Knowing how to trim dog nails is an essential part of being a responsible dog owner. Whether you need to know how to cut a dog’s nails that have become overgrown or just how to clip the nails on a well-manicured pup yourself at home, trimming dogs’ nails is a simple procedure that only takes practice.
Why is it important to trim dog nails?
Trimming a dog’s nails is essential to your pet’s overall well-being and health. Untrimmed nails cause a variety of health concerns.
It is usually more problematic in short-coated breeds that do not see a professional groomer who trims the claws as part of their service. Without a professional to step in, many owners forget or simply are never told they need to keep their pet’s nails short.
The consequences of overgrown nails can range from mild discomfort and lameness to severe and irreversible damage to your dog’s ligaments, joints, and posture. It depends on the length of the nails, and how long the problem has been left unattended.
Nails long enough to push against the ground as the dog walks are long enough to exert abnormal pressure on the paw’s bones and joints. This may cause a splayed foot and impede their ability to walk.
If this is allowed to continue, the overgrown nails will push the toes into an abnormal angle, changing where the dog has to place his weight when standing or walking. This unnatural angle can strain the dog’s legs’ bone structure, stresses its joints and tendons, and affects its posture and spine.
In addition, long nails are more likely to hook on something, then rip and tear, causing intense pain and discomfort. If left untreated, the wound can become infected.
When are my dog’s nails too long?
A dog’s nails can be considered too long and due for a trim if they touch the floor when the dog is standing, or you can hear the clicking of the nails when the dog walks on a hard floor.
Ideally, a pup’s nails should never touch the ground or protrude over the toe pad.
When do I start trimming my puppy’s nails?
It’s best to start trimming a puppy’s nails from as early as six weeks to desensitize them to the process, if possible. Desensitization to having their paws handled and nails clipped is vital to keeping nail trimming from becoming a traumatic event later on.
How do I prepare my dog for nail trimming?
Regardless of age, if you have never trimmed your dog’s nails before, it’s best to accustom and desensitize your dog to the process before you start.
This can take a few days and may require patience because many dogs do not like having their paws handled and can make quite a fuss.
The aim here is build trust between you and your dog. We also want to keep the entire nail trimming experience positive and relaxed.
Never go into this when you are already tense or in a bad mood and “just want to get this over with”, as that kind of energy can often cause an escalation between you and your dog and erode the trust the animal places in you.
To avoid the drama, we recommend the following “warming up” process:
- Take your dog for a walk or some playtime. Make sure they are tired and relaxed and that you are too before you start.
Your dog will pick up on any stress or anxiety you may have and will likely mirror your feelings before it even knows what a nail clipper is.
- Pick up one of your dog’s paws. At this point, if your dog shows some reluctance, only do this for a moment and then drop the paw and give your dog a treat. You can also try distracting your pup with a chew toy or a spoonful of peanut butter it can lick up.
- Proceed according to how much resistance your dog shows to having its paws handled. You want to gradually build from a quick touch to holding your dog’s paw for about 30 seconds without resistance, while lightly rubbing your fingers between the toes and pads. Keep rewarding with treats to keep this a positive experience.
- Gradually work up to lightly pinching each toe with your thumb below the pad and your forefinger just above the nail to cause the nail to extend.
- At this point, you can introduce your nail clippers or grinder. Don’t start clipping yet. Simply clip the air above the nail so the dog can become accustomed to the sound. Treat immediately and repeat. Similarly, hold the grinder above the nail and switch it on for a few seconds so that the dog becomes used to the sound and vibration, without actually grinding the nail yet.
- When your dog allows you to hold the tip of one of its nails in the guillotine of the nail clipper and squeeze lightly—don’t actually cut anything yet—or they allow you to touch the grinder to the tip of the nail without any resistance, you are ready to start clipping.
Pro-tip: even at this point, try only doing one nail per sitting and work up gradually to doing all the nails at once.
Dog nail trimming: step-by-step instructions
What do you need to trim a dog’s toenails?
- A dog nail clipper or pet nail grinder. We recommend PawSafe Pet Nail Clippers, which comes with a handy LED light to help you see the quick.
- Styptic Balm in case of accidents
- A flashlight for dark nails if you don’t have the PawSafe Pet Nail Clipper.
- A quiet place to sit without any interruptions.
Which part of the dog’s nail do you trim?
Like a human finger, a dog’s toenail has a protective hard layer of keratin, which is the claw we see. Inside the dog’s toenail are the blood vessels and nerves that supply the nail. This is called the quick.
Every effort must be made to avoid cutting the quick. Only the tip of the hard-outer shell should be cut.
Don’t forget to cut the dog’s dew claw as well, since it can hook on items and can cause a nasty tear. Remember some dogs, like the St. Bernard, have double dew claws on their back legs.
Starting to trim: How to use a dog nail clipper
The dog nail clipper can either be of the scissor or guillotine variety and usually comes in different sizes. Select a size appropriate for your dog’s nails.
Armed with your clipper, pick up your dog’s paw and gently pinch the toe to extend the nail.
A good rule of thumb if you are nervous about snipping the quick is to hold the clipper flat against the bottom of the toe pad and trim the claw straight across. This way, the nail will sit above the ground.
If you have located the quick, cut at a 45-degree angle just below where the it ends to get a shorter cut.
Do not risk hitting the quick. If in doubt, only clip the very tip of the nail.
Reward your pup frequently throughout the process, and if your dog is still new to the experience, be sure to only do one nail a day to keep things easy and stress-free.
Starting to trim: How to use a nail grinder
Many groomers prefer the nail grinder when trimming a dog’s nails since it reduces the risk of cutting the quick and hurting the dog.
The nail grinder uses friction to file away the nail little by little and the dog should show visible discomfort if you get too close to the nerves.
It may be a much longer process, but so long as the grinder is a quiet one, it should be less stressful for everyone involved.
The procedure for using a nail grinder is a simple one.
- Hold your dog’s paw at a comfortable angle with its leg extended. Push the nail slightly out.
- Select the right size port for your grinder and place it against the bottom of the nail’s tip.
- Start with the lowest setting at first while getting used to it. Gently work the grinder around the tip of the nail.
- Shape the nail by applying just enough pressure to grind it and run the grinder from the tip to the top and back again. Be extremely careful not to work down to the quick.
- Use light, circular motions from the tip to buff the nail after filing it down to the desired size.
Does nail trimming hurt dogs?
If done correctly, nail trimming should not hurt the dog at all. It only hurts if the quick is cut, and if this happens, it can be both painful and bleed. If in doubt, ask a professional groomer or veterinarian to show you how to clip nails properly.
How often should I trim my dog’s nails?
How often nails are trimmed depends on many factors, including its genetics, living conditions, and diet.
In general, dogs who regularly go jogging on tarmac will likely wear down their nails naturally and will only need a light trim once a month to check there are no jagged or broken bits.
On the other hand, a dog that already has overgrown nails will need to have its claws lightly trimmed every four to five days to force the quick to recede so that the nail can be made shorter over time.
On average, though, a dog’s nails should cut every two to three weeks.
How do you cut a dog’s nails if they are black?
While dogs with white nails should have a visible pink protrusion within the white nail case that is the quick, dogs with black nails make trimming more complicated since the quick is also black.
Luckily, there are several tricks to help trim black nails.
- Use a flashlight or the light on your phone by holding it directly under the nail. The light should expose where the quick is. The PawSafe Pet Nail Clipper comes equipped with a LED light to help with this problem.
- Examine the underside of the dog’s nail. You will notice that the outer walls come together and surround the softer pulpy triangle in the middle. The point at the tip of the nail just before the outer walls separate is safe to clip at not too severe an angle.
- Another method is to look for the pulp of the nail. This means to gently clip only the very tip of the nail off and examine the cut. If the middle of the freshly cut nail is mostly a greyish white, try cutting another sliver off. Keep going with this strategy—like cutting thin slices of salami— until you can see the nail’s pulp; that is, in the center of the greyish-white circle should be a clear black dot. This is the pulp. The pulp is the signal to stop clipping that particular nail because behind the pulp is the quick.
How to trim extremely overgrown nails
Trimming a dog’s nails that have become extremely overgrown may seem like a daunting task, but in reality, it only means a bit more patience and time.
Unfortunately, as a dog’s nails grow, so does the quick inside the nail, usually making it impossible to get nails the desired length on the first go.
For this reason, it is best to cut a little bit off at a time, using the methods described above. As the nail is shortened, the blood vessels and nerves inside will naturally recede, allowing you to cut a little further back each time.
In cases of severely overgrown nails, nails should be trimmed at least every week to gradually work the quick and nail back to an acceptable length.
Things to ask yourself when trimming your dog’s nails
What if there’s bleeding after dog nail trimming?
Accidents do happen, and even the best groomers will occasionally snip a bit too far and cause the dog’s nail to bleed.
For this reason, it is best to always be prepared with ferric subsulfate, also called styptic powder. This can be sold in the form of a pencil, which you can wet and then roll against the nail’s bleeding tip for about a minute. It should clot the bleeding very quickly.
A good rule of thumb is to stay calm to keep your dog quiet.
If you don’t happen to have styptic powder, cornstarch can also work in a pinch.
How do I keep my dog comfortable while trimming its nails?
Create a calm and quiet environment when trimming a dog’s nails. The less excitement or interruptions, the less likely it is there will be any sort of mishap. Work somewhere that is comfortable for both of you.
If your dog is restless, you can try keeping her occupied with a Kong filled with treats or a chewy. Remember to reward often and stay relaxed to keep it a positive experience for both of you.
It’s easy to overlook the importance of trimming a dog’s nails, as many owners are simply never informed about it before they adopt their furkid. Nevertheless, failing to cut nails causes painful and long-term damage to your beloved pet, and so it should be a vital part of every owner’s grooming routine, just as the right equipment should be part of their doggy grooming kit. If you found this article interesting or helpful, leave us a comment or share this article with another doggy parent.
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
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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