be able to keep your dog’s nails at a satisfactory length without hitting their blood supply. (Be patient!)
How often should you cut dogs’ nails?
While times will vary depending on the dog, most people clip every 2-4 weeks. If you hear the clackety-clack on the kitchen tiles, you know it’s time.
Oh no, I’ve cut my dog’s nails too short! (aka How do I stop dogs’ nails from bleeding?)
Don’t panic, it happens to everyone – even the professionals. While your dog will be experiencing some discomfort (and you may need to work with him a bit later on to remind him that nail clipping leads to good things), you can take control of the situation very easily. Keep some styptic powder like Kwik Stop on hand when clipping nails. This product helps promote clotting and puts a plug on copious bleeding.
Simply dab a cotton ball in the powder and press into the affected nail. You can use your finger to apply the powder too if you prefer. Be careful when using Kwik-Stop, as you don’t want to get any particles in your, or your pet’s eyes. Many owners have also had success using corn flour as a Kwik Stop substitute.
Try not to make too much fuss, and just move on.
Types of Dog Nail Clippers
Popular with small dog owners, these nail clippers have replaceable blades that cut the claw from the underside to the top of the nail. You use them by placing the nail through the centre hole and orienting the trimmers with your hand underneath the claw, perpendicular to their paw. The cutting blade should be under the nail and facing you. Squeezing the handle causes the blade to move up, cutting the nail like a guillotine.
Often the preferred nail clippers for medium and large dogs, these trimmers look similar to a pair of scissors or secateurs. This type of claw cutter allows more variation in how your trim, so you’re not forced to snip from only one side or angle. Slip the nail between the blades, using the safety stopper if you’re wanting to be extra careful (although don’t rely on this too much, each dog is different and their quick may be closer to the end of the nail than you think), and squeeze the handles.
Technically, Dremels and other rotary tools are grinders rather than clippers, however, they are used for nail grooming nonetheless. These tools use a rapidly rotating strip of sandpaper to file the nail down. Some dogs find the noise frightening, however, they can be conditioned to enjoy it, as with regular clippers. Many owners particularly like to use a Dremel at the end of the session, to smooth out sharp edges.
How to teach your dog not to fear the nail trimmer
Ideally, you would start creating positive associations with your dog having their nails touched and trimmed from a young age. However, this isn’t the case for many of us – perhaps your dog is an older rescue, or it just totally skipped your mind to focus on nail cutting when they were a pup. Thankfully, the steps below can be followed for any age dog.
Before you even think about clipping nails, you want to teach your dog that being touched (anywhere) is a great thing. Since we’ll be handling their paws and toes for claw cutting, this will be our main focus for these exercises. Some of you might breeze right some of these steps if your dog loves being handled, while others may need to spend more time in particular areas. Go at your pooch’s speed, you want this to be a completely stress-free exercise for them.
If you’re familiar with clicker training, get out your clicker. If you’re not, just use any word to consistently mark every moment that your dog does something you’re happy about. (For example: If you touch his paw, and he doesn’t react or pull away, say “good boy!” or “yes!”, and then immediately give him a treat). This form of training helps teach the dog exactly what he has done right to earning him his reward.
Step 1: Aim = touch your dog’s toes
You can start by touching their feet, and rewarding them for being calm. Touch lower and lower parts of their paw or foot (while praising and rewarding), until you’re able to rub each toe for a couple of seconds, without any sign of distress from your dog. Tweak this step to suit your pet – some of you may need to start high up on the leg or body, working towards the feet as your dog learns to accept being touched.
Step 2: Aim = your dog is comfortable, even when the nail clippers are nearby
Some dogs have met the nail clippers before, and, as a result, already have a negative association with it. This can be worked passed if you follow the same steps as above, but this time, handle them with the clippers nearby. You may need to experiment with how close or far away the trimmers need to be. The dog has to know that it’s there, however. You are now teaching them that good things happen when the nail clippers are around. Look for relaxed body language – soft eyes, droopy ears, slow even breathing. If you’re confident that your dog has no problem with seeing the nail trimmers, move on to step 3.
Note: In some cases, it might be worth using a different tool altogether – one that your dog has never seen before, and therefore has no prior associations with.
Step 3: Aim = your dog is comfortable, even when the nail clippers are touching them
Repeat step 1, using your nail trimming tool of choice instead of your hands. Touch the clipper to their leg (clicking/marking + treating behaviour that you like, constantly). Graduate to touching their feet and, eventually, their toes with the nail trimmer. It only needs to be for a moment – remember that you want your dog to stay calm and happy, so be fair and go slow. If you’re able to hold the trimmer against each nail for a few seconds, and your dog remains relaxed, you’re doing great.
Step 4: Aim = your dog is comfortable having his nails gripped
Using your nail clippers, grip your dog’s claw. Don’t use too much pressure, as you’re just simulating nail clipping at this point. Alternatively, you can use a pen clip to hold the nail if you prefer. Keep these exercises short, and mark and treat your dog for staying calm. Do this with each nail until you’re certain that your dog is comfortable with having his nails held.
Step 5: Aim = your dog is comfortable having his nails clipped
You’re ready to start clipping your dog’s nails! Initially, be super generous with rewards. Start by giving a few treats per nail. When he seems like he’s tolerating it, you can give one treat per nail, one per two nails, one per three nails, one per paw, one per two paws, and eventually one high-value treat or cuddle at the end of the nail trimming session.
Remember that slow and steady wins the race. By taking your time conditioning your dog to have his nails trimmed for just a couple of weeks (if that), you’re making it easier on both your pet and yourself for the rest of your lives. You get to trim quickly and efficiently and, more importantly, your dog does not have to experience the fear and anxiety that invariably comes with clipping time, allowing you to protect your relationship! Practice in short sessions, multiple times a day. If you do this every day, you’ll be trimming away peacefully in no time.
How to cut dogs’ nails
How to cut white dog nails
If you can see the quick through your dog’s nails, nail trimming is quite straight forward. All you have to do is cut to roughly 2mm shy of the quick. Shine a light on the opposite side of the nail if you need help seeing where the quick ends. Trim the other sides too if you would like to force the quick to recede over time.
How to cut black dog nails
Since you can’t see where the quick is in dogs with darker nails, you have to be a bit more cautious.
Clip incrementally – about 1-2mm at a time. Check the inside of the claw each time you snip and look for any signs of reaching the quick.
Depending on how long your dog’s nails are, initially, you may see a dark exterior margin, with a light interior. As you keep clipping, you should come across a dark circular shape in the centre of the nail. Stop here. This is live tissue (referred to as “the pulp” in our corresponding image), and if you go much further, you risk hitting the quick.
Take your time. Many dogs actually tolerate the gradual snipping quite well, since it’s not as hard or loud as clipping large pieces at a time.
An alternate method
Another great way to clip back your dog’s nails, whether light or dark, is shown in the image below. The thinking is,
you’re less likely to hit the quick along the top of the claw, and the dog can wear down the remainder of the nail themselves. You could also make a second cut yourself that resembles a more traditional snip. Dr.Buzby has made a great video here showing how she trims her dog’s nails using this method.
Learning how to cut dogs’ nails takes a bit of time initially, but you’ll thank yourself for the effort later down the road. Not only do you save yourself hundreds of dollars over the course of your dog’s life, but you also get to control how his experience goes. It doesn’t have to be scary anymore – for either of you! Have you had success desensitising your dog to nail clipping? Perhaps you’ve come across another method of trimming that really opened your eyes. Leave a comment, and share your stories!
References and recommended reading:
- Gellman, K. PhD. DVM et al. (2012, July 1). Feet on the Ground. American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation. Retrieved from http://akcchf.org
- Busby, J. DVM, CAVCA, CVA. Proper dog nail care can significantly improve quality of life. Toegrips. Retrieved from http://toegrips.com
- Witiak, G. (2004). True Confessions of a Veterinarian. Centennial, CO: Glenbridge.
- Garrett, S. (2013, August 19). Cutting Your Dog’s Nails: How Important Is it Really? Say Yes! Dog Training. Retrieved from http://susangarrettdogagility.com/