Don’t Let Your Dog’s Toenails Scare You

I recently asked a group of dog owners which dog care chore was their least favorite.

Most of them said trimming toenails was the chore they liked the least and several added that this chore scared them. Not one dog owner said this chore was easy, and a few mentioned they disliked the chore enough to pay the veterinarian or groomer to trim their dog’s nails. It’s too bad this necessary chore is such a problem; however, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Get to Know Your Dog’s Nails

Your dog’s nails are made of keratin just as ours are. Our nails are flat with a slight curve and located on the top end of our fingers and toes but your dog’s nails are oval and grow out of the end of each toe. The dog’s nails are different from ours, too, in that they come to a point. If the nails don’t wear off the point or the nails are not trimmed, those pointed nails can cause a great deal of damage.

Dog nails continue to grow at a fairly constant rate if the dog is in good health, as ours do, and often at a similar rate. One difference is your dog’s nails are often in contact with the ground and wear down especially if he runs and plays on hard, rough surfaces.

Many dogs have a toe with a nail on the inside of the leg above the paw. Some dogs have these dew claws on all four legs, some just on the back legs, and some just on the front. Some breeds, including Great Pyrenees, have multiple dew claws on the back legs. These dew claws need to be trimmed regularly. If untrimmed, the dew claws can actually grow in a circle, curving back into the leg, causing a painful wound.

Nails are either clear or black. Clear nails are easier to trim as you can see the quick. If your dog has a clear (or white) nail, take a look at it. See the pink area that is in the center of the base of the nail? It extends part way through the length of the nail. If the nail is short, the quick will be short too. However, if the nail has been allowed to grow too long, the quick will have extended farther into the length of the nail. If the nails are trimmed regularly, usually the long quick will recede. However, if the quick extends the length of the nail, you may need to have the veterinarian trim the nails short, cutting both the nail and the quick, and then you can keep the nails trimmed in the future.

If your dog has black nails, you’ll see that you cannot see the quick. However, if you look at the nail from the side, see where the outer end of the nail has a curve? It’s usually safe to trim the curved end off.

©istockphoto/Chalabala

©istockphoto/Chalabala

Your Dog Uses His Nails

Your dog’s toe nails are functional parts of his paws that he uses for many different activities. When your dog plays with a toy or chews on a chew toy, he will manipulate the toy with his paws. The nails help him grip the toy and hold it as he chews on it. Dogs who dig also work their nails hard especially if digging into hard ground. Dogs who have dew claws often use the dew claws in addition to the nails on the paw; they use the dew claw much like a thumb.

The toenails also help the dog run as the nails will grip the ground, giving the dog additional traction. If the dog is turning corners or zig-zagging as he runs, the grip of his nails will keep him steadier and help his balance. The same applies if he’s climbing up and down hills.

The dew claw helps with climbing and corners, too, as it can also grip the ground as the dog leans into an extreme turn. My youngest dog, Bones, an English Shepherd, loves to run hard. If I check his front dew claws before and after a hard running session, I can see where those nails have been worn down.

One of the most important jobs of the toe nails is to protect the pads of the paw. When my middle dog, Sisko, an Australian Shepherd, ripped out two back toe nails several months ago, it took months for the nails to completely grow back. During that time, the pads on those two toes got worn, scratched, dinged and even cracked; much more beat up than his feet that still had nails.

Touch the Nails and Treat Your Dog

Before we talk about how to trim your dog’s nails, begin teaching him that when you touch his nails, he’s going to get some really good treats. By creating this association, toe nail trimming becomes a good experience rather than a feared one.

I use peanut butter as the special treat; primarily because my dog’s don’t get it for other reasons and they really like it. Make sure you get a peanut butter that doesn’t contain any sugar or xylitol. Your dog doesn’t need sugar and xylitol is toxic to dogs. You can also use cheese, small pieces of meat or any other treat your dog really enjoys.

As your dog lies on your lap or next to you, give him a treat, touch one of his paws and then handle his toes. Give him another treat and touch one toe nail, rubbing the nail and gently squeezing it. Do this for one or two paws and stop for a while. Later, repeat it with the other two paws. Repeat this daily for several days; longer if your dog is not happy about having his paws touched.

©istockphoto/La_Corivo

©istockphoto/La_Corivo

Trimming Tools

There are several different tools you can use to trim your dog’s nails. The most commonly used trimmer is called a guillotine trimmer. It has two handles (top and bottom), a semi-circular metal guide in front, and a sliding, sharp cutting blade that trims the nail. The nail is positioned in the guide, then you can squeeze the handles to cut the nail. The down side to this trimmer is that it can be difficult to see the nail.

Many dog owners like the trimmers that are like a pair of scissors. The scissors type trimmers have a semi-circular cut out from the end of the blades where the nail is positioned to be cut. These scissors come in several sizes, from Chihuahua tiny to Great Dane giant sized. If you can use a pair of scissors, you can use these trimmers.

My favorite tool is a Dremel or Dremel-type trimmer. These small power tools come with different power sources, either rechargeable batteries or with a plug in power cord. Instead of trimming the nails, these grind off and smooth the nail. Unlike the other tools, the dog needs to get used to the feel and sound of this tool before you actually touch it to his nails. Just turn it on, let him see and hear it, and give him a treat. Then let him feel the handle when it’s turned on, feel the motor’s vibration and give him a treat. Do this several times over several days to gradually introduce him to it.

Last but certainly not least, get yourself some styptic powder. This is important to have on hand so that if you do cut into the quick of the nail, you can dip the nail into the powder. It will help the blood clot faster.

Ready, Set, Trim!

With your treats, trimmer and styptic powder at hand, ask your dog to relax on your lap or next to you. Roll him over, give him a tummy rub, and then handle one paw. Massage it as you have been doing and take a look at his nails as you have done previously. Decide where you’re going to trim and then do it. Don’t fuss, don’t apologize to your dog ahead of time; just do it. If you hesitate, your dog will feel your nervousness. After you trim one nail, praise your dog, give him a treat and do the next nail. Don’t forget the dew claw if your dog has them. After you’ve done one paw, take a break.

I suggest doing one paw at a time, with a break in between. That way you and your dog both can relax. Later, when you’ve had some practice, you can do all four paws at one time.

If you hit the quick, don’t panic. It happens. Your dog may jerk his paw as you’re getting ready to trim and you hit the quick. Or, if he has black nails, you may just accidentally hit the quick. Just dip your dog’s nail in the styptic powder and give him a tummy rub as you keep that paw elevated for a minute or two while the bleeding stops.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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