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Dog Toenail Anatomy 101: An Essential Guide For Owners And Groomers

dog toenail anatomy

Understanding dog toenail anatomy keeps nail trims safe and stress-free for both you and your pooch. Nail trim disasters are unfortunately pretty common due to insufficient knowledge, even with all the right tools like dog nail clippers.

In addition to avoiding a horror show during trimming, understanding the claw helps owners to apply ToeGrips if the vet recommends it. It also doesn’t hurt to know one more about your canine best friend.

This article covers all parts of a dog’s nail, enabling you to be confident in your trimming skills, so let’s dive right in. 

Dog Nail Anatomy 101: What Are the Different Parts of a Dog’s Nail?

A dog’s claw is made from keratin and protrudes from each of the four toes on the paws. These claws are curved, cone-shaped hard structures that are wider at the toe where they’re attached and narrow as they grow out. 

Each claw is attached to a bone called the distal phalanx located inside the toe. If you look at your dog’s feet, you’ll notice that their claws protrude from paw pads, which we call digital pads. 

Beneath the nail is a fleshy part called the quick, which keeps the nail alive by supplying it with nutrients. The quick has all the nerves and blood vessels of the nail. In contrast, the claw is made up of dead structural fibrous protein (keratin) and isn’t painful to the dog when trimmed.

 The quick is the nail part that you must never accidentally cut when trimming your dog’s nails. Cutting the quick causes bleeding and immense pain to your dog, not to mention nasty nail infections. You’ll probably see the quick as a pink structure if your dog has white nails, but it’s not visible in dogs with black nails. 

Here’s a visual representation of dog toenail anatomy:

That said, a dog’s nail is  mainly made up of keratin (the hollow shell or claw) and nerves and blood vessels (the quick). The hard part of the nail has several functions:

  • Protecting the quick
  • Giving canines traction when walking or running 
  • Help with digging
  • Offer stability
  • It can help with protection in cases of a fight

Why Do You Need to Trim a Dog’s Nails?

A dog’s nails can get too long if not regularly trimmed, leading to ingrown nails and an increased risk of being torn off. Most dogs walk on soft structures like the carpet, floor, and grass, so their claws don’t get that natural trim. 

Claw trimming is crucial for your dog’s health, and these reasons for cutting your dog’s nails will tell you why. 

  • Avoiding Ingrown Nails 

Ingrown nails occur when a dog’s claws curve under the paw and dig into the skin, causing pain and even mild lameness. 

  • Increased risk of nail injury 

Long nails easily hook on objects and can rip off if your dog yanks at them hard enough. Your dog can also break their claws if they’re too long when jumping or running. Sometimes, dogs can snag long nails on carpets or grass roots, causing them to literally peel off if they’re brittle. 

  • Unnecessary Pressure on the Leg

Long nails put more pressure on the entire foot when they hit the ground. This can make walking uncomfortable and even contribute to arthritis in dogs with sensitive joints, like Great Danes.

Trimming Your Dog’s Nails at Home

Nail trimming is crucial to a dog’s grooming routine and is, luckily, easy to do at home. Groomers can trim the nails for squeamish dog owners or those who’ve had a horrific experience doing it. A study of 35 dogs found that nail trimming is a stressful experience for dogs but improves over time.

Step 1: Tools You Need to Trim Nails 

Gathering all the necessary nail-cutting tools saves time, which include: 

  • Guillotine-shaped dog nail clippers
  • Nail Grinders if your dog isn’t entirely confident of nail cutters yet

Step 2: Get Your Dog Comfortable

It’s best to start nail trimming your dog as a puppy to get them accustomed. To keep your dog comfortable, reward calm behavior with praise and treats once you hold their paws and expose the clippers. 

Step 3: Hold the Paw Firmly, But Gently

Place your thumb below the toe and your forefinger above, and push them back to slightly expose more of the nail.

Step 4: Locate the Quick

Finding the quick is the most crucial part of safely trimming your dog’s nails and is particularly challenging if dogs have dark nails. The best way to avoid cutting the quick is to avoid clipping past where the nail starts to curve.

Step 5: Cut the Nail Straight Across

Once you’ve located and avoided the quick, cut the nail straight across. You can start trimming bit by bit.

Step 6: Reward, Reward

Reward your dog for calm behavior after cutting nails on each paw. You can also reward after cutting each nail if your dog is unused to the process. You may need to do one or two paws the next day, for starters, but you’ll do all four paws in one sitting after some time.

How to Cut Nails on Anxious/ Aggressive Dogs?

How to Cut Nails on Anxious/ Aggressive Dogs?

Desensitizing an anxious dog to nail trimming helps them discover that it poses no threat. You do this by introducing your dog to a clipper and working your way up to using it. 

Start by keeping the clippers near your dog until they don’t react, then pet your dog when holding the clippers. Next, get your dog used to having their paws touched by holding them gently, and rewarding calm behavior. You should perform all these steps and the ones that follow on separate days.

Once your dog is used to seeing the clippers, allow them to sniff them and reward them with treats. Follow this by gently touching the clippers on the paws, without trimming anything, and reward. Finally, start cutting off the tiniest tip from one toenail only, and add this number every day until the dog is accustomed. 

Most dogs that start having their nails trimmed and paws touched at a young age have no issue with the process. The same applies to other grooming activities like brushing and bathing your pooch.

Declawing a Dog?

Declawing (onychectomy) is a term more frequently used in the cat-owner community, but the procedure happens in some dogs too. A declawed dog has all the nails removed, which sounds unnecessary, but some owners don’t want to deal with nails at all. 

We don’t recommend declawing a dog because it’s basically amputating all their toes at the last joint. Declawing affects your dog’s stability when walking and can lead to pain in other areas. Training is a much better alternativ-e-archive to declawing to prevent digging and furniture destruction.

Declawing shouldn’t be confused with dew claw removal, also an unnecessary procedure. The dew clew is a fifth digit most dogs have on their front leg, near the wrist, that’s believed to stabilize a dog’s wrist when they run. Some dogs, especially giant breeds like the Great Pyrenees, have double dew claws. Others, like Yorkshire Terriers, also have them on the back legs.

Nail Issues Due to Improper Maintenance 

Bacterial Infections & Fungal Infections 

Broken claws due to overgrown nails increase the risk of bacterial infections when bacteria enter the wound. These infections are painful and can worsen over time without medical attention.

Allowing your dog’s paws to stay muddy after walks increases the likelihood of fungal infections. Itchiness due to these infections cause biting at the area, creating a moist environment that only worsens the infection.

Broken Nails 

A dog’s nail can expose the quick after breaking, causing bacterial infections and pain. You can cut the nails improperly yourself, or the nails can break when the dog is playing. Nail splitting is also called onychoschizia; it heals over time with proper antimicrobial treatments.

Overgrown Nails

Because the nail is built into a dog’s toe, when it becomes overgrown it pushes the toes into unnatural angles. This puts painful pressure on the joints, tendons and ligaments  of the dog and can eventually contribute to arthritis and other painful musculoskeletal problems. 

Final Thoughts

Dogs have nails made up of a hard structural protein called keratin, which doesn’t cause pain when cut. The quick lies below the nail, nourishing the nails due to abundant blood vessels. The nerves in the quick make it painful to cut, so you need to be careful when trimming. 

Dogs need nail trimming every 2 to 4 weeks depending on the growth rate, to avoid overgrown nails. Taking the time to desensitize your dog to nail clippers by rewarding calm behavior keeps them comfortable. Most dogs with their nails trimmed as puppies can handle the process properly as adults.


Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.

Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

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